We all have our traditional kosher favorites — and for many this means Ashkenazic fare such as slow-roasted brisket, lokshen kugel, perhaps cholentssw and blintzes. Unfortunately, such kosher classics aren’t always the best choices for us as we get older, especially if they are not prepared with seniors’ dietary needs in mind.
“Age 50 appears to be the time when some of our nutritional needs change,” says dietician Toby Smithson, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of DiabetesEveryDay.com.
As our metabolisms begin to slow down, we need fewer calories. Yet at the same time, we still need food that is high in nutrients.
The challenge, then, is to get all the nutrients we need without overeating. If you are physically active, great — though most people are not scaling the same number of mountains at 60 or 70 that they were at 30. There are also specific vitamins and minerals we need more after we hit 50, Smithson says, notably potassium, calcium and vitamins B12 and D. We also need fiber, but slightly less than we do when we’re younger.
Sodium is a concern in the opposite direction: too much can contribute to high blood pressure, and we need to significantly reduce consumption as we get older, to about three-quarters of a teaspoon per day (1500 milligrams). That includes both what we add to our plate and what occurs in foods naturally.
Too much sodium is a concern regarding blood pressure, and potassium helps blunt sodium’s affect, Smithson explains. Calcium, coupled with vitamin D, helps with bone strength, and vitamin B12 protects against anemia. Fiber serves multiple purposes, helping with digestion and heart health, and helping to prevent certain kinds of cancer. Good sources include fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice.
As the population ages — and more and more people are living on their own, with family far away — both Jewish and secular organizations are offering food services to older adults. Kosher Meals on Wheels, for example, is a federally subsidized program that supplies a daily meal to those 60 and older who cannot easily get out of the house. In San Francisco, it is offered through Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
And low-cost, on-site kosher lunch programs featuring nutrionally balanced fare are offered at most Bay Area JCCs.
In Skokie, Ill., Ted Starcevich is the program manager of home-delivered meals and Kosher to Go for CJE SeniorLife, an organization that serves older adults in the Chicago area. From 300 to 400 kosher meals are delivered to clients daily, often by volunteers who stay to visit as well.
The menus, all taste-tested by Starcevish and his staff, are sent to a state dietician for approval. “Sometimes the state dietician will come back and will tell us to switch the apple on Tuesday with the orange on Thursday, for nutritional balance,” he says.
Neal Drobnis is coordinator of the Kosher Nutrition Program of Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island. The program provides both home delivery and a senior café.
“The Jewish Federation has been really supportive of this program,” Drobnis says. It offers kosher lunches daily for a $3 donation and provides transportation. Most guests are in their 80s. Café meals are all kosher, as are the delivered meals, and meet federal guidelines in terms of nutrition.
“Seniors try to stay away from salt and use salt alternatives,” Drobnis observes. “Everything is low sodium. In general, they stay away from sugar as well. We try to have a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. For carbs—grains, pasta, bread—we try to use whole grains when we can. It can be very difficult with the budgetary limits to have brown rice or whole wheat pasta.”
The National Osteoporosis Foundation indicates that our vitamin D needs can almost double once we hit 50, to 800 to 1000 IU per day.
“Vitamin D is needed to help keep bones strong along with calcium,” Smithson says. The primary natural source of vitamin D is sunlight, but how our skin absorbs it can depend on where we live, if we use sunblock, and how much time we spend inside, an issue for shut-ins.
If you don’t spend much time in the sun, you may need vitamin D supplements; check with a health care provider for the best balance. Kashrut can be an issue for some vitamin D supplements. Smithson notes that there are two kinds, D2 and D3, and “D3 is derived from ultraviolet irradiation of a substance derived from sheep’s wool.”
In general, the most efficient sources for the nutrients we need as we get older is food, rather than supplements. Supplements should do just that—help with what we’re getting from food already. Food has the added advantage of being good for multiple nutrients. Dairy products, for example, contain both calcium and potassium.
Other good sources for potassium include beans (think cholent) and fruit, including dried apricots, prunes and raisins (tzimmes, anyone?). Dates are also a good source, along with pistachios and other nuts. (Nuts can be high in fat, so moderation is key.)
It’s possible to fit a healthy diet into a kosher diet — for the most part. Brisket isn’t the leanest cut of meat, but it can be reserved for special occasions. “Unfortunately the leanest cuts of beef are not kosher, so we need to have a stronger focus on cutting back on our sources of fats, especially saturated fat,” Smithson says.
“Many traditional dishes can be modified,” she advises. “Dishes like lokshen kugel can be made with a heat-resistant sugar substitute and egg whites to make it more heart-healthy and diabetes friendly.”
“The best advice is to modify recipes, watch portion size, and add more vegetables to your meals,” she adds.
Good advice as we head into our 60s, 70s and 80s. And if we make it to our 90s, that may be the time when we no longer have to worry about moderation, and we can have a second helping of brisket.
Suggested kosher menu for a day
Toby Smithson suggests the following sample kosher menu.
Breakfast: oatmeal, a glass of skim or 1 percent milk; 1 cup of berries, and a slice of whole grain toast with tub margarine, almond butter, or peanut butter
Lunch: tuna fish salad with reduced fat mayonnaise; 1 slice low fat cheese; 2 slices whole grain bread, 1 cup baby bell peppers, 1 peach or nectarine.
Snack: 3 graham cracker squares, 6 ounces low-fat vanilla yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon and chopped almonds.
Dinner: 3 ounces baked skinless chicken breast with rosemary; 1 medium sweet potato; 1 cup green beans; an orange.
Suggested heart-healthy Shabbat meal
l Chicken soup with whole grain noodles
l Cholent with more beans than meat
l A green leafy salad with bite-sized raw vegetables
l Baked sliced apples with cinnamon and sugar substitute.