The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Price Chopper Supermarkets

Price Chopper Supermarkets

Dietitian Dialogues

February 27, 2011

When we gather with our families and visit, and enjoy those special treats that our special seniors hold closely in their recipe boxes, we should take a few minutes to check in with them and see how they are doing, especially if they are on their own. It is easy to shrug off changes we see in our older family members, but sometimes those changes can be dramatic, health-damaging, and preventable.

In professional circles, it is known as “Tea and Toast Syndrome.” This is what dietitians listen for when we speak with our older patients in the hospital – someone living on their own, not feeling like preparing whole meals, or knowing how, gradually dwindling their intake down to tea and toast at the expense of vital nutrients and health. 

Recent research is showing that snacking may be a great way for seniors to meet their needs. What is chosen to eat is key. Typical snack foods are low in nutrients but not calories. Really the trick is to balance the two. Here are some ideas and strategies.

Many seniors have one larger main meal, sometimes around lunch time. For some, that is provided through the Meals on Wheels or congregate meal programs at senior centers. Tea and whole grain toast could be part of a breakfast meal, along with a fruit cup or banana. Later in the day, after lunch, a cheese stick or slice of cheese with some higher fiber crackers (at least 2 grams of fiber per serving/6 crackers) is a nice afternoon munch, and sources for protein, calcium, fiber and B vitamins. A cup of lower sodium soup with some frozen bagged spinach added in makes a nice light dinner and an easy way to eat needed nutrient-rich vegetables, and some low fat cookies or low-fat flavored yogurt could be a nice evening treat. 

Other food products that could be helpful in this effort include fruit cups, dried fruits and trail mixes, 4 and 6 oz yogurts, as well as drinkable yogurts, and sliced meats (try for the lower fat and sodium choices, available in most delis). Healthy Choice Meals and food items are great to have on hand as well – they meet specific standards for lower sodium and fat, and usually meet most of the needs for anyone with health issues. They are also small portions, which may be appealing to someone who does not want to cook a big meal. Additionally, cut up fruit, baby carrots, and grape tomatoes are easy to eat and require no prep – a little ranch dip would be nice though! 

All of these snacks are easy to find, tend to be fair value for the money, and pack a health benefit. Another challenge for our seniors is a gradual loss of muscle, due to natural changes as we age, but also possibly due to poor protein intakes. The good news is older men and women can make muscle just as easily as younger men and women. The bad news is many older men and women do not get enough protein-rich foods to support and maintain the muscle they have, or support new muscle development. Protein is deficient in the diets of 16-27% of older Americans.

A small study done at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston looked closely at this issue. The author was Douglas Paddon-Jones, an associate professor in UTMB's departments of physical therapy and internal medicine. Paddon-Jones is the senior author of the study published in the August 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The goal of the study was to see if the rate of muscle building after a protein-rich meal was different in younger and older persons. It was not. The investigation compared changes in muscle protein synthesis in 10 young and 10 elderly volunteers after eating a four-ounce serving of lean beef. By analyzing blood and muscle samples, the researchers were able to measure the rate at which a particular individual's body built muscle protein. During the five hours after the young and elderly volunteers ate the beef, both groups' muscle protein synthesis increased by 50 percent. 

Elderly people may eat less protein for a number of reasons, said Paddon-Jones, including cost, the fact that many foods may not taste as good to them as they once did, difficulty chewing, limited menus in nursing homes or assisted living communities, and decline in appetite. Another important contributor to muscle loss in the elderly is a lack of exercise, he noted. 

To keep muscles strong, seniors should include moderate amounts of protein-rich food such as beef, fish, pork, chicken, dairy or nuts in most meals. Tenderized meats, like cube steak, or lean meats that are sliced thinly, lean ground beef or turkey, and stewed meats would all work well for anyone with challenges chewing. Egg is the most absorbable type of complete protein in our food supply, and so versatile – it would be a great choice too. Low fat cheeses and milk can also be great protein sources. 

As you share the wonderful treats and warm visits with family during special occasions or at weekly family dinners this year, remember the secret to good health is supporting our bodies well with good nutrition – enjoy eating well!  

Ellie Wilson is a registered dietitian and Senior Nutritionist for Price Chopper/Golub Corporation, located in Schenectady, NY. She holds a M.S. in Community Health Education, and advanced certification in weight management for pediatrics, adolescents, and adults, and worksite wellness planning. As Senior Nutritionist for Price Chopper, Ellie is developing nutrition resources for the entire chain of 120 stores. 

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at