Missing teeth, diminishing appetite, shrinking wallets and loneliness all contribute to poor nutrition among the elderly. That's why a peek into an old woman's grocery cart is more apt to reveal Cheez-It snack crackers than fruits and vegetables.

The Deseret News quietly snooped through a few dozen carts at various stores and found they tended to include snack crackers and sugary cereals, no milk or eggs, and few meats. The only regularly appearing meat was the most inexpensive hot dogs, especially in the carts of old men. There were also some other obvious gender differences among elderly shoppers: Women were more apt to buy fruits and vegetables, while the men's carts more often contained ice cream and microwaveable pasta.

Ask one of those men about the contents of his cart — six Michelina pasta dishes, a box of Cheez-Its, a prescription and a bag of inexpensive cereal — and he explains that "it's just me. I'm not going to cook some fancy meal."

But food matters when you're old. At a time when the body struggles more to absorb nutrients and everything from thirst to the ability to chew may be waning, nothing less than health and independence is at stake. Carol Brandt's mom and dad were eating ramen noodles and chicken soup for dinner every night when they were living on their own. When they moved into her home and began eating three square meals a day, their health improved.

But food is often a social pursuit, and living alone is not conducive to eating well, says Kim Hohol, a nutrition expert with CIGNA Medical Group, who adds that doing a few simple things makes all the difference:

• Many elderly people eat cereal every night for dinner. To make it a better choice, add a few nuts or a spoonful of peanut butter to get some protein.

• Fruits and vegetables should be a daily staple, but fresh isn't necessarily the best choice for seniors, who may find it hard to chew. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables don't spoil as quickly, which is important for someone living alone; and they can be portioned, which reduces waste and saves money. And they're softer in case of dentition problems. For canned fruits, though, avoid the heavy syrups.

• To counter shrinking nutrition absorption, take a daily, inexpensive multivitamin.

• If you're going to do just one thing right, make it this: Get lots of water. As a person gets old, the sense of thirst diminishes, although the necessity of it does not. Hohol suggests stretching it out; drinking a half-cup of water an hour isn't hard and gives you the full eight glasses you need over the course of a day.

• Caffeine drinks pull calcium from the bones, so she says to avoid them. If you simply can't, make sure you limit yourself, eat yogurt and take a multivitamin.

• Meat, which can be pricey, is the first thing to disappear on a fixed income. But old people need protein, so she emphasizes substitutes like eggs, cheese and peanut butter — the latter's an especially good choice — as alternatives to meat for getting enough protein. Canned and bagged beans are also great protein; remember to combine with rice or pasta. Because a meatless diet creates a risk of iron deficiency, drink orange juice; its vitamin C increases absorption.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com, jarvik@desnews.com