With so many conflicting senior nutrition tips out there, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. One source tells you bread is forbidden, and then your doctor tells you to eat more whole grains. Eggs have been good, bad, and somewhere in between. And then there are all the restrictive diets—no carbs, no gluten, no animal products.
Good nutrition should not be a gimmick. Healthy eating is about finding a diet you can stick to every day—not a quick fix nor a frustrating, restrictive plan. Plus, you don’t need a degree in nutrition to eat well. However, it’s important to stay consistent and compose a well-balanced plate for each meal. This can be challenging as you age with tasks that were once simple, such as driving to the grocery store and cooking a balanced meal, becoming more complicated. Sometimes, a simple reminder can be the first step to improvement. Follow these senior nutrition tips to get you started eating right.
What’s Different About Senior Nutrition?
The elements of healthy eating are the same whether you’re 70 or 7, but your specific nutritional needs shift as you age. Some of the most important components of healthy eating for older adults include:
- Protein: Because muscles weaken with age, protein, which supports healthy muscles, is essential. Deteriorating muscles are less adept at supporting bones, thereby triggering the bone density loss associated with osteoporosis and bone fractures. Older adults need more protein than younger adults. Current research recommends 1–1.2 g/kg a day. That’s about 60–75 grams for a 140-pound person. Meat, dairy products, nuts, and legumes are rich in protein. To keep your caloric intake low, stick to lean proteins, such as fish, or consider vegetarian sources of protein.
- Calcium and vitamin D: Calcium supports bone density, and vitamin D helps the body metabolize calcium. Together, these two vital nutrients can fight osteoporosis and support oral health. Senior men need 1,000 mg/day of calcium, while senior women need at least 1,200 mg/day. Until age 70, older adults need 600 IU of vitamin D a day. At 70, the recommendation shifts to 800 IU/day. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, are excellent sources of vitamin D and calcium.
- Metabolic changes: As you age, your metabolism slows down, and it becomes harder to absorb some nutrients. You may find you have less of an appetite. Even if your appetite doesn’t change, regular aerobic exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Sodium intake: Sodium can elevate blood pressure. As you age, high blood pressure steadily increases the risk of cardiovascular problems. Steer clear of high-sodium foods, such as pickled snacks, potato chips, and many packaged foods. Keep your sodium intake to less than 1,500 mg/day.
- Fiber: Fiber can help older adults avoid constipation. It also regulates blood sugar and cholesterol and is linked to a healthier weight. Men over 50 should get at least 30 g/day of fiber, while women over 50 need at least 21. Nuts, whole grains, and leafy green vegetables are excellent sources.
Eat a Varied Diet
The best way to get all the nutrients you need is to avoid restrictive fad diets. These diets often ask you to exclude large groups of food, such as dairy or grains, thereby increasing the likelihood you’ll miss key nutrients. Try a variety of new foods, and consider grazing on small meals throughout the day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate can help you craft a custom food plan that meets your dietary needs. More specifically, based on a 1,600 calorie per day diet, the American Heart Association recommends the following:
- Grains: 6 servings per day, at least half of which are whole grains (not white bread).
- Dairy: 2–3 servings per day. Eat fat-free or low-fat dairy products to keep your caloric intake low.
- Vegetables: 3–4 servings per day. Eating many types and colors ensures you get the nutrients you need.
- Fruits: 4 servings per day. Eat a wide variety.
- Meats, poultry, and seafood: 3–6 cooked ounces per day. Steer clear of fatty or salty meats, such as chicken skin or pork fat. If you are vegetarian, you can substitute 1–2 servings of other proteins for meat.
- Fats and oils: 2 servings per day. Margarine and liquid vegetable oils are the healthiest option.
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes: 3–4 servings per week.
Want a quick trick for eating healthy? Primarily shop on the outer edges of the grocery store, where fresh foods, such as dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables, are abundant. The inner rows usually house processed foods, which are higher in calories and lower in vital nutrients.
Minimize Packaged, Salty, and Sweetened Foods
Many prepackaged foods, such as cookies and potato chips, offer little to no nutritional value. They’re also high in calories, so minimize your reliance on them. You don’t have to completely deprive yourself. For most older adults, it’s okay to eat a few servings each week. If you have a sweet tooth, consider making homemade sweets instead because it’s easier to control the ingredients.
Consider a Multivitamin or Nutritional Supplement
A multivitamin can help you avoid missing vital nutrients, particularly if you have dietary restrictions or special needs. Talk to your doctor about whether a multivitamin formulated specifically for older adults might be right for you. Nutritional supplements can also help keep you healthy. Look for nutritional shakes that are high in protein because they help you feel fuller longer while providing protein.
Make Your Health a Priority
By following our senior nutrition tips, you will be on your way to healthier eating. Healthy eating can quickly become a burden, however, as other important medical priorities take up your time and energy. Seemingly harmless replacements, such as skipping eggs and fruit at breakfast for a piece of toast, can add up over time.
One of the benefits of living at a senior community is that meal planning is often taken off your plate entirely, thereby making eating healthy even easier. Read our blog post on independent living communities versus staying at home to learn more about dining and other lifestyle improvements available to you in senior living communities.