Remember the old adage, you are what you eat? Make it your motto. When you choose a variety of colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins you’ll feel vibrant and healthy, inside and out.
- Live longer and stronger – Good nutrition keeps muscles, bones, organs, and other body parts strong for the long haul. Eating vitamin-rich food boosts immunity and fights illness-causing toxins. A proper diet reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, bone loss, cancer, and anemia. Also, eating sensibly means consuming fewer calories and more nutrient-dense foods, keeping weight in check.
- Sharpen the mind –Key nutrients are essential for the brain to do its job. People who eat a selection of brightly colored fruit, leafy veggies, and fish and nuts packed with omega-3 fatty acids can improve focus and decrease their risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Feel better –Wholesome meals give you more energy and help you look better, resulting in a self-esteem boost. It’s all connected—when your body feels good you feel happier inside and out.
How many calories do seniors need?
Use the following as a guideline:
A woman over 50 who is:
- Not physically active needs about 1600 calories a day
- Somewhat physically active needs about 1800 calories a day
- Very active needs about 2000 calories a day
A man over 50 who is:
- Not physically active needs about 2000 calories a day
- Somewhat physically active needs about 2200-2400 calories a day
- Very active needs about 2400-2800 calories a day
Source: National Institute of Aging
Of course, balanced nutrition is more than calorie counting. There are many other aspects to creating a nutritious lifestyle.
Older adults can feel better immediately and stay healthy for the future by choosing healthy foods. A balanced diet and physical activity contribute to a higher quality of life and enhanced independence as you age.
Senior food pyramid guidelines
Fruit – Focus on whole fruits rather than juices for more fiber and vitamins and aim for around 1 ½ to 2 servings each day. Break the apple and banana rut and go for color-rich pickings like berries or melons.
Veggies – Color is your credo in this category. Choose antioxidant-rich dark, leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli as well as orange and yellow vegetables, such as carrots, squash, and yams. Try for 2 to 2 ½ cups of veggies every day.
Calcium – Maintaining bone health as you age depends on adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. Seniors need 1,200 mg of calcium a day through servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese. Non-dairy sources include tofu, broccoli, almonds, and kale.
Grains – Be smart with your carbs and choose whole grains over processed white flour for more nutrients and more fiber. If you’re not sure, look for pasta, breads, and cereals that list “whole” in the ingredient list. Seniors need 6-7 ounces of grains each day (one ounce is about 1 slice of bread).
Protein – Seniors need about 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Simply divide your bodyweight in half to know how many grams you need. A 130-pound woman will need around 65 grams of protein a day. A serving of tuna, for example, has about 40 grams of protein. Vary your sources with more fish, beans, peas, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, and seeds.
Important vitamin and minerals
Water – Seniors are prone to dehydration because our bodies lose some of the ability to regulate fluid levels and our sense of thirst is dulled as we age. Post a note in your kitchen reminding you to sip water every hour and with meals to avoid urinary tract infections, constipation, and even confusion.
Vitamin B – After 50, your stomach produces less gastric acid making it difficult to absorb vitamin B-12—needed to help keep blood and nerves vital. Get the recommended daily intake (2.4 mcg) of B12 from fortified foods or a vitamin supplement.
Vitamin D – We get most of our vitamin D intake—essential to absorbing calcium—through sun exposure and certain foods (fatty fish, egg yolk, and fortified milk). With age, our skin is less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D, so consult your doctor about supplementing your diet with fortified foods or a multivitamin.
Once you’re used to eating nutrient-dense food, your body will feel slow and sluggish if you eat less wholesome fare. Here’s how to get in the habit of eating well.
- Reduce sodium (salt) to help prevent water retention and high blood pressure. Look for the “low sodium” label and season meals with garlic, herbs, and spices instead of salt.
- Enjoy good fats. Reap the rewards of olive oil, avocados, salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, and other monounsaturated fats. The fat from these delicious sources can protect your body against heart disease by controlling “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and raising “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
- Add fiber. Avoid constipation, lower the risk of chronic diseases, and feel fuller longer by increasing your fiber intake from foods such as raw fruits and veggies, whole-grains, and beans.
- Avoid “bad” carbs. Bad carbohydrates—also known as simple or unhealthy carbs—are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Bad carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and short-lived energy. For long-lasting energy and stable insulin levels, choose “good” or complex carbs such as whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
- Look for hidden sugar. Added sugar can be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, fast food, and ketchup. Check food labels for other terms for sugar such as corn syrup, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane juice, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, or maltose. Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned goods, and choose low-carb or sugar-free versions of products such as tortillas, bread, pasta, and ice cream.
- Cook smart. The best way to prepare veggies is by steaming or sautéing in olive oil—it preserves nutrients. Forget boiling—it drains nutrients.
- Put five colors on your plate. Take a tip from Japanese food culture and try to include five colors on your plate. Fruits and veggies rich in color correspond to rich nutrients (think: blackberries, melons, yams, spinach, tomatoes, zucchini).
Every season of life brings changes and adjustments to your body. Understanding what is happening will help you take control of your nutrition requirements.
- Metabolism. Every year over the age of forty, our metabolism slows. This means that even if you continue to eat the same amount as when you were younger, you're likely to gain weight because you're burning fewer calories. In addition, you may be less physically active. Consult your doctor to decide if you should cut back on calories.
- Weakened senses. Your taste and smell senses diminish with age. Seniors tend to lose sensitivity to salty and bitter tastes first, so you may be inclined to salt your food more heavily than before—even though seniors need less salt than younger people. Use herbs, spices, and healthy oils—like olive oil—to season food instead of salt. Similarly, seniors tend to retain the ability to distinguish sweet tastes the longest, leading some to overindulge in sugary foods and snacks. Instead of adding sugar, try increasing sweetness to meals by using naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or yams.
- Medications and illness. Some prescription medications and health problems can often negatively influence appetite and may also affect taste, again leading seniors to add too much salt or sugar to their food. Ask your doctor about overcoming side effects of medications or specific physical conditions.
- Digestion. Due to a slowing digestive system, you generate less saliva and stomach acid as you get older, making it more difficult for your body to process certain vitamins and minerals, such as B12, B6 and folic acid, which are necessary to maintain mental alertness, a keen memory and good circulation. Up your fiber intake and talk to your doctor about possible supplements.
- Loneliness and depression. Loneliness and depression affect your diet. For some, feeling down leads to not eating and in others it may trigger overeating. Be aware if emotional problems are affecting your diet, and take action by consulting your doctor or therapist.
- Death or divorce. Newly single seniors may not know how to cook or may not feel like cooking for one. People on limited budgets might have trouble affording a balanced, healthy diet.
Malnutrition is a critical senior health issue caused by eating too little food, too few nutrients, and by digestive problems related to aging. Malnutrition causes fatigue, depression, weak immune system, anemia, weakness, digestive, lung, and heart problems, as well as skin concerns.
Tips for preventing malnutrition
- Eat nutrient packed food
- Have flavorful food available
- Snack between meals
- Eat with company as much as possible
- Get help with food preparation
- Consult your doctor
It doesn’t have to be difficult to swap a tired eating regimen for a tasty, well-balanced eating plan.
Avoid skipping meals – This causes your metabolism to slow down, which leads to feeling sluggish and making poorer choices later in the day.
Breakfast – Select high-fiber breads and cereals, colorful fruit, and protein to fill you with energy for the day. Try yogurt with muesli and berries, a veggie-packed omelet, peanut-butter on whole grain toast with a citrus salad, or old-fashioned oatmeal made with dried cherries, walnuts, and honey.
Lunch – Keep your body fueled for the afternoon with a variety of whole-grain breads, lean protein, and fiber. Try a veggie quesadilla on a whole-wheat tortilla, veggie stew with whole-wheat noodles, or a quinoa salad with roasted peppers and mozzarella cheese.
Dinner – End the day on a wholesome note. Try warm salads of roasted veggies and a side of crusty brown bread and cheese, grilled salmon with spicy salsa, or whole-wheat pasta with asparagus and shrimp. Opt for sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes and grilled meat instead of fried.
Snacks – It’s okay, even recommended, to snack. But make sure you make it count by choosing high-fiber snacks to healthfully tide you over to your next meal. Choose almonds and raisins instead of chips, and fruit instead of sweets. Other smart snacks include yogurt, cottage cheese, apples and peanut butter, and veggies and hummus.
Let’s face it, there’s a reason why so many seniors have trouble eating nutritiously every day. Sometimes it’s just quicker or easier to eat unhealthy food. If you’re having trouble getting started on a healthy eating plan, these tips can help:
Say “no” to eating alone
Eating with others can be as important as adding vitamins to your diet. A social atmosphere stimulates your mind and helps you enjoy meals. When you enjoy mealtimes, you’re more likely to eat better. If you live alone, eating with company will take some strategizing, but the effort will pay off.
- Make a date to share lunch or dinners with grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, and neighbors on a rotating basis.
- Join in by taking a class, volunteering, or going on an outing, all of which can lead to new friendships and dining buddies.
- Adult day care centers provide both companionship and nutritious meals for seniors who are isolated and lonely, or unable to prepare their own meals.
- Senior meal programs are a great way to meet others. Contact your local Senior Center, YMCA, congregation, or high school and ask about senior meal programs.
Loss of appetite
First, check with your doctor to see if your loss of appetite could be due to medication you're taking, and whether the medication or dosage can be changed. Try natural flavor enhancers such as olive oil, vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger, and spices to boost your appetite.
Make chewing easier by drinking smoothies made with fresh fruit, yogurt, and protein powder. Eat steamed veggies and soft food such as couscous, rice, and yogurt. Consult your dentist to make sure your dentures are properly fitted.
Drink 8 -10 glasses of water each day. Take a drink of water after each bite of food, add sauces and salsas to your food to moisten it, avoid commercial mouthwash, and ask your doctor about artificial saliva products.
I don’t like healthy food
If you were raised eating lots of meat and white bread, for example, a new way of eating might sound off-putting. That’s understandable. But view eating healthfully as a new adventure and start with small steps:
- First and foremost, commit to keeping an open mind. Just because a food is healthy, it doesn’t mean it can’t be tasty as well.
- Try including a healthy fruit or veggie at every meal. You don’t have to change everything all at once. Add a side salad to your dinner, for example, or substitute unhealthy fries with baked sweet potato fries, or have a smaller portion of desert and fill up with melon and pineapple slices.
- Focus on how you feel after eating well – this will help foster new habits and tastes. The more healthy food you eat, the better you’ll feel afterwards
Stuck in a rut
No matter how healthy your diet, eating the same foods over and over is bound to get boring. Rekindle inspiration by browsing produce at a farmers market, reading a cooking magazine, buying foods or spices you haven’t tried before, or chatting with friends about what they eat. By making variety a priority, you’ll find it easier to get creative with healthy meals.
If you can’t shop or cook for yourself…
There are a number of possibilities, depending on your living situation, finances, and needs:
- Take advantage of home delivery. Many grocery stores have Internet or phone delivery services.
- Swap services. Ask a friend, neighborhood teen, or college student if they would be willing to shop for you.
- Share your home. If you live alone in a large home, consider having a housemate / companion who would be willing to do the grocery shopping and cooking.
- Hire a homemaker. Try to find someone who can do the shopping and meal preparation for you.
Meals on Wheels
Meals on Wheels provides nutritious meals to people who are homebound and/or disabled, or would otherwise be unable to maintain their dietary needs. The daily delivery generally consists of two meals: a nutritionally balanced hot meal to eat at lunch time and a dinner, consisting of a cold sandwich and milk along with varying side dishes. See the Resources section below for information on finding a program in your area.
Eating healthily is an ongoing commitment, but it’s easier than you think. Here are some tips for staying on course:
- Ask for help. Admit when you need a hand to shop, cook, and plan meals and find someone to help. It’s important for your health not to revert to frozen dinners or takeout food.
- Variety, variety, variety! Try eating and cooking something new as soon as boredom strikes.
- Make every meal “do-able.” Healthy eating needn’t be a big production. Keep it simple and you’ll stick with it. Stocking the pantry and fridge with wholesome choices will make it easier to prepare quick, tasty meals.
- Set the mealtime mood. Set the table, light candles, play music, or eat outside or by a window when possible. Tidying yourself and your space will help you enjoy the moment.
- Break habits. If you eat watching TV, try eating while reading or use the time to catch up with your spouse or a friend. If you eat at the counter, set the table instead.
Resources & References
Helpguide’s Yellow Pages
Resources for public assistance, social services, and other health and human services.
Nutrition guidelines for seniors
Nutrition Guidelines for Senior Citizens – Outlines changes in nutrition guidelines for seniors and suggests how to compensate for them. (Seniors Site)
DASH Eating Plan (PDF) – Provides specific eating recommendations for lowering blood pressure. (National Institutes of Health)
A Seniors Guide to Good Nutrition – Addresses specific eating-related problems along with tips on adapting to a special diet and preparing healthy meals. Written for vegetarians but many of the tips apply to all. (Vegetarian Resource Group)
Food Safety for the Elderly – Guidelines for safe food handling and preparation, including the minimum cooking temperature for all meats and eggs. (Clemson Extension)
Healthful Diet Aids Memory-Impaired Seniors – Study results describe how proper nutrition enhances mental function in older adults. (Health and Age)
Nutrition services for seniors
Meals on Wheels: Find a U.S. Program – A searchable database that allows you to find a Meals on Wheels program in your area of the U.S. (Meals on Wheels Association of America)
Meals at Home Services (UK) – In the UK, find out if you qualify to receive meals delivered to your home and access a directory of providers in your area. (Directgov)
Meals on Wheels Australia – Find your local Meals on Wheels service in Australia. (Meals on Wheels Australia)
Find a Meals on Wheels Location in Canada – Find a Meals on Wheels and other senior meal programs in your area of Canada. (MealCall)
Sugar and salt in a healthy diet for seniors
Sodium Content of Your Food – How sodium affects your body and how to cut down on dietary sodium. Included tips on reading nutrition labels, and suggestions for cooking and shopping. (University of Maine)
Sugar Stacks – Photos showing the amount of sugar in different foods. (Sugar Stacks)
The Dangers of Sugar and Salt – Article detailing evidence that too much of these ingredients can harm health. (Harvard School of Public Health)
Facts on Sugar and Salt – Includes how to interpret food labels. (Harvard School of Public Health)