Seniors' Nutrition: Tips and Guidelines for Healthier Eating
What makes seniors' nutrition such an important topic? Isn't food just…food? Well, you might be surprised. Your food choices can have big impacts on your well-being. For instance, healthy eating habits can improve your energy levels, boost your immune system, and make you feel great inside and out. For some older adults, they can even help restore feelings of youthfulness.
Simply put, good nutrition is essential for your physical health. Making good food choices may help you prevent or manage diseases and other physical conditions. Certain foods—such as those that contain omega-3 fatty acids—can also help your mind stay sharp. So adopting heathier eating habits is in your best interests if you intend to enjoy your senior years to the fullest.
As you learn more about incorporating good nutrition into your life, keep in mind that it's different than dieting. Implementing a nutrition plan is simply about making healthy food choices on a regular basis and being aware of how much you eat from certain food groups. You still get to enjoy a variety of delicious foods, and you shouldn't be left feeling hungry after a meal. When you combine good nutrition with being active, you'll have an excellent wellness plan in place.
No matter your age or lifestyle, it's never too late to implement good eating habits. Start reaping the rewards of healthy food choices by learning more about nutrition for seniors in the following sections:
Nutrition Guidelines for Seniors
As people age, it's common for their metabolism and digestive systems to slow down. They also tend to become a little less active. Those are some of the main reasons why it's so important to get exercise and eat foods that are healthy. Nutrition for seniors is such a vital topic because knowing what—and how much—to eat can help you maximize your well-being.
Depending on your activity level, it's generally recommended that men over the age of 50 should consume 2,000 to 2,800 calories per day. Women over the age of 50 should consume 1,600 to 2,200 calories per day.
But not all calories are created equal. When planning your daily meals, keep the following tips in mind:
In addition, pay attention to the food groups you're eating from. The main food groups include fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and dairy alternatives, and meat and meat alternatives. Each food group is discussed in more detail below.
Fruits and vegetables—It's recommended that you eat seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Be sure to frequently choose varieties that are dark green, bright orange, and yellow.
Grains—It's recommended that you eat six or seven servings of grains each day. Choose whole-grain products more often, such as whole-wheat foods, brown rice, or oatmeal.
Dairy and dairy alternatives—It's recommended that you consume three servings of dairy or dairy alternatives every day. Choose low-fat options more often, and look for products that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Meat and meat alternatives—It's recommended that you have two or three servings of meat or meat alternatives per day. Choose lean cuts of meat or low-fat meat alternatives more often than higher-fat options.
In addition to the food groups, think about your fluid intake. Seniors are more susceptible to dehydration, so consume a minimum of nine to 12 cups of fluids per day. They can include liquids like water, tea, pure fruit juice, and milk. To help yourself consume that amount, drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up, always have a glass or bottle of water with you, and include a glass of water or a cup of tea with your meals.
Signs of Poor Nutrition in Seniors
Learning all about good nutrition for seniors is a wise move, but you should also know the warning signs of poor nutrition. You or your loved one may experience symptoms that point to a nutritional deficiency that can be resolved with dietary changes. If you suspect any kind of deficiency, then follow up with your doctor in order to be properly tested. Here are some common signs that may indicate that certain vitamins or minerals are lacking from your or your family member's diet:
Weight loss is a common concern for many older seniors. It may become necessary to eat every two or three hours, eat larger portions at the time of day when your appetite is strongest, incorporate healthy fats into your diet, make healthy smoothies for snacks, and have a healthy bedtime snack. Additionally, if you smoke, then speak to a healthcare professional about resources that can help you quit. (Smoking can reduce your appetite and ability to taste.)
Essential Vitamins and Minerals
When it comes to nutrition and seniors, this part of the topic is essential to understand. Certain vitamins and minerals are critical for good physical and mental health. And, as you age, some become more important than others. Check out the most vital ones below, and learn how much of them to consume, what the best food sources are, and what to watch for as potential signs of deficiency.
Calcium—It's recommended that adults over the age of 50 consume 1,200 mg of calcium daily. Some of the best food sources of calcium include:
- Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collard greens
- Fortified almond or soy milk
- Chinese cabbage such as bok choy
- Calcium-fortified orange juice
- Fortified cereals
- Parmesan and Romano cheese
Potential signs of calcium deficiency include brittle nails, fatigue, lowered bone density, muscle cramps, toothaches, and a weakened immune system.
- Black beans
- Chia seeds
- Green peas
- Navy beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Split peas
- White beans
- Yellow beans
Potential signs of low dietary fiber include blood sugar fluctuations, fatigue, nausea, poor digestion and constipation, and weight gain.
Iron—It's recommended that adults over the age of 50 consume 8 mg of iron per day. Some of the best food sources of iron include:
- Beet greens
- Blackstrap molasses
- Cream of Wheat
- Lima beans
- Red meat
- Tomato paste
Potential signs of iron deficiency include dizziness, fatigue, headaches, pale skin, shortness of breath, and weakness.
Magnesium—It's recommended that men and women over the age of 50 consume 420 mg or 320 mg of magnesium, respectively, each day. Some of the best food sources of magnesium include:
- Beans and lentils
- Dark chocolate
- Dark leafy greens
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
Potential signs of magnesium deficiency include anxiety, calcium deficiency, dizziness, fatigue, forgetfulness, high blood pressure, muscle cramps, nausea, and weakness.
Omega-3 fatty acids—There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). It's recommended that all adult men and women consume 1.6 grams or 1.1 grams of ALA, respectively, each day. Both men and women should consume 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. Some of the best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Chia seeds
- Egg yolks
- Fatty fish
- Ground flax seeds
Potential signs of omega-3 deficiency include difficulty concentrating, other cognitive issues, dry skin, fatigue, feelings of anxiety or depression, inflammation, joint and muscle pain, and poor digestion.
Potassium—It's recommended that adults of all ages consume 4,700 mg of potassium daily. Some of the best food sources of potassium include:
- Acorn squash
- Adzuki beans
- Beet greens
- Lima beans
- Prune and carrot juice
- Sweet potatoes
- Swiss chard
- Tomato paste
- White beans
Potential signs of potassium deficiency include constipation, exhaustion or fatigue, faintness or dizziness, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, muscle cramps or weakness, and sensations of tingling or numbness.
Vitamin B12—It's recommended that older adults consume 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12 daily. Some of the best food sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Fortified cereals
- Dairy and fortified dairy alternative products
- Fortified soy products and meat alternatives
- Red Star nutritional yeast
Potential signs of vitamin B12 deficiency include body sensations like electrical currents or pins and needles under the skin, dizziness, fatigue, forgetfulness, feelings of anxiety or depression, pale skin, vision problems, and weakness.
Vitamin D—It's recommended that adults over the age of 50 consume 600 to 800 international units (IUs) of vitamin D per day. Some of the best food sources of vitamin D include:
- Egg yolks
- Fortified dairy and dairy alternative products
- Fatty fish like salmon
Potential signs of vitamin D deficiency include blood sugar fluctuations, fatigue, feelings of depression, increased irritability, lowered bone density, lowered calcium levels, muscle and/or joint pain, weakness, and weight gain.
Practical Nutrition Information for Seniors: Basic Tips
You can do many things on a daily basis to help ensure that your nutrition goals stay on track. First, eat regularly. Most healthcare professionals recommend that you eat three meals a day and have healthy snacks in between. Include at least three food groups with every meal. Choose fresh, plant-based foods first, eat whole grains, limit red meat, and avoid processed and high-sugar foods. Here are some additional tips:
Grocery Shopping Tips
What does grocery shopping have to do with seniors' nutrition? Everything! Having solid grocery shopping strategies in place makes it much easier to bring home the healthiest foods. After all, if you're tired or worked up while grocery shopping, then you're more likely to end up with a bunch of unhealthy food in your cart. Follow the tips below to make shopping a more beneficial experience:
Healthy Snack Ideas
Developing a snack plan for your day or week can help you consume nutritious foods on a regular basis. Be creative. There are countless possible combinations of grains, nuts and seeds, cheeses, and fruits and vegetables. So don't be afraid to try new things. Many grocery stores even sell already-prepared healthy snacks. Just be sure to check the labels on prepared items. Pay particular attention to their sodium and sugar content.
Healthy and nutritious snack ideas to consider include:
Inspirational Cookbooks and Blogs
It never hurts to discover inspiring new ways to work healthy foods into your diet. Many cookbooks and food blogs can help you do just that. Consider adding the following cookbooks to your collection:
As you discover new foods and develop ways to implement a healthier diet, you may want to learn more about vegetarian or vegan cooking. Whether you want to switch to a plant-based diet or simply want to incorporate more meatless meals into your menu, these cookbooks can help:
Food blogs are also a great way to learn more about nutrition, healthy eating, and nutritious ingredients. Helpful information and new recipes are often added regularly, and many food blogs have more recipes than you'll find in a single cookbook. The best part is that you can access them for free. Here are a few examples to check out:
Motivational Tips for Staying on Track
If you or your loved one needs to make dietary changes, then certain actions can make the transition easier to implement and stick to. You may want to start by asking for help from family members or contacting some nutritionists or dietitians in your area. They can give you the support or information you need to start changing your eating habits.
Frequently, it's also helpful to make changes slowly, rather than all at once. For example, introduce a new fruit or vegetable into your diet every week, gradually replace white bread and pasta with whole wheat versions, and start replacing white rice with brown rice.
Do you want to make cooking and eating more enjoyable? Try new recipes on a regular basis and learn how to use a variety of herbs and spices. Eat with your family or friends whenever possible. And exercise prior to your meals in order to help stimulate your appetite. You can also speak to your doctor or pharmacist to find out whether any of your medications cause decreased appetite or loss of taste, which can negatively affect your enjoyment of food.
Other tips for making cooking and eating more manageable and enjoyable include:
For all types of seniors, nutrition plans can be fun and gratifying to implement. They don't have to be complicated. And the benefit is that they can lead to many positive results. Along with being flavorful and delicious, healthy food can add more variety—and vitality—to your life. Who doesn't want that?
1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, website last visited on February 2, 2017.