Seniors' Nutrition: Tips and Guidelines for Healthier Eating
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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:
The food, caloric, vitamin, and mineral intakes noted below are taken from the average recommended guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They are general guidelines and do not replace the recommendations provided by your doctor. Additionally, any specific health or nutrition concerns that you have should be discussed directly with your doctor.
Nutrition Guidelines for Seniors
But not all calories are created equal. When planning your daily meals, keep the following tips in mind:
- Include two to three tablespoons of healthy fats—such as extra virgin olive or coconut oil—in your diet each day.
- Consume no more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily.
- Make sure that less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat.
- Consume less than 300 mg of cholesterol daily.
- Avoid sugary drinks.
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.
- Serving size examples: A medium-sized piece of fruit; one cup of salad; or half a cup of cut-up fruit or cooked vegetables
Tips for incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet:
- Top your cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt with berries or bananas.
- Include green salad with your lunch or dinner.
- Wash, cut, and store fruits and vegetables in the fridge for quick snacks.
- Add vegetables to eggs, pastas, and soups.
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.
- Serving size examples: One slice of bread; half a bun or bagel; one cup of cold cereal; three-quarters of a cup of hot cereal; or half a cup of cooked pasta or rice
Tips for incorporating more whole grains into your diet:
- Replace white flour with whole-wheat flour.
- Add brown or wild rice to your favorite soups.
- Add three-quarters of a cup of oatmeal to ground meat when making burgers, meatballs, or meatloaf.
- Try whole-grain salads that contain quinoa or bulgur.
- Switch from white to whole-wheat pasta.
- Look for whole-grain cereals that have ingredients like amaranth, kamut, or spelt.
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.
- Serving size examples: One cup of milk; three-quarters of a cup of yogurt; or 1.5 ounces of cheese
Tips for incorporating dairy and dairy alternatives into your diet:
- Add cheese or cheese alternatives to your soups, sandwiches, and salads.
- Add milk or milk alternatives to your soups, stews, and cereals.
- Replace the water in your oatmeal or canned soups with milk or non-dairy milk.
- Make smoothies with yogurt, milk, or milk alternatives.
- Have yogurt with your breakfast or for a snack.
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.
- Serving size examples: A piece of meat that's the same size as a deck of cards; one-quarter of a cup of nuts or seeds; two large eggs; three-quarters of a cup of cooked tofu or legumes; or two tablespoons of nut butter
Tips for incorporating meat and meat alternatives into your diet:
- Cook more servings than you'll eat, and freeze single-serve portions that you can quickly warm up for meals or snacks.
- Add beans, peas, lentils, tofu, canned fish, or eggs to salads, soups, and pastas.
- Have nut butter on toast, crackers, or apple slices for a snack.
- Snack on nuts and seeds, and add them to your cereal, muffins, salads, and yogurt.
- Add a low-sugar protein powder to your smoothies.
In addition to the food groups, think about your fluid intake so that you can avoid the potential complications of dehydration. In seniors, thirst sensations often become weaker, so make a conscious effort to consume the amount of fluids your doctor recommends. For some seniors, that means consuming a minimum of nine to 12 cups of fluids per day. Those fluids 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:
- Brittle or dry hair, or increased hair loss
- Mouth issues—such as cracking or inflammation at the corners of the mouth or a pale, smooth, or swollen tongue
- Nails becoming dry and brittle, developing ridges, or taking on a spoon-like shape where they come off the nail bed
- Poor digestion or sudden or unexpected changes like constipation or diarrhea
- Unexplained fatigue, especially if no sleep issues are present
- Unexplained mood changes such as anxiety, depression, irritability, or general moodiness
- Unexplained weight loss
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:
- Plan your meals and snacks in advance. You're more likely to eat healthy, nutritious food if you have a meal plan in place. You can plan your meals daily or weekly.
- Eat when you're hungry, and don't force yourself to finish meals. Snacking and eating when you aren't hungry often leads to weight gain and other health issues.
- Eat slowly, and chew your bites well. Eating slowly gives your brain and stomach time to communicate with each other to indicate when you're full. And careful chewing results in easier digestion.
- Avoid foods that are high in unhealthy fats. Consuming too many high-fat foods can lead to heart disease and obesity.
- Replace desserts with low-fat yogurt and fresh fruit, or try baked apples and pears sprinkled with cinnamon.
- Have a variety of healthy snacks on hand for times when you don't feel like cooking or preparing food.
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:
- Make a grocery list in advance. If you have specific brands that you like to use, then write them down. Also, write down any specific foods or ingredients that you need to avoid. That way, you can easily cross-check when you're reading labels.
- Check newspaper flyers and make note of any sales. Cut out coupons and attach them to your list.
- Find out if your grocery store has senior discount days. Shopping on certain days might save you a few dollars.
- If you have mobility challenges, shop at a store that offers motorized carts for seniors. Or pick a store that has large aisles and helpful staff so that it's easier to get around and receive assistance when you need it.
- See if a friend or family member can help out and go shopping with you.
- If you walk or use public transportation when you shop, buy a personal grocery cart so you don't have to carry heavy and awkward bags.
- Check to see if your grocery store offers delivery services. You might be able to skip the store altogether.
- Plan to shop when the grocery store will be slower than normal. Weekday mornings are usually a good time to go.
- Eat before you go shopping so that you don't make impulse purchases because you're hungry.
- Don't purchase too many perishable items. Just buy what you think you'll eat over the next few days.
- Choose store or generic brands over name brands since they usually cost less.
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:
- Baked apples or pears topped with cinnamon, nuts, and/or raisins
- Baked kale chips (made by you or already prepared at the grocery store)
- Baked sweet potato fries
- Celery, apples, or bananas with nut butter
- Cheese and tomatoes on whole-grain toast
- Cucumbers topped with feta cheese and walnuts
- Fresh fruit and granola with low-fat yogurt
- Fresh fruit with low-fat cottage cheese
- Half a whole-grain bagel topped with ricotta cheese and berries
- Nuts and dried fruit (in modest portion sizes)
- Popcorn (plain air-popped or microwaved) seasoned with dark chocolate shavings, parmesan cheese, cinnamon, or any favorite seasoning (or using small amounts of extra virgin olive or coconut oil instead of butter)
- Rice cakes topped with nut butter and fresh or dried fruit
- Roasted chickpeas
- Smoothies made with fruit, leafy greens (like kale or spinach) and yogurt or non-dairy milk
- Whole-grain crackers with salsa and guacamole
- Veggie sticks and hummus (which you can make or buy already prepared at most grocery stores)
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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, which are available for purchase through the following Amazon affiliate links:
- 100 Days of Real Food: Fast & Fabulous: Find quick and easy recipes, as well as cheat sheets, that help you replace processed foods with whole ones.
- Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: Explore mouthwatering, diabetic-friendly recipes that are based on Mediterranean cuisine.
- Everyday Whole Grains: Learn about whole grains and discover delicious recipes that help you incorporate them into your diet.
- The DASH Diet Action Plan: Explore this nutritional guide and recipe book that's designed to help readers lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease and some types of cancer. (The book is based on research conducted by the National Institutes of Health.)
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 which are available for purchase through the following Amazon affiliate links, 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:
- 101 Cookbooks: An extensive collection of healthy recipes, especially for those who want to try new foods and techniques
- Kitchen Scoop: Quick, simple, and healthy recipes that are designed for one or two people
- Minimalist Baker: Simple, healthy recipes that require 10 ingredients or less and take 30 minutes or less to prepare
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:
- Keeping a list of simple recipes
- Preparing food and meals when your energy is the highest
- Cooking large meals and then freezing individual portions that you can quickly reheat on days when your energy is low
- Finding healthy frozen meals at the grocery store
- Buying prepared fresh salads and vegetables
- Using a meal-delivery program in your area
- Making your dining area comfortable and pleasing to the eye
- Eating outside when the weather permits
- Turning on the TV or radio, or reading a book or magazine while you eat
- Going out to eat occasionally
- Joining a cooking club or seniors' dining club, or signing up for a weekly meal program at a local seniors' center
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?