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When you hear the word “snack,” chances are you think chips and cookies, and therefore believe snacking is something to be avoided. But eating between meals can be good for you — if you make healthful choices. And older people may actually need to snack to compensate for eating less at meals.

“Medication, depression, changes in taste and smell, and a drop in activity level can all cause a decline in appetite,” says Lauri Wright, chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. When you eat less at one sitting, it can be difficult to get the energy, vitamins and minerals needed from three meals alone. “Snacking — or eating six mini­meals a day instead of only three — can fill in the gaps,” Wright says.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, snacks contributed significantly to the overall intake of many important nutrients, supplying, for example, 18 percent of the calcium and magnesium, 16 percent of the vitamin E and potassium, and 15 percent of the vitamin C older adults took in each day. In addition, the amounts of these nutrients and others increased as the frequency of snacking increased. Other research shows that snacking also boosts calorie and protein intake. Use these tips to help you snack right.

Know your nutrients
A diet rich in vitamins and other nutrients can help prevent disease and support everything from your bones to your heart. Experts suggest using snacktime to increase your intake of the following, which may be lacking in an older person’s diet:

  • Vitamin B12. Because blood cells need this nutrient, a deficiency can result in anemia. Older people are especially at risk. “The acidity in the stomach decreases with age, making it harder for the body to absorb vitamin B12,” Wright says. Fortified cereals, yogurt, eggs and lean meat are high in vitamin B12.
  • Vitamin D. Crucial for bone health, your body needs sunlight to make this nutrient, and older people tend to spend less time outdoors. “It also becomes harder for the body to synthesize and absorb vitamin D as you age,” says Erin Morse, the chief clinical dietitian at UCLA Health’s department of nutrition. Salmon is a vitamin D powerhouse, and milk yogurt, and eggs are also good sources.
  • Fiber. “Decreased activity, dehydration, and certain medications can lead to constipation,” Morse says. “Fiber helps prevent this.” In addition, soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol levels. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains and whole-grain bread and cereal, nuts, and beans are all rich in fiber. Soluble fiber is found in apples, beans and oats, among other foods.
  • Protein. Muscle mass naturally declines with age, making you more prone to falls and decreasing your ability to perform daily activities. Protein is crucial for preserving it. Wright suggests upping your protein intake and spreading it out. “Your body regenerates muscle throughout the day, and it needs protein to do that,” Wright says. “Instead of only having protein at one meal, eat a serving at least three times a day.” Power picks: lean meat, cheese, yogurt, beans and eggs.
  • Potassium. This mineral plays an important role in heart and kidney functioning. It’s abundant in bananas, prunes, beans, sweet and white potatoes, yogurt, and fish.

To get all the nutrients your body needs, snack on a variety of foods — and go for a combination of protein and carbohydrates at every snack.

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