The Doctor Will See You Now – Seniors Often Lack Proper Nutrition

Food scarcity and food choices to blame

By Dr. Gilberto Heredia Family Physician, Optum New Mexico

When widespread malnutrition or hunger makes headlines, many Americans tend to automatically assign the social ill to underdeveloped countries when they perhaps should be considering their own communities. In New Mexico, for example, one in five people age 60 and older, or 20 percent, faced the threat of hunger in 2018-2019, compared to a national average of 12.5 percent, according to America’s Health Rankings’ recently-released 2022 report. Come 2025, experts say, those numbers will begin to worsen, as that’s the year when the youngest of the Baby Boom generation reaches age 60.

Coinciding with the aging population, the number of food insecure seniors in New Mexico is expected to increase by 50 percent, according to the City of Albuquerque Department of Senior Affairs. This poses a dire health problem for New Mexico as the accessibility and availability of healthy foods can make a big difference in a person’s overall health as well his/her risk of chronic diseases.

Silver Horizons, a long-standing Albuquerque-based nonprofit, is the only organization in the state whose primary focus is to give extremely low-income seniors access to nutritious groceries. In recognition of the need, Optum New Mexico has partnered with Silver Horizons on its initiatives to support its monthly client base of about 4,000 struggling New Mexicans over age 50.

Indeed, there is increasing evidence that food insecurity (the inability to access sufficient and nutritious food for an active, healthy life ) is associated with chronic health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma, arthritis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  This link may be particularly strong among adults aged 50 or older, who are at higher risk of chronic conditions than younger adults. According to a 2014 report, compared with younger adults, food-insecure adults aged 60 or older were 53 percent more likely to report a heart attack, 40 percent more likely to report congestive heart failure, 22 percent more likely to report coronary heart disease, and 52 percent more likely to develop asthma.

However, it’s not just older populations that aren’t eating as well as they should be. Even many Americans who have access to healthy foods don’t get the recommended nutrition due to poor food choices. According to the CDC, fewer than one in 10 children and adults eat their recommended daily number of vegetables. Only four in 10 children and fewer than one in seven adults eat enough fruit.

The US Department of Agriculture recommends that Americans meet their nutritional needs through consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages and staying within daily calorie limits. Nutrient-dense foods are defined as providing vitamins and minerals, and having little to no added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.

The foods that make up a healthy diet include: fruits, especially whole; oils, including vegetable and natural oils that occur in foods such as seafood and nuts; protein-rich foods that include lean meat eggs, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products; grains, at least half of which are whole; vegetables of all types, especially dark green; and dairy, including low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese (or lactose-free versions).

According to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines recommendations, there are also some foods and beverages that should be strictly limited including foods with added sugar and saturated fats which should be less than 10 percent of daily calories. Regarding sodium, adults should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Finally, if a person chooses to drink, it should only be in moderation limited to two drinks per day for men or one drink or less a day for women.

Understanding that the foods and beverages that we consume have a profound effect on our collective health is a great place to start getting New Mexico on track to be a healthier state. The scientific connection between food and health is well documented, and there is substantial evidence to show that healthy dietary patterns can help people achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases throughout all stages of life.

While every stage of life is unique in terms of nutrition needs, early food preferences influence later food choices, which means establishing healthy dietary patterns early in life may have a beneficial impact on health promotion and disease prevention over the course of decades.

Using online resources, such as MyPlate, can help you decide what to eat and drink in order to promote a healthy eating routine. Individuals can personalize their diet using a personalized MyPlate Plan that is based on age, gender, weight and physical activity level.

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