Healthy eating is key to healthy aging. As you age, your body, your lifestyle and your activity levels all change. These changes all affect your nutritional needs. Here we’ll provide tips on how to make healthy eating choices, so that you can keep feeling your best as you get older.
How Do Nutritional Needs Change with Age?
Our nutritional needs change at different stages of life. Here are some of the key changes that affect older adults.
Lower Calorie Needs
Many people over age 50 need fewer calories each day because they’re getting less physical activity. Your activity levels may decrease when you retire from work or switch to a less physically active job. Chronic illness and injury can also make it hard to be active.
On the other hand, many older adults stay very active — so the number of calories you need will depend on how physically active you are. As a general idea, the daily recommended calories for women range from 1,600 if you’re not physically active to about 2,100 if you lead an active lifestyle. For men, it can range from 2,100 to 2,800. If you’re not sure about your individual calorie needs, talk with your doctor.
Higher Need for Certain Nutrients
Age-related changes in your body can increase your need for certain nutrients. Getting enough nutrients can also be challenging when you’re eating fewer calories overall. So it’s important to make sure that the food you eat has all the nutrients you need.
Key nutrients for older adults include protein, vitamin B12, calcium and fiber. These are important for older adults to maintain muscle mass and strength, healthy bones and digestive health.
Lower Appetite and Thirst
It’s normal for your appetite to decrease gradually as you age. But it’s still important to take steps to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs. If it’s hard to eat 3 large meals a day, try switching to eating smaller meals and frequent snacks throughout the day.
The sensation of thirst also decreases with age — so you may not be aware when your body needs water. Older adults have a higher risk of dehydration, so it’s important to take regular sips of water during meals and throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Medicines can also affect hunger and thirst. Many medicines can affect appetite, cause dehydration or change how foods taste. If you’re concerned that your medicines are making it hard to eat a healthy diet, talk with your doctor.
How Healthy Eating Can Support Healthy Aging
Here are just a few ways that healthy eating can help you age well.
- Lower your risk of diseases. Eating a variety of healthy foods and cutting down on sugar, sodium (salt) and saturated fat can lower your risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The risk of these diseases increases with age, so eating healthy is key to protecting your health. Getting key nutrients can also support your immune system and help prevent infections.
- Maintain bone and muscle strength. As you age, you naturally start to lose muscle mass and your risk for osteoporosis (weak bones) increases. This can raise your risk for falls. Getting key nutrients and staying physically active can help keep your muscles and bones strong. Focus on getting enough protein, calcium, zinc, iron and vitamins B, C, D and E.
- Keep your mind sharp. A healthy diet is a key factor in lowering your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. People who eat plenty of fruit, leafy greens and omega-3 fatty acids may have better focus and a lower risk of dementia.
- Boost your mood and mental health. Your body and mind are closely connected, and what you eat can affect your mood and your risk of mood disorders like depression. Older adults are at higher risk of depression, but a healthy diet may lower your risk.
Follow These Tips to Eat Healthy As You Get Older
There’s a huge amount of information out there about what older adults should and shouldn’t eat. And it can get overwhelming! So just try to focus on these key tips:
- Eat a variety of healthy foods. In general, choose foods that are high in nutrients and lower in empty calories. Focus on getting plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins.
- Eat more protein. Protein is key for maintaining muscle mass. And animal-based proteins like meat, poultry and fish are rich in vitamin B12, which you need more of as you age.
- Drink more water. As you get older, you may start to lose your sense of thirst. Drinking enough water is key for staying hydrated and digesting your food. And the healthiest choice for most of your beverages throughout the day is plain old water. If you want a bit more flavor, try adding fresh fruit slices or fresh herbs to a plain sparkling water.
- Cut down on sugar, sodium and saturated fat. As you get older, you may find that foods start to lose some of their flavor or medicines change the way food tastes. While you may be tempted to add more sugar or salt to enhance the taste, this isn’t the healthiest option. Sugar, salt and saturated fat can all raise your risk of diseases. Instead, try adding herbs and spices to savory food or using fresh fruit to sweeten foods and drinks.
Healthy Eating Goes Beyond Food Choices
Healthy eating is about more than just the foods you put on your plate. It’s also about knowing how to shop, prep and meal plan — and enjoying meals with others. Follow these tips:
- Meal plan. Meal planning can help you make healthier choices at the grocery store — and avoid last-minute takeout or fast food meals. Think about what you’d like to eat for the week in advance. Consider what’s on sale at your local market and how much time you have to prep and cook. Then write a shopping list and stick to it. You can cook in big batches so you have leftovers for several days, or wash and chop a big batch of fresh veggies to add to dishes throughout the week.
- Learn how to read labels. When you’re buying fresh produce like fruit and vegetables, it’s usually pretty clear what you are getting. But for a lot of other products on supermarket shelves, it can be harder to tell exactly what’s in each item. Learning how to read the labels and knowing what to look for can help you make healthier choices in the supermarket aisles. Start by looking for options lower in added sugars, sodium and saturated fat — and higher in fiber and protein.
- Make mealtimes a social event. Staying connected with others is just as important for healthy aging as maintaining good nutrition. Mealtimes are an opportunity to do both! Try inviting friends, family or neighbors to cook with you. Many senior centers, community groups and places of worship may also provide opportunities for people to come together, share a meal and meet new friends. Check out your local community center or council on aging for options.
Do I Need a Supplement?
Maybe. It’s best to get the nutrients you need from the food you eat, and most older people can get all their nutrients from foods. But some people may have trouble getting enough nutrients for a range of reasons, like decreased appetite or problems with chewing or swallowing.
If you’re concerned about getting enough nutrients from foods, talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian (nutrition specialist). They may recommend you take a supplement for certain key nutrients like:
- Vitamin B12 — As you get older, it becomes more difficult to absorb vitamin B12 from the foods you eat. If your doctor finds that you’re not getting enough B12, you may need a supplement.
- Vitamin D — You get vitamin D from sunlight and from certain foods, like fatty fish. But as you age, your skin produces less vitamin D from sunlight and you’re likely to get less sunlight overall. So some older adults may need a supplement.
Make sure to talk with your doctor before taking any new supplements. They can help you find the right supplements — or recommend changes to your eating routine to help you get all the nutrients you need.
- “Healthy Eating” via National Institute on Aging
- “Eating Well as You Age” via HelpGuide.org
- “Improving Nutrition to Support Healthy Aging: What Are the Opportunities for Intervention?” via Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
- “Aging Is Associated with Decreases in Appetite and Energy Intake–A Meta-Analysis in Healthy Adults” via Nutrients
- “Diet Quality and Depression risk: A Systematic Review” via Journal of Affective Disorders