The key to eating right as we get older

Judy Draper makes sure to sit down for three square meals a day. At 82, she knows how important it is to eat well to avoid getting sick.

While she would never say no to a bowl of wedges or a chocolate-coated mint ice-cream - and admits to baking a few banana cakes to share with friends - the rest of her diet is quite healthy, full of fruit, vegetables and protein.

Breakfast is a bowl of cereal and milk topped with banana or pineapple, snacks are a few pieces of fruit, lunch is normally a sandwich filled with cold meat, cheese and salad, and dinner is rissoles or chicken with an array of steamed veggies or a creamy pasta salad.

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"I cook five vegetables every night, steam them all in the one saucepan. It's only carrot and some beans and some spinach, sweet potato and potato, but it all adds up," she says.

"It keeps you healthy and stops you from getting a lot of colds and things."

Her friends at the Wollongong Senior Citizens' Centre also have a few tips to make sure they eat well. They try to tuck into fruits and vegetables each day, dine with friends and family regularly and go easy on the cakes and biscuits.

But not all older people have these strategies in place. A study of older people entering the hospital system found that one-third were overtly malnourished, with a further 50 per cent at risk.

One of the authors of the study, UOW Associate Professor Karen Charlton, says older people have a high risk of malnutrition mainly due to difficulty in preparing meals, because of a physical impairment or simply forgetting to eat, or a loss of interest in food.

While Draper has been happy to cook for one since her husband passed away over six years ago, usually by preparing large batches of dishes that will last a few nights, Charlton says having to eat alone is the reason many seniors don't sit down for meals.

"Often when people have lost a partner or their living circumstances change, they become disinclined to want to prepare meals," she says.

This is a problem, as though they don't feel like eating, nutrient requirements remain the same.

Charlton says the key is to sneak extra kilojoules into food, particularly extra protein to help maintain muscle mass. She suggests older people have convenient snacks such as tinned fish and cheese on hand and add dairy and other good fats to their meals.

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