As we age, achieving a healthy diet can become more difficult. Limited mobility, diminished senses, tooth loss and other factors can make eating harder and less enjoyable — at a time in life when proper nutrition is especially important.
Malnutrition is linked to a litany of conditions that includes cancer, heart disease and dementia. And by some estimates, up to 35 percent of people older than 65 suffer some degree of deficiency in protein, calories, vitamins and minerals. One way they can avoid these deficiencies: maintaining a balanced diet with the help of canned fruits, fish, vegetables and nutritional beverages.
“As people get older, their appetites get smaller and their intake usually decreases,” says Jennifer Frederick, a food scientist and dietician. “Canned foods, juices and supplements like Ensure or Boost help people stay healthy.”
Here are some other reasons older adults should keep canned goods in their pantries:
1. Canned foods mean less frequent trips to the supermarket
Taking a simple trip to the grocery store can be a big challenge for an older adult.
“Canned fruits, vegetables, other foods are invaluable to the senior community,” says Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born, a licensed naturopathic doctor who specializes in senior health. “Good nutrition may be difficult for seniors based upon social, physical, economical and emotional obstacles, which may lead to nutritional deficiencies.”
As we age, we experience vision, hearing and cognitive changes that can adversely affect driving skills. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 22 percent of those over the age of 70 don’t have driver’s licenses.
Walking to a store, or even around one, isn’t easy either. One study found that 30 percent of those 65 and older reported difficulty walking three city blocks or climbing one flight of stairs. And that’s without lugging around a bag full of groceries.
The long shelf life of canned food means seniors don’t have to head to the grocery store every time they want to meet the recommended daily quota of two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables.
2. Canned foods are easier to chew and swallow
Many older adults have problems with chewing and swallowing their food due to dental issues, diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia, or complications from strokes.
According to the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders, as many as 20 percent of individuals over age 50 experience some degree of swallowing difficulty, and almost everyone has some trouble by the time they’re 80. As it becomes harder to chew and swallow, many people eat less, which can result in malnutrition and dehydration.
Once again, canned goods to the rescue.
Many canned foods, like corn, are soft and small straight out of the can. Canned nutritional beverages contain essential vitamins and nutrients.
“Fiber is found in some canned nutrition beverages listed as a ‘prebiotic,’” says Frederick. “Prebiotics nourish the bacteria that are already in the intestines, and will help enhance any probiotic supplement one might be taking.”
3. Canned foods are affordable for those on a fixed income
According to the Pension Rights Center, half of all adults older than 65 have less than $22,887 in yearly income. They can spend less money on food, and more on fun things like travel, by choosing canned goods.
One study found that canned vegetables are often 50 percent less expensive than frozen alternatives, and 20 percent cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Canned goods with reduced salt and sugar are often readily available today for those with dietary restrictions. There’s also the old-fashioned way: draining the foods in a colander, and then rinsing them off. “You’re essentially rinsing off the sodium and sugar,” says Dr. Jeannie Nichols, a senior food safety educator at Michigan State University.
Sound bland? There’s a solution for that, too. “When you are cooking, season your dish with spices and herbs, instead of salt, to accent the flavor,” says Frederick.
4. Canned foods are easy to prepare
Even cooking can become complicated as we age. Preparing a meal can involve standing for a long period of time and chopping ingredients, both of which can be tricky for the elderly. “Canned foods are essentially pre-prepared for you, so you just have to open and eat,” says Frederick.
And with pop-off tops and electric can openers, getting a can open isn’t as difficult as it once was for those with arthritis or limited arm and hand strength.
Not sure what specific canned items older adults should keep in their pantries?
Born-Jones provided us with this cheat sheet:
Canned food sources for folic acid, which helps manage blood levels as we age
Canned asparagus, spinach, lentils, garbanzo beans and lima beans.
Canned food sources for vitamin B12, which older adults don’t have a lot of
Canned clams, mussels, crab, salmon, rockfish, beef, chicken, turkey and milk.
Canned food sources for vitamin C, which protects cells from damage and for which older adults have a higher requirement than younger people
Canned oranges, grapefruit, tomato and peppers.
Canned food sources for vitamin D, which is especially important for older adults because aging is associated with a reduced capacity to synthesize vitamin D.
Canned pink salmon, sardines, mackerel and fortified milk.
Canned food sources for fatty acids, which may help lower the risk of chronic disease.
Canned herring, salmon, sardines, oysters, trout, white tuna and crab.