Jo Spann used to be a steak-and-potatoes, three-squares-a-day type, but as the years have gone by, the 72-year-old now finds herself snacking "all the time." A full meal now is usually a once-a-day event.
Researchers say such snacking is OK — in fact, regular nibbling can be good for older people.
An Auburn University study of the diets of 2,000 people aged 65 and older found that snackers ate more calories at a time in their lives when they are susceptible to weight loss and poor nutrition. Snacking provided significantly more protein, carbohydrates and fat.
So while snacking might fuel obesity for the young, it may ensure that seniors are eating enough calories, said Claire Zizza, an assistant professor of nutrition at Auburn and lead author of the study published in this month's Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
She said several factors, including health problems, medication and changes in taste could lead to poor appetite and weight loss in seniors. Compared to 25-year-olds, 70-year-old men ate 1,000 to 1,200 fewer calories; the decline for women was between 600 to 800 calories a day, according to the study.
Zizza's research, based on a federal nutrition survey from 1999-2002, found that snackers ate about 250 more calories than non-snackers.
Jean Lloyd, national nutritionist for the U.S. Administration on Aging, said the study "does a couple of real important things" by indicating that healthy eating can be reached various ways and by providing guidance to health professionals.
"You're not always sure in clinical practice how to handle a patient with decreased appetite who may have other health problems. You don't know if you should tell them to eat something small after lunch because maybe then they won't be hungry later and won't eat dinner," Lloyd said.
"The answer in this article says, 'No, that's good,"' she said. "...You can suggest with confidence that having a small snack midmorning or midafternoon is a good behavior."
Lloyd and Zizza both caution against chips, cakes, cookies and other "empty snacks." The snacks should be healthy to have the biggest benefit, Zizza said.
Lynelle Bumgardner, who directs the Daleville Senior Center in southeast Alabama, said a hot lunch is served there five days a week. She often sees patrons eating cookies, crackers and fruit before and after the noontime meal, which is provided using federal Meals on Wheels money and contains one-third of the U.S. Agriculture Department's recommended dietary allowances.
Some of the seniors save the bread, cookies or juice from their lunches to eat later and load up on the snacks offered by the center to take home and share with elderly spouses, Bumgardner said.
"I think for some of them, cooking for one is too much trouble and they'd rather just have a TV dinner or go out to eat and sometimes that's not nutritious," she said. "That's why I think the lunch meal is so important. For some of them, this is it for the day."
Spann, a Daleville resident, agrees. She usually finds one square meal a day sufficient — along with the snacks.
"I used to eat three big meals a day and some more in between," she said in a recent phone interview during a lull between bingo games at the senior center. "I'm a Yankee — I still love my potatoes. I used to like meat, but your taste buds change as you get older."