Good nutrition across the lifespan helps prevent chronic disease — and we know that it is never too late to make improvements to support healthy aging. Older adults are at greater risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer — as well as health conditions related to changes in muscle and bone mass, such as osteoporosis. The good news is that this population can mitigate some of these risks by eating nutrient-dense foods and maintaining an active lifestyle.
Older adults generally have lower calorie needs, but similar or even increased nutrient needs compared to younger adults. This is often due to less physical activity, changes in metabolism, or age-related loss of bone and muscle mass. Nutrient needs in this population are also affected by chronic health conditions, use of multiple medicines, and changes in body composition. Therefore, following a healthy dietary pattern and making every bite count is particularly important to this age group.
Giving your body the right nutrients and maintaining a healthy weight can help you stay active and independent. The definition of healthy eating does change a little as you age. For example, as you grow older, your metabolism slows down, so you need fewer calories than before. Your body also needs more of certain nutrients. It is more important than ever to choose foods that give you the best nutritional value.
Healthy Eating Tips for Older Adults
The National Council on Aging suggests the following tips to continue to live a healthy and active lifestyle:
1. Know what a healthy plate looks like
You might remember the food pyramid, but the USDA recently unveiled a simpler way to help people see what they should eat each day. It’s called MyPlate. The simple graphic shows exactly how the five food groups should stack up on your plate. These are the building blocks for a healthy diet. The website is user friendly and interactive features help you explore each nutrient group for more information.
2. Look for important nutrients
Make sure you eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need. Your plate should look like a rainbow—bright, colored foods are always the best choice! A healthy meal should include:
· Lean protein (lean meats, seafood, eggs, beans)
· Fruits and vegetables (think orange, red, green, and purple)
· Whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta)
· Low-fat dairy (milk and its alternatives)
Remember to choose foods that are high in fiber and low in sodium or salt. Also, look for Vitamin D, an important mineral as we age.
3. Read the Nutrition Facts label
The healthiest foods are whole foods. These are often found on the perimeter of the grocery store in the produce, meat, and dairy sections. When you do eat packaged foods, be a smart shopper! Read the labels to find items that are lower in fat, added sugars, and sodium.
4. Use recommended servings
To maintain your weight, you must eat the right amount of food for your age and body. The American Heart Association provides recommended daily servings for adults aged 60+.
5. Stay hydrated
Water is an important nutrient too! Don’t let yourself get dehydrated—drink small amounts of fluids consistently throughout the day. Tea, coffee, and water are your best choices. Keep fluids with sugar and salt at a minimum, unless your doctor has suggested otherwise.
Special Considerations for Older Adults
Eating enough protein helps prevent the loss of lean muscle mass. But older adults often eat too little protein — especially adults ages 71 and older. Since most older adults are meeting recommendations for meats, poultry, and eggs, it’s important to remember seafood, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, beans, peas, and lentils are great sources of protein. These protein sources also provide additional nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and fiber.
The ability to absorb vitamin B12 can decrease with age and with the use of certain medicines. Health professionals can help older individuals get enough vitamin B12 by ensuring that they’re consuming enough through foods, such as breakfast cereals. Older adults should talk with their health care provider about the use of dietary supplements to increase vitamin B12 intake.
Sometimes it’s hard for older adults to drink enough fluids to stay hydrated because the sensation of thirst declines with age. Drinking enough water is a great way to prevent dehydration and help with digestion — and water doesn’t add any calories! Unsweetened fruit juices and low-fat or fat-free milk or fortified soy beverages can also help meet fluid and nutrient needs.
Help for Low-Income Seniors
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help you afford healthy food when you need it. More than 4 million older Americans use SNAP to buy food, and the average senior receives $113 each month. Visit BenefitsCheckUp.org to see if the program can help you.
The Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)
This program is designed to provide low-income seniors with access to locally grown fruits, vegetables, honey and herbs.
Common locations are: Farmers Markets, Roadside Produce Stands and directly from Farmers.
SFMNP currently operates in 57 states. Check to see if your state agency operates a SFMNP.