Eating a well-balanced diet is an important part of staying healthy as you age. It can help you maintain a healthy weight, stay energized, and get the nutrients you need. It also lowers your risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
According to the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Aging, 1 in 4 older Americans has poor nutrition. Malnutrition puts you at risk of becoming overweight or underweight. It can weaken your muscles and bones. It also leaves you vulnerable to disease.
To meet your nutritional needs, eat foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Limit foods that are high in processed sugars, saturated and trans fats, and salt. You may also have to adjust your diet to manage chronic health conditions.
As you get older, your nutritional needs, appetite, and food habits can change in several ways.
You’ll probably need fewer calories as you age to maintain a healthy weight. Eating more calories than you burn leads to weight gain.
You may find you have less energy and more muscle or joint problems as you get older. As a result, you may become less mobile and burn fewer calories through physical activity. You may also lose muscle mass. This causes your metabolism to slow down, lowering your caloric needs.
Many people experience a loss of appetite with age. It’s also common for your sense of taste and smell to diminish. This can lead you to eat less.
If you’re burning fewer calories through physical activity, eating less may not be a problem. However, you need to get enough calories and nutrients to maintain healthy organs, muscles, and bones. Not getting enough can lead to malnutrition and health problems.
As you age, you become more susceptible to chronic health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and osteoporosis. To help prevent or treat these conditions, your doctor may recommend changes to your diet.
For example, if you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, you should eat foods that are rich in nutrients, but low in excess calories, processed sugars, and saturated and trans fats. Your doctor may also advise you to eat less sodium.
Some older adults become sensitive to foods such as onions, peppers, dairy products, and spicy foods. You may need to cut some of these foods out of your diet.
You may need to take medications to manage chronic health conditions. Some medications can affect your appetite. Some can also interact with certain foods and nutritional supplements.
For example, if you’re taking warfarin (Coumadin), you need to avoid grapefruit. It decreases your body’s ability to metabolize the drug. You also need to maintain a steady level of vitamin K in your diet. You can get vitamin K from eating plenty of spinach, kale, or other leafy greens.
If you’re taking a medication, be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out whether you need to make any changes to your diet.
Seniors have their own set of oral health concerns. Some of these can interfere with your ability to eat. For example, dentures that don’t fit properly may lead to poor eating habits and malnutrition. Infections in your mouth can also cause problems.
Your immune system weakens with age. This raises your risk of food-borne illness, or food poisoning.
Proper food safety techniques are important at every age. However, you may need to take extra precautions as your immune system weakens. For example, your doctor may recommend avoiding foods with raw eggs, such as homemade mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing.
Losing a spouse or other family members can impact your daily habits, including your eating patterns. You may feel depressed, which can lead to lower appetite. If your family member did most of the cooking, you might not know how to prepare food for yourself. Some people simply choose not to eat, rather than cook a meal for themselves.
If you’re finding it difficult to prepare food for yourself, talk to a family member, trusted friend, or your doctor. Depending on your area, there may be services available to help make sure you’re getting the food you need. For example, Meals on Wheels is available across the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries.
Nutritional needs vary from one person to another. However, some strategies can help everyone maintain a healthy diet.
Focus on Nutrient-Rich Foods
As you age, your caloric needs will probably decrease, while your nutrient needs stay the same or increase. Eating nutrient-rich foods will help you get the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats you need.
Get most of your calories from nutrient-dense foods, such as:
- vegetables and fruits
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy
- lean protein
Limit foods that are high in calories, but low in nutrients. For example, save deep-fried foods, desserts, and sweetened beverages for the occasional treat. Your doctor may recommend avoiding junk food altogether.
Eat Enough Fiber
Fiber is essential for a healthy digestive system. To avoid constipation and other problems, include fiber-rich foods at every meal. Soluble fiber is especially important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Good sources of fiber include:
- fruits and vegetables
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
- oats and oat bran
- whole grains
If you struggle to eat enough fiber, your doctor may recommend a fiber supplement, such as psyllium husk (Metamucil).
Choose Healthier Convenience Foods
If you find yourself relying on convenience foods, choose the healthiest options. For example, these foods can be easy to prepare and nutritious:
- frozen or low-sodium canned vegetables
- frozen unsweetened fruit or low-sugar canned fruit
- precooked grilled turkey or rotisserie chicken
- low-sodium canned soup or stews
- bagged salad or coleslaw mix
- instant oatmeal
- steamer bags of veggies in either the produce or freezer sections of grocery stores
Always check the labels on prepackaged foods. Choose options that contain less added sugar, saturated fat, and salt — and more fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
You may find it hard to get some nutrients in your diet, especially if you have to avoid some foods. Ask your doctor if you should take a vitamin or mineral supplement, such as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, or vitamin B-12. These specific vitamins are often poorly absorbed or not consumed enough by older Americans.
Some supplements can interfere with certain medications. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential side effects before starting a new supplement or medication.
As you age, you may not notice when you’re thirsty. Make sure you’re drinking fluids on a regular basis. Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. You can also get some water from juice, tea, soup, or even water-rich fruits and vegetables.
When you can, eat with friends and family members. Social interaction can turn mealtimes into an enjoyable affair, rather than a chore you’d rather skip.
If you experience a loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss, talk to your doctor immediately. It may be a normal sign of aging. On the other hand, it can also be caused by an underlying health condition that needs treatment. Your doctor and dietitian can also help you lose weight if excess body fat is raising your risk of chronic health conditions or straining your joints and muscles.
It’s also important to visit your dentist for routine check-ups and cleaning. Speak with your doctor or dentist if you notice dental pain, sores in your mouth, or other oral health problems. To keep your teeth and mouth healthy, brush your teeth at least twice a day. If you have dentures, rinse them after meals, brush them daily, and soak them overnight.
If you’re struggling to maintain a healthy weight, follow a well-balanced diet or adjust your eating habits. Speak to a registered dietitian. They can help you develop meal plans and strategies to change the way you eat.
Healthy eating is important across your entire life, especially as you age. Choosing nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods may help you prevent or manage chronic health conditions. It can also help you feel stronger and energized, allowing you to enjoy the golden years of your life.