Exploring Retirement: Jeanette Lewis

Jeannette Lewis, contributorJeanette is one of the regular writers for Exploring Retirement. Each month she contributes an inspirational article on living life to the full in retirement.

Food Habits in Retirement

Most of us know that healthy eating emphasizes fruit, veggies, whole grains, dairy products, and protein from meat or lentils - yet adhering to a healthy diet often becomes difficult after retirement. We struggle against deeply ingrained eating habits learned during a lifetime, many of which may be unhealthy.

Poor nutrition is a health hazard at any age but when we were young and slim our bodies were more capable of overcoming a unwholesome food choices. Good nutrition becomes more important for maintaining optimal health as the decades accumulate.

Nutritional needs and eating habits change as we grow older. We need fewer calories to maintain a healthy weight but we continue to need nutrient dense foods to maintain health. By continuing to eat the same amount of food as when we were younger, we will gain weight which can cause health problems. The solution is to eat wholesome foods that supply necessary nutrition. But that is often easier said than done.

Some retired people use the gift of increased leisure time to learn how to prepare fantastic meals that provide excellent nutrition. Cooking becomes a hobby. Eating wholesome food prepared at home becomes a lifestyle. They enjoy shopping for food, cooking at home and trying new recipes.

Unfortunately, many retired people simply do not eat well. They may live alone; they may have no cooking skills; they may suffer from mouth pain due to poor dental health; they may have food sensitivities; their appetite may be compromised because of depression and/or loneliness.

Many older people have little knowledge about nutrition. Nutrition was never taught in school. Knowing what to eat and how much food is necessary for weight maintenance doesn't just happen. Sometimes consulting with a dietitian or nutritionist is helpful. Courses in healthy eating are offered by many senior centres, medical clinics, and community groups. Vitamin and mineral supplements may be used when diet alone cannot provide necessary nutrients.

Because many people eat less as they grow older, getting necessary nutrition is challenging. Too often cooking seems like too much work especially when cooking for only one or two people. Eating alone is difficult at any age; it can lead to bad eating habits such as snacking, relying on biscuits or soup as diet mainstays, relying on processed foods with high fat and sodium content, or succumbing to a "toast and tea" regime.

Loss of muscle mass and strength is an inevitable consequence of aging. Some studies say that 5 to 8 percent of muscle mass is lost every decade after age 30 by inactive adults. Once we are in our 60s, 70s, and 80s this loss, known as sarcopenia, creates exponential effects including frailty, muscle atrophy, and weakness, all of which can lead to falls and fractures. Eating a high protein diet and engaging in weight training exercise is recommended to combat the effects of sarcopenia.

Poor finances can lead to compromised diet quality and actual hunger for low-income elders. In most Western countries some type of stable government funding for adults over 65 or 67 is provided yet diet may be jeopardized without funds for transport to grocery stores or markets.

Improving Food Habits

It's unlikely that most of us will drastically change eating habits after retirement. What we eat and how we eat is deeply ingrained. Greater awareness of nutrition and making a few small changes can bring health benefits. It's never to late!

One easy change is to eat breakfast. Lack of appetite in the morning is common, yet starting the day with a small meal that includes a source of protein is recommended for everyone. A hearty bowl of oatmeal with milk is a great standby and single serve packages make preparation simple.

A weekly meal plan is an effective tool for those who like to make one shopping trip. A meal plan creates predictability and may encourage better choices. Personally, making a meal plan feels as oppressive as budgeting since I like shopping for fresh foods every day or two. Those who are unable to go to shops and markets to buy food might explore grocery delivery services. Ordering groceries online is an option in most large cities although in the community where I live, a trip to a depot to pick up the order is necessary as delivery is not available.

Cooking for a household of one or two people is difficult. If you have a freezer, making larger quantities of food, dividing it into portion-sized meals and freezing will save time. Most stews, soups, and casseroles are easy to prepare in slow cookers and they freeze well. Keeping an emergency food shelf of non-perishable foods for those days when it is impossible to get to a store is necessary for some. In Canada, where I live, when a "snow" day comes, it's handy to go to the pantry and make a healthy meal from supplies.

Reading labels helps when choosing foods. In most countries it's mandatory to show all ingredients in food products. Unfortunately, many older people do not understand labels. An easy guideline is to look for high levels of fat, sugar, sodium and additives with difficult-to- pronounce names and eliminate such choices.

Finally, let's remember that eating should be pleasurable. Food choices can include wine, ice- cream and chocolate in moderation. There is no honour badge for food deprivation or for giving up everything that's enjoyable.