As we age, a balanced and nutritious diet helps us maintain optimal health. It’s important to get the right nutrients, the right number of calories, and plenty of fluids.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that older adults often eat too few vegetables and meats – and their meals may lack variety. Many also need more vitamin C, D, E, and folate.
“A diet low in saturated fats with five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day can go a long way toward enhancing your health,” says Lawren Hicks, M.D., medical director of senior services at John Muir Health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than one-third of adults 65 years and older currently meet the nutritional guidelines the government sets.
The colors of vegetables actually mean something in terms of their vitamin and phytonutrient content, and so there should be red, green, yellow, and even purple vegetables on your plate.
Nutrition experts recommend consuming as much of a variety of colors and types of fruits and vegetables as you can. Eat fresh, dried, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables every day.
The amount you should eat depends on your age, sex, and activity level. In general, women over 50 should eat 2 cups of vegetables and 1½ cups of fruit daily; and men over 50 should eat 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily.
Older, healthy adults should also try to consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day — the equivalent of four servings (about 3 cups) of calcium-rich dairy products like milk, cheese, or yogurt. Talk to your doctor about whether calcium supplements are appropriate.
Vitamin D deficiency is fairly common in older adults. “It is very hard to get enough vitamin D in the diet,” says Dr. Hicks.
“Fifteen minutes a day of direct sunlight on exposed arms and legs is not felt to be harmful and can give you your daily requirement of vitamin D in the summer. Oral vitamin D, 400 to 600 units daily, is another safe regimen through the winter and all year if you’re confined indoors,” says Hicks.
Seniors should also pay attention to their vitamin C, E, and folate consumption, and ask their physician about a multivitamins.
According to Dr. Hicks, our convenient and rich North American diet may contribute to many diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, even Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis, by causing inflammation in tissues and organs. To combat this, he suggests minimizing consumption of refined, processed foods.
“Feed-lot cattle, cooped chickens, and farmed fish are corn-fed, making them high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. We need anti-inflammatory omega 3’s for balance,” Dr. Hicks says.
Foods rich in omega 3’s include herring, sardines, salmon, and flaxseed oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the best source of dietary fat, he adds.
Carbohydrates with “high glycemic load” are found in table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and white flour. These quickly create high blood glucose levels and stress the pancreas into making too much extra insulin.
Brown rice, whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, and cereals like oatmeal or 7-grain cooked cereal are much healthier. These foods also give you the fiber you need to prevent constipation and reduce your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Many seniors find that their weight decreases over time, which may contribute to problems such as weak bones and osteoporosis.
But if you are overweight, remember that the presence of excess body fat in the abdominal area is inflammatory and creates insulin resistance, which can lead to adult-onset diabetes, and other obesity-related conditions such as high blood pressure and coronary artery disease.
“For some seniors, shopping and cooking are challenging, and making a healthy meal for themselves may not be a priority,” says Arlene Phillips, director of senior services at John Muir Health.
“The cost of food may also be a factor. But options such as senior meal programs, food delivery services, or community volunteer programs — such as Caring Hands at John Muir Health — can enrich nutrition as well as add social connections.” Phillips invites inquiries about such programs.
Overall, nutrition guidelines for older adults include:
- Increase servings of colorful fruits and vegetables to 3½ to 4½ cups daily
- Eat four servings of low-fat, calcium-rich foods daily (a serving is about 8 ounces of milk or yogurt, 1.5 ounces of cheese, or two cups of cottage cheese)
- Get protein from soy, nuts, legumes (beans, lentils), and whole grains
- Choose cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines
- Eat fresh, whole foods, simply prepared
- Use mainly olive oil and canola oils; avoid saturated and trans-fats
- Eat a variety of foods
- Drink plenty of fluids — seniors are more vulnerable to dehydration
- Get vitamin D daily to help with calcium absorption
Little changes, such as improving your diet in these ways, can help you make the most out of life, says Dr. Hicks.