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Planning Seniors' Meals: Avoiding the Hidden Traps of Food Labels

If your elderly loved one is a picky eater or has a health condition such as high blood pressure, diabetes or osteoporosis, it can be a challenge to provide a healthy diet.

But food packaging claims of "low cholesterol" or "fat free" don't ensure that a product is healthy, Kelly O'Connor, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, told AgingCare.com. "The package only tells you what the manufacturer wants you to think about the healthfulness of the product," Ms. O'Connor says. "To find out the real nutritional value, you have to read the food label."

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all prepared foods list nutrient content. While it takes some time to read these lists, understanding nutrient contents--which include calories, carbohydrates, fats and sodium, as well as key vitamins and minerals--can help you make better food choices.

According to the FDA's website, when you first scan a food label, you should first notice the number of servings in the package, since all of the nutrition information is based on one serving, even though the package may contain more. For example, a box of macaroni and cheese typically contains two servings, so if you plan to consume the whole package you will eat double the amount of calories and other nutrients listed on the label.

Next, use the percent daily values (DV) to determine how the food fits into your parent's meal plan. These values are based on a person who eats 2,000 calories a day. So, for instance, a serving that shows 5 percent DV of fat provides 5 percent of the total fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should eat.

However, the number of calories a person needs each day varies by age, gender and activity level. According to the American Dietetic Association, after age 50, women require 1,600 calories if they're sedentary; 1,800 if they're moderately active and 2,000 to 2,200 if they're active. Men over the age of 50 need 2,000 calories if they're active, 2,200 to 2,400 if they're moderately active and 2,400 to 2,800 if they're active.

So when you are buying for an elderly person, you need to make some mental adjustments. Ms. O'Connor suggests you also take the following into account when reading labels to ensure you'll make healthy choices:

Fat

"Total fat" includes saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat. Although a small amount of fat is needed in everyone's daily intake, excessive fat intake leads to clogged arteries and many other cardiovascular issues. Foods that are low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol help reduce your risk of heart disease and obesity. Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Items with 5 g of total fat per serving are considered "low fat."

Trans fat

Nutritionists have determined that no amount of trans fat is safe, so look for products that contain zero grams. However, sometimes trans fat sneaks in, since manufacturers only have to list it if there is .5 g or more per serving. A good clue: Look for "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredient list.

Sodium

Sodium, which is in salt and other foods, is necessary for healthy blood, muscles, and nerves. However, too much sodium can result in high blood pressure. Packaged and convenience foods are notoriously high in sodium, though some manufacturers now offer low-sodium versions of popular products such as canned soups. The recommended sodium intake per day for older adults is between 1,500 mg to 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Ms. O'Connor says a good guideline is to try to keep at 300mg per serving of sodium. And beware of products that tout "sea salt" on their labels instead of traditional salt. They are just as high in sodium as other products.

Cholesterol

One of the primary ways LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels can become too high in the blood is by eating too much saturated fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat raises LDL levels more than anything else in the diet. When comparing foods, be sure not to go above 100 percent of DV for the day. Five percent DV or less of cholesterol is low; 20 percent DV or more of cholesterol is high. Aim for 200 mg of cholesterol per day or less.

Carbohydrates

The recommendation for carbohydrate intake is about 45 g per meal for a woman and 60 g for a male. This is true for people with diabetes as well. So if a frozen dinner has 40 g of carbohydrates, no further carbohydrates should be consumed in that meal.

Calcium

Lack of calcium causes osteoporosis, which is the primary cause of hip fractures. However, many dairy products, which contain high levels of calcium, are relatively high in fat and calories. Fat-free or low-fat types of milk products are excellent calcium sources. Five percent DV or less is low in calcium; 20 percent DV or more is high in calcium.

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