Safe Summer Eating for Seniors

By Etta Hornsteiner
grilled food, showing safe summer eating

The songs say it all! “School’s Out.” “Summer Breeze.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Surfin’ USA.” “Those Lazy-Hazy-Days of Summer.” Yes, “Summertime, and the Livin’ Is Easy,”  with picnics, barbecues, beaching, camping trips, enjoying the beauty and ease of the outdoors before time for “hibernation.” But what the songs do not tell us is that summer time is also the peak season for food poisoning, or foodborne illness.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are two reasons for the spike in foodborne illness during summer: the naturally occurring bacteria which cause food poisoning “multiply faster in warmer temperatures, and preparing food outdoors makes safe food handling more difficult.”

Everyone is susceptible to food poisoning, but some groups are at greater risk. They include pregnant women; young children; older adults, and people with immune systems weakened by disease or medical treatment. To be at greater risk also means that these groups are more likely to have a lengthier illness, undergo hospitalization, or even die if they experience food poisoning.

But whether you are a pregnant woman, young child, older adult or recovering patient, the key factor in how you respond to food poisoning is the health of your immune system. And this is the reason older adults are especially vulnerable and should be particularly careful to avoid foodborne illness. The US Food and Drug Administration has identified three conditions that cause older people to have a weakened immune system:

As people age, their immune system and other organs become sluggish in recognizing and ridding the body of harmful bacteria and other pathogens that cause infections, such as foodborne illness. Many older adults have also been diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or cardiovascular disease, and are taking at least one medication. The chronic disease process and/or the side effects of some medications may also weaken the immune system. In addition, stomach acid decreases as people get older, and stomach acid plays an important role in reducing the number of bacteria in the intestinal tract – and the risk of illness.

How, then, can older persons enjoy the lazy-hazy-days of summer without falling victim to food poisoning? There is not much, if anything, you can do to alter the condition of your immune system. So most preventive guidelines focus on promoting careful food handling practices, especially when cooking and eating outdoors. While safe food handling is critical, older adults also should try to reduce the opportunities to contract foodborne illness. In the same way that animals “change their patterns and behaviors based on the cycle of seasons,” older persons should consider making food choices during summer months which would not bring them into contact with potentially contaminated foods.

Foods to eat during summer

Summer is a time of warmer temperatures, which means heat. Heat affects all animals, great and small. In the case of micro-organisms such as bacteria, heat creates ideal environments for their growth in soil, for example, and, yes, in food.

For humans, heat can lead to illness. So the body tries to keep cool during summer when temps are higher than at any other time of the year. We can keep cool by hydrating (drinking lots of water or drinks that can replace the sodium, chloride and potassium we lose through sweating) and wearing lightweight, loose-fitting and light-color clothing. Another way we can help the body keep cool is through what we eat.

So when you plan your summer menu, try to do two related things:

What are some of the foods to avoid this summer?

The USFDA advises older adults and other at-risk groups to avoid eating the following foods during the hot months:

Cold cuts -showing foods that are not safe summing eating
  • Raw or undercooked meat or poultry.
  • Raw fish, partially cooked seafood (such as shrimp and crab) and refrigerated smoked seafood.
  • Raw shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) and their juices.
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products made with raw milk, like yogurt and cheese.
  • Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheeses (such as Queso Fresco, Panela, Asadero, and Queso Blanco).
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, including certain homemade salad dressings (such as Caesar salad dressing), homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog.
    NOTE: Most pre-made foods from grocery stores, such as Caesar dressing, pre-made cookie dough, or packaged eggnog are made with pasteurized eggs.
  • Unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce/salads.
  • Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices (these juices will carry a warning label).
  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats, poultry products, and smoked fish — unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
  • Salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment, such as ham salad, chicken salad, or seafood salad.
  • Unpasteurized, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads.
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean, or any other sprout).

It’s recommended that you add to this “avoid list”:

  • Leftovers that are left out of the refrigerator for more than one hour when the temperature is above 90 °F (32 °C).

What are the best foods to keep you cool this summer?

Eating produces heat. You probably know that, because there may have been a time when you ate, say, a burger and fries, and the meal left you feeling a bit hotter. And you may have thought it was the process of eating that raised the heat level in your body—after all, eating is a physical activity—but it may also have been the type of food you ate.

A study titled “Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments” and published online at National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) refers to research which “found that a 50 percent increase in caloric intake by the addition of fat to the diet produced a 47 percent increase in the thermic  [heating] effects of  eating. Eating ground beefsteak and stewed tomatoes to satiety raised skin temperatures an average of 2oC about 1 hour after the meal ….”

If the type of food you eat affects how hot you feel, what foods can make you feel less hot or keep you cool this summer? Cooling foods appear to have the following properties:

  • Foods that are high in monounsaturated fatty acids. They cool the body by removing heat and toxins from the blood.
  • Foods that are easy to digest. Therefore, the body creates less heat to digest the food.
  • Foods described as astringent. These foods cause tissues to shrink allowing absorption of more water, which cools off the body.
  • Foods that are alkaline. They will generate cold energy and cool the body.
  • Foods that are high in water content, which helps thin the blood and release heat.
  • Foods that break down fatty foods, so that the body works less and creates less heat.
  • Foods that aid in digestion, so that the body works less and generates less heat.
  • Foods that provide electrolytes and keep the body hydrated.
  • Foods that act as a diuretic and flush out toxin.
  • Foods that trigger the body’s cooling system through sweating.

The foods that meet the above criteria tend to be fruits or vegetables.

Properties of Cooling
Food Examples
High in monounsaturated fatty
Avocado, popcorn, whole
grain wheat,
cereal, oat meal
Easy to digestAvocado, yogurt, white
rice, white bread, BRAT
(banana, rice, apple sauce and toast),
AstringentBanana, soybean, tofu, most
fruits & vegetables, chicken
Alkaline Most fruits & vegetables
High in water content Berries, cucumber, melons,
watermelon, lettuce, yogurt
Breaks down fatty foods Citrus fruits
Aids in digestionCitrus fruits, cucumber,
(Avoid fatty & fried foods)
Replenishes electrolytesCoconut
Acts as a diureticCucumber, melon
Triggers cooling system or
causes cooling feeling
Hot peppers, mint herb, poppy

Your four steps to “Safe Summer Eating”

  1. Become familiar with and practice safe food handling and preparation techniques.
  2. Avoid eating foods on which bacteria or pathogens are likely to grow, whether you are eating out or at home.
  3. Eat foods—especially fruits and vegetables—that can help your body remain cool.
  4. “Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer/ Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.”

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