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Eating Well as You Age

Nutrition and Diet Tips for Healthy Eating as You Age

Couple enjoying meal

As we age, eating well can improve mental acuteness, energy levels, and resistance to illness. A healthy diet can also be the key to a positive outlook and staying emotionally balanced. But healthy eating doesn’t have to be about dieting and sacrifice. Whatever your age, eating well should be all about fresh, tasty food, wholesome ingredients, and eating with friends and family.

Feed your body and mind

No matter your age or your previous eating habits, it’s never too late to change your diet and improve the way you think and feel. Improving your diet now can help you:

Live longer and stronger – Good nutrition boosts immunity, fights illness-causing toxins, keeps weight in check, and reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, bone loss, and cancer.

Sharpen your mind –People who eat fruit, leafy veggies, and fish and nuts packed with omega-3 fatty acids can improve focus and decrease their risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Antioxidant-rich green tea may also enhance memory and mental alertness as you age.

Feel better – Wholesome meals give you more energy and help you look better, resulting in a boost to your mood and self-esteem. It’s all connected—when your body feels good you feel happier inside and out.

Creating a healthy diet

The key to healthy eating is to focus on the whole, minimally processed food that your body needs as you age—food that is as close to its natural form as possible. Our bodies respond differently to different foods, depending on genetics and other health factors, so finding the healthy diet that works best for you may take some experimentation.

Fruit – Break the apple and banana rut and go for color-rich pickings like berries or melons. Aim for 2-3 servings a day.

Veggies – Choose antioxidant-rich dark, leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli as well as colorful vegetables such as carrots and squash,. Try for 2-3 cups every day.

Calcium – Maintaining bone health as you age depends on adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. Older adults 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.

Healthy fats – Because fat is so dense in calories, a little can go a long way in making you feel full and keeping you feeling fuller for longer. See The Fat Debate for more on how saturated fats may help you to maintain a healthy weight.

Protein – Adults over 50 without kidney disease or diabetes need about 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of bodyweight (0.5 g of protein per lb. of body weight is close enough).

Getting more high-quality protein in your diet

As you age, eating sufficient high-quality protein can improve your mood, boost your resistance to stress, anxiety, and depression, and even help you think clearly. However, eating too much low-quality protein from industrially raised red meat and processed meat products, such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami, may increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, or other health problems.

  • Vary your sources of protein instead of relying on just red meat, including more fish, beans, peas, eggs, nuts, seeds, milk and cheese in your diet.
  • Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates you consume—from foods such as pastries, cakes, pizza, cookies and chips—and replace them with high-quality protein.
  • Opt for cheaper cuts of organic, grass-fed red meat rather than expensive cuts of industrially raised meat.
  • Try a “meatless Monday” each week—plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat, so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health. A “fish Friday” can help encourage you to eat more seafood.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips, replace a baked dessert with Greek yogurt, or swap out slices of pizza for a grilled chicken breast and a side of beans.

Important vitamin and minerals

Water – As we age, some of us are prone to dehydration because our sense of thirst is may not be as sharp. Remember to sip water regularly to avoid urinary tract infections, constipation, and even confusion.

Vitamin B – After the age of 50, your stomach produces less gastric acid making it difficult to absorb vitamin B-12—needed to help keep blood and nerves healthy. Get the recommended daily intake (2.4 mcg) of B12 from fortified foods or a vitamin supplement.

Vitamin D – 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, especially if you’re obese or have limited sun exposure.

Choose healthy fats

Rather than trying to cut out fat from your diet, focus on enjoying healthy fats that can protect your body against disease and support your mood and brain function.

Healthy fats

Monounsaturated fats are found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).

Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Other sources include flaxseed and walnuts.

Saturated fats

While many health organizations maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, recent studies suggest that people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less.

  • Eating whole-milk dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt) is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity.

Unhealthy fats

No amount of trans fat is considered healthy as it can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Trans fats are found in commercially baked goods, packaged snack foods, fried food, and anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil in the ingredients, even if it claims to be trans fat-free.

Cut down on sugar and refined carbs

While our senses of taste and smell diminish with age, we retain the ability to distinguish sweet tastes the longest, leading many older people to consume more sugar and refined carbs than is healthy. Unlike complex carbs that are rich in fiber, refined or simple carbs (such as white rice, white flour, refined sugar) can lead to a dramatic spike in blood sugar, followed by a rapid crash which leaves you feeling hungry and prone to overeating.

Reducing the amount of starches, candy, and desserts in your diet is only part of the solution. Sugar is hidden in foods as diverse as canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, margarine, frozen dinners, and many foods labelled “low fat” or “reduced fat.” All this hidden sugar contributes zero nutrients but lots of empty calories that can cause mood swings and wreck any healthy diet.

Slowly reduce the sugar in your diet a little at a time. You’ll give your taste buds time to adjust and be able to wean yourself off the craving for sweets and sugary food.

Instead of adding sugar, increase sweetness of meals by using naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or yams.

Replace refined carbs with complex carbs such as oatmeal, beans, vegetables, andother high fiber foods. You’ll feel fuller, more satisfied, and have more energy.

Check labels and opt for “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” products. Use fresh or frozen ingredients instead of canned goods, and avoid fast food meals.

Don’t replace fat with carbs. Manufacturers often replace healthy sources of saturated fat, such as whole fat yogurt, with low-fat versions that are packed with sugar or artificial sweetener to make up for the loss in taste.

Avoid soda and sweetened coffee drinks. One can of soda contains 10-12 teaspoons of sugar and around 150 calories. Even artificial sweetener can trigger sugar cravings that contribute to weight gain. Instead, try switching to carbonated water with lemon or a splash of juice.

Eat more fiber

As you age, your digestion becomes less efficient, so it’s important to include enough fiber in your diet. Women over 50 should aim to eat at least 21 grams of fiber per day, men over 50 at least 30 grams a day. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t getting even half those amounts.

  • Good sources of fiber include whole grains, wheat cereals, barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts, vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes, and fruit.
  • An easy way to add more fiber to your diet is to start your day with a high-fiber, whole grain cereal (just watch for added sugar). Or try adding unprocessed wheat bran and fresh or dried fruit to your favorite cereal.
  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juice. Peeling can reduce the amount of fiber, so try to eat the peel of apples and pears.
  • Liven up dull salads with nuts, seeds, or beans. You can also make tasty high-fiber additions to soups and stews by adding peas, beans, or lentils.

Cope with changing dietary needs

Every season of life brings changes and adjustments to your body. Understanding what is happening will help you take control of your nutrition requirements.

Physical changes that affect your diet

Metabolism. Every year over the age of forty, our metabolism slows, and often we become less physically active. This makes it even more important to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits to avoid weight gain.

Weakened senses. Older adults 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 older adults need less salt than younger people. Use herbs, spices, and healthy oils—like olive oil—to season food instead of salt.

Medications and illness. Some health problems or medications can negatively influence appetite or  affect taste, again leading older adults to consume too much sugar or salt. Talk to your doctor.

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 and good circulation. Up your fiber intake and talk to your doctor about possible supplements.

Lifestyle changes that affect your diet

Loneliness and depression. For some, feeling down leads to not eating and in others it may trigger overeating. Sharing meals with others can also be an effective antidote to loneliness. Reach out to friends or neighbors—everyone loves a home-cooked meal and most people who live alone are in the same boat as you. Cooking with others can be a fun way to try out new recipes and deepen relationships.

Death or divorce. If you’re newly single, you may not be used to cooking or have little enthusiasm for preparing meals for just yourself. However, cooking your own meals can help you take charge of your health. The key to cooking for one is to master a few basic skills and get creative in making meals that work specifically for you.

Living on a limited budget. With the right tips and a little planning, it is possible to enjoy healthy food on the cheap. Often, by simply cutting out junk and processed foods, you can free up enough in your budget to enjoy healthier, better quality food.

Understanding malnutrition

Malnutrition is a critical health issue among older adults 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.

To prevent malnutrition as you age:

  • Eat nutrient-packed food
  • Have flavorful food available
  • Snack between meals
  • Eat with company as much as possible
  • Get help with food preparation

Overcome obstacles to eating well

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, makes meals more enjoyable, and can help you stick to your healthy eating plan. If you live alone:

Make a date to share lunch or dinners with children, 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.

Visit an adult day care center or enroll in a senior meal program which can provide both companionship and nutritious meals for older adults.

Loss of appetite

Check with your doctor to see if your loss of appetite could be due to medication, and whether the medication or dosage can be changed.

  • Try natural flavor enhancers such as olive oil, butter, vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger, and spices to boost your appetite.

Difficulty chewing

  • 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.

Dry mouth

  • Drink 8–10 glasses of water each day.
  • Take a drink of water after each bite of food.
  • Add sauces and salsas to moisten your food.
  • Avoid commercial mouthwash.
  • Ask your doctor about artificial saliva products.

"I don’t like healthy food"

None of us were born with a craving for French fries and donuts or an aversion to broccoli. This conditioning happens over time as we’re exposed to more and more unhealthy food choices. However, it is possible to reprogram your brain’s food cravings over time so that you crave healthier foods instead.

Commit to keeping an open mind. Just because a food is healthy, it doesn’t mean it can’t be tasty as well.

Don’t change everything all at once. Add a side salad to your normal dinner, for example, or substitute unhealthy fries with baked sweet potato fries, or have a smaller portion of dessert 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
  • Chatting with friends about what they eat

If you can’t shop or cook for yourself…

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. Consider having a housemate/companion who would be willing to do the grocery shopping and cooking.

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. See the Resources section below for information on finding a program in your area.

Related HelpGuide articles

Resources and references

Nutrition guidelines for older adults

DASH Eating Plan (PDF) – Provides specific eating recommendations for lowering blood pressure. (National Institutes of Health)

A Senior's 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)

Optimal Dietary Protein Intake in Older People – New evidence that shows older adults need more dietary protein than do younger adults. (JAMDA)

Dietary fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet – The health benefits of fiber and how to fit more into your diet. (Mayo Clinic)

Nutrition services for older adults

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 older adults

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)

Public Health Takes Aim at Sugar and Salt – Article detailing evidence that too much of these ingredients can harm health. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Fast Facts on Sugar and Salt – Includes how to interpret food labels. (Harvard School of Public Health)

From our readers:

“I am very impressed with the design, scope, and clarity of your website. My current challenge is helping older adults access, prepare, share, and enjoy healthy foods. Your article is a great resource and I thank you for it!”

Authors: Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: December 2016.