Eating healthfully is important at any age, but as you get older, your health and nutrition requirements change. Metabolism slows with age, so you also need fewer calories than you did in your twenties.
But finding healthy foods that fit your tastes and lifestyle can be challenging. You may need to consult your healthcare team about what’s right in your case.
The National Council on Aging offers tips for older adults to help you pick the best foods for your body.
1. Know what a healthy plate looks like. Forget the food pyramid. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now uses a much simpler visual to help people understand the five food groups (and how much you should have of each) that make up the building blocks of a healthy diet. Visit www.Choosemyplate.gov to see illustrations and detailed information about each food group, including how to divide your plate into quarters for fruits, grains, proteins and vegetables and the best ways to add low-fat or fat-free dairy products to your meals.
2. Look for important nutrients. This task is made easier if you remember that bright, colorful foods typically contain the most nutritional value. A healthy meal includes lean proteins (meat, seafood, eggs, beans); fruits and vegetables (the brighter in color, the better); whole grains (brown rice and whole-wheat pasta are good staples); and low-fat dairy products. It’s important to look for foods that are high in fiber and low in sodium. Older adults also need a lot of vitamin D to aid calcium absorption, which is important for good bone health. This is especially true for women.
Not getting proper nutrition can lead to deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals, such as the B vitamins. B12, B6 and folate (another B vitamin) deficiencies are more common in older adults.
Taking heartburn medicines or antacids over a long period of time may cause a B12 deficiency. The fact that you might not notice any symptoms at first doesn’t mean the deficiency isn’t doing you harm. A lack of B12 can cause nerve damage and anemia. The good news is that the lack is easy to treat, with either medication or an injection.
B6 deficiency is also common in older adults and, likewise, can affect the nervous system. People who are malnourished or whose bodies have difficulty absorbing nutrients can become deficient in B6.
Folate can also become deficient as a consequence of taking certain medications, or from kidney dialysis, liver disease and other chronic diseases.
3. Read labels. Whole foods are much healthier than processed, packaged foods. But if you do buy packaged foods, be sure to read the labels and steer clear of those high in fat, added sugars or excess sodium.
4. Watch your serving sizes. It’s important to eat the right amount of food for your age and body, as one serving size does not fit all. The National Institute on Aging (NIH-NIA) recommends that people age 50 and older consume 1½ to 2½ cups of fruit; 2 to 3½ cups of vegetables; 5 to 10 ounces of grains; 5 to 7 ounces of protein; 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk; 5 to 8 teaspoons of oils; and minimal amounts of solid fats and added sugars per day. For guidance on how many calories to consume each day, use the NIH Body Weight Planner at https://www.supertracker.usda.gov/bwp/index.html.
Because our bodies lose protein from muscles and internal organs as we age, many older adults might need to take in more protein than they became accustomed to when they were younger. People with stress or injuries will need even greater amounts. Protein deficiencies can lead to infections, skin problems, difficult healing and weakness, but some chronic diseases call for restrictions on protein intake, so consult your healthcare team about what’s right for you.
5. Drink up. Stay hydrated with water throughout the day. Tea and coffee are also fine, but keep away from drinks with added sugar and salt unless your healthcare provider recommends them.
The NIH also provides tips on how to visualize portion sizes. For example, 1 to 1½ ounces of cheese may be tough to measure out — especially in a restaurant — but if you think of it as the size of four dice, it’s easy. Likewise, one cup of cooked vegetables or salad is roughly the size of a baseball and one teaspoon of margarine or oil is about the size of the tip of your pointer finger.
Think you need to give up snacks to have a healthful diet? Think again. Snacks can actually help you reach the recommended servings for fruits, vegetables and whole grains if you’re smart about them. Pick up a piece of fruit when you want something sweet. Try keeping some in a bowl on the coffee table or kitchen counter for a visual reminder. Spread peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese on whole-grain crackers for an afternoon pick-me-up. Keep a container of cleaned, raw veggies in the fridge for easy nibbling, or dip them in hummus when you need to nosh.
If you find yourself craving chips or nuts, pour a single serving into a bowl, rather than eating straight out of the bag. Better yet, pick popcorn over potato chips.
To cut down on calories, consider making other easy substitutions. Use low-fat milk in your coffee instead of cream. For a sweet treat, have low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit (pop in some extra blueberries!) instead of ice cream.
Wine with your meal is fine, but limit yourself to a single glass and alternate by drinking water as well.
Finally, if you have been diagnosed with a chronic condition — such as diabetes or heart disease — always consult a member of your healthcare team to be sure you’re not overlooking any special dietary requirements.