By Dr Suzana Shahar
No doubt, retirement is a cause for celebration. Finally, you have the time to do the things you've always wanted to do. You can treat yourself to a life of comfort with all the resources you've saved over the years. You can enjoy your golden years with a wealth of wisdom and experience to your name.
To do all this and more, you need to maintain good health. Proper nutrition energises you to experience the joys of this new chapter of your life, such as spending more time with your family (including your grandchildren), resuming or picking up a hobby, travelling the world, catching up with old friends, and so forth.
You have every intention of enjoying yourself. But your body may have other ideas. We tend to slow down with age and our bodies may not function as well as when we were younger. Furthermore, some of us may become more vulnerable to illnesses brought on by years of neglecting our health.
Eating a well-balanced diet can help maintain or improve our quality of life and prevent diseases in the years to come. This is where proper nutrition becomes especially important.
With increasing age, there are some physiological and biological changes that may affect your health status and nutrient requirement. These changes include an increase in body fat, especially at the abdomen, and also reduced lean body mass and total body water. Thus, your metabolic rate is slowing down too.
You may not need to eat as much as you did before, and you can balance your food intake by becoming more physically active. You still need to have carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals, and small amounts of fat in your diet. Emphasis is usually placed on calcium and protein. Calcium maintains the strength of your bones and protein prevents the loss of body muscles. You also need adequate fibre to improve your digestive health.
Another change that occurs is your decreasing appetite. This could be because your taste buds are becoming less sensitive. You will tend to eat more sweet and salty foods or drinks. The body is also producing less digestive enzymes. This means that your body may not be able to digest food and absorb its nutrients well.
You may find it more difficult to chew and swallow your food, due to gradual loss of teeth and less flexible throat muscles. Losing teeth is just part of growing older, but sometimes it is hastened by years of unhealthy gums, lack of calcium and poor fluoridation.
Chronic diseases, such as unhealthy weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other diseases (e.g. diabetes, cancer), usually afflict those in their 50s and beyond. Go for regular health examinations to detect any signs of these diseases. They usually take years to manifest themselves. However, they are preventable. Getting older doesn't mean that you automatically become vulnerable to them.
If you do not have these diseases, continue your healthy diet and lifestyle. If you smoke, there is little time left, so quit now! With more time on your hands, you can devote a small part of each day to physical activity. Lifestyle and dietary factors tend to affect each other. For example, exercise can improve your appetite and increase muscle mass.
Eating well, staying well
Getting on in life doesn't mean you can't enjoy eating. In fact, you're encouraged to obtain all the nutritional benefits that a healthy diet can give you. Here are some tips:
Since you might be less active and your body is less efficient in utilising body fat for energy, excessive food intake may lead you to put on unhealthy weight. So as you advance in years, eat only as much as you need. Avoid overeating.
If your appetite is affected, it is a good idea for you to space out your daily food intake. Try having six small meals a day, at regular times, instead of three full-sized ones. This will help maintain your energy levels throughout the day while meeting your daily nutritional requirements.
Choose more nutrient-dense foods, i.e. those that provide high levels of nutrients for their given calories. Just by adding ikan bilis to porridge, egg white to a bowl of oats, chicken, meat or beans to soup, and fruits to cereal, you will have a meal that is much higher in nutritional value.
Try to get more fibre in your daily diet. Fibre is crucial for improving digestive health and preventing constipation. You can get more fibre by taking fruits, vegetables, legumes, brown rice, whole-grain cereals or wholemeal bread. If you have not been taking much fibre up to now, gradually introduce it into your diet to avoid discomfort. Laxatives are a last resort.
Vitamins and minerals are crucial for maintaining the health of body cells and systems. You should take more fruits and vegetables, especially those that provide vitamins A and C. Dried fruits, such as raisins and seeds (e.g. sesame seeds), will supply iron.
Take enough water through the day. Don't wait until you're thirsty because your sense of thirst is not as keen as it used to be. You may not feel prompted to drink enough water, and you can easily become dehydrated. Lack of water can also cause constipation.
If you have trouble chewing due to loss of teeth, try to take more tender, ground or pureed meats, and eggs. You can still continue taking other regular foods, but chop or blend them up. Fish, tofu and other soy products are also recommended.
If you have trouble swallowing, you may have no choice but to take soft or liquidised meals. Again, increase the nutritional and fibre value of these meals by adding oats, beans or pulses in your soups and porridges. Fortified milk powder can provide vitamins A and D, while thickened puree fruit juices can help you get vitamin C.
If you are being treated for a medical condition, you may find your appetite becoming unpredictable. Keep easy-to-eat foods, such as wholemeal bread, bread rolls, cereals, milk, fruits, yogurt, cheese and soups in the kitchen. If your sense of taste and smell are slightly altered due to the medication, use different herbs and spices in your food to add flavour to them. A common myth is that spicy food is not good for older people. On the contrary, ginger, garlic, mint leaves, lemon grass (serai) and mild amounts of chillies can make foods tastier and stimulate your appetite.
Your dietitian or doctor may prescribe you low-dose supplements if you're eating very little every day due to an illness, allergy or other health conditions. Alternatively you may need supplements because the regular medication you are taking may interfere with your body's ability to absorb certain nutrients. But whether or not you're taking supplements, it is important to maintain a well-balanced diet.
Retirement isn't a sign for you to pack everything away and lie in bed all day. Take care of yourself and start living!
This article is part of an educational series disseminated for Nutrition Month Malaysia, jointly organised by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, Malaysian Dietitians Association and the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity, and supported by the Ministry of Health.
Dr Suzana Shahar, a lecturer and dietitian at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is also the Honorary Secretary of the Malaysian Dietitians Association.