As your body ages, its dietary needs change. In your older years, your activity levels may go down, and your metabolism will slow. This means you won’t need as many calories as you did when you were young and active. Learning to eat well for your age can help stave off a number of health conditions, helping you to save both time and money normally spent on trips to the doctor.
If you have any chronic conditions common with aging, such as heart disease or diabetes, what you eat becomes even more important. At RetailMeNot, we want you to enjoy a healthy, active adulthood, and so we have created this guide to healthy nutrition for the aging and elderly.
Focus on Nutrients
The key to healthy nutrition is a focus on nutrients, rather than simply counting calories or eating whatever you feel like eating. Because you need fewer calories as an older adult, you need to make sure those calories count!
The American Heart Association warns that many people are not getting the nutrients they need to be healthy. In order to get the right nutrients, choose foods that include:
Some foods are best for everyone to limit but especially older adults. Specifically, watch out for:
Sugars and starches – Sugars and starches can make problems with blood sugar, such as diabetes, even more difficult to manage. They also include empty calories that can contribute to weight gain.
Sodium – Sodium, also known as salt, is a necessary nutrient, but most people get too much of it in their diets. Sodium can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, so try to limit your sodium intake.
Saturated fats – Some fats are good, but saturated fats are not.
Another way to look at nutrients is to look for the right balance of macronutrients. Macronutrients are the carbohydrates; fats and cholesterol; fiber; and protein and amino acids that are found in all foods. Here are some guidelines about how many of these macronutrients you need:
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide energy to the body, so cutting carbs completely is not a good idea. In fact, even for older adults, 45-65 percent of the daily diet should be carbs. Complex carbs, such as those found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are better than simple carbs found in sugars.
Fats and Cholesterol – Fats are necessary for the body to absorb specific vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat also helps keep the body’s temperature stable and insulates the internal organs. Aim for monounsaturated, omega-3s and polyunsaturated fats to make up around 10 percent of your diet.
Protein and Amino Acids – Protein typically comes from meat, and many times older adults do not get enough protein because of their lowered appetites. Protein can help keep the muscles lean and strong, even as you age. Aim for 25 to 30 grams of protein in each meal you consume.
Dietary Fiber – Dietary fiber helps keep the bowels regular and improves hydration. It also assist the body in absorbing nutrients from food and can reduce the appetite for those who are overweight. Fiber comes from whole grains, fibrous fruits and vegetables. Women over the age of 50 need around 14 grams of fiber a day, while men need around 18 grams.
As you focus on nutrients, one of the easiest ways to ensure you are getting enough of the right foods is to pay attention to these macronutrients.
Identifying a Healthy Plate
Have you learned about the food pyramid? This tried and true method of teaching healthy eating has undergone a makeover. Today, dieticians recommend following a plan known as the “MyPlate” plan.
MyPlate provides an easy visualization of how much food you should be eating. If you picture a round dinner plate divided into two halves, one of the halves will be split between protein and grains, with a little bit heavier emphasis on grains. The other half will be split between fruits and vegetables, with a heavier emphasis on vegetables. To the side, you will have a small cup for dairy. A healthy plate is one that matches the ratios on the MyPlate plan. For the elderly, the “plate” may be a little smaller, but the ratios are the same.
Another way to spot a healthy plate is to look for a full rainbow of colors. If you are eating red, orange, green, purple and red foods at every meal, you are bound to get the right balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains in your daily diet.
Why does eating a rainbow work? Typically speaking, the color of the food indicates the nutrients it contains. For example:
Yellow and orange produce has vitamins C and A.
Green produce has vitamins K, B and E.
Purple produce has vitamins C and K.
If you are eating the rainbow, you will have a higher level of these vitamins in your daily life.
For older adults who have been diagnosed with heart disease or who are at risk for heart related conditions, a specific diet known as the DASH eating plan (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) can be valuable. This plan emphasizes whole foods, fat-free or low-fat dairy, poultry and seafood. It limits sodium and sugar intake and also limits caloric intake based on the individual’s activity level.
Learn to Read Labels
The healthiest foods you can eat are whole, unprocessed foods, regardless of your age. In a perfect nutrition world, you would cook everything from scratch, so you would know exactly what ingredients are in your foods. However, we live in a world laden with prepackaged foods. Unfortunately, these foods are often full of sodium and saturated fats, two things that older adults should be avoiding. The key to making the right food choices, even when eating prepackaged foods, is to learn to read food labels.
Foods are all labeled with some sort of sell by or freshness date. As an older adult, it’s important that you avoid foods that could be spoiled, as your body is going to have a harder time fighting off infection if you get sick. These dates can be confusing, though, because food that is “past its date” is not necessarily spoiled, depending on the type of date. Here are the common terms to know:
Sell by – This is the date by which a store needs to sell the food. Buy the food before this date, and try to consume it within a day or two of this date.
Use by – This date shows the food’s optimal quality time. If you use a food after this date, it may not be safe to eat. If you want to buy food that you cannot use by this date, freeze it until you are ready to use it.
Best if used by – This date is not a safety date, but indicates the date the food is going to taste the best.
These dates can be confusing. To avoid unwanted sickness, err on the side of avoiding a food you think may be too far past its date.
When reading the nutrition portion of food labels, look first at the serving size. Sometimes food manufacturers will list a serving size that is much smaller than what an average individual will consume. For example, a bottle of soda may have a “serving size” that is less than half of the bottle, when most people will consume the entire bottle. Be sure you understand the serving size as you count your nutrients.
As you read food labels, look for foods that are:
Low in fat
Low in added sugars
Low in sodium
High in fiber
On the right hand side of the label you will see a percent listed next to each nutrient. This is the Daily Value for a 2,000 calorie diet. Typically speaking, if the food lists a Daily Value of 5 percent or less, it is considered to be “low” in that particular nutrient. If the Daily Value is 20 percent or higher, the food is “high” in that nutrient. Even if you are eating less than a 2,000 calorie diet, this general guideline from the National Institute on Aging can help you determine whether or not a food is “low sodium” or “high fiber.”
If you are avoiding certain ingredients due to health conditions or your own personal nutrition goals, the ingredients list can be a valuable source of information. In processed foods, the ingredients are listed from the largest to the smallest. So, if you are limiting sugar, and sugar or high fructose corn syrup are listed as one of the first ingredients, that food is probably not a good choice for your diet.
Don’t Forget the Water
Dehydration is a very serious concern for the elderly population. Because of this, a discussion on nutrition would not be complete without a look at the amount of water you need to drink to remain healthy.
Stating the amount of water an individual needs is not easy because daily water intake needs depend on the amount of fluid lost in normal living and the amount of water in the foods you eat. Elderly individuals who are on medications that serve as diuretics or laxatives, for instance, are going to need an increased amount of water than those who are not. That said, the total fluid intake for elderly men should be around 3.7 liters a day, and elderly women need around 2.5 liters a day.
Does this sound like a lot of water to you? For most people, this is much more than they typically drink. Studies have found that people drink less and less as they age, though the reason is not known, and dehydration is a common reason for hospitalization among the aging population. The USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion estimates that one out of every three Americans over the age of 60 is not getting enough water from all sources of fluids. If you want to have a healthy body as you age, you need to ensure that you are getting adequate amounts of water.
Increasing your water intake is not as easy as it may sound, especially if you are not in the habit of drinking enough water. Here are some practical tips you can use to increase your water intake:
Carry a bottle of water with you to sip on when you are away from home. Use a refillable bottle to save money and waste.
Start each meal with water.
Begin and end the day with water.
Track your water intake to see how you are doing.
Infuse your water with fruit or calorie-free flavorings to entice you to drink more.
Choose water when eating out.
Use Supplements to Help
Supplements can help support your healthy dietary goals. While your nutrients should come from foods whenever possible, sometimes it’s simply not possible to consume enough food to meet all of your dietary goals, and sometimes the elderly have trouble absorbing nutrients found in foods naturally. Here are some recommended dietary supplements that can help meet the nutritional needs of older adults.
Vitamin B12 – You need 2.4 micrograms of this diet each day, and about one-third of the elderly population is unable to absorb this vitamin naturally from food.
Calcium – Older people need between 1200 and 2500 mg or calcium a day to avoid bone loss and fractures.
Vitamin D – Vitamin D comes from the sun, and those over the age of 50 need at least 400 IU of Vitamin D a day.
Iron – Aim for 8 mg of iron a day.
Vitamin B6 – Men need 1.7 milligrams and women need 1.5 milligrams of vitamin B6 every day.
If you are considering taking herbal medications or treatments, talk to your doctor. Although these can be healthy and beneficial, they can also have dangerous side effects or interactions with your medications, so it’s always best to get medical advice before starting a supplement.
Tips for Dining Out
As an older adult, dining out affordably is one of the privileges that come with the territory. Not only do you get to avoid cooking, but you can also get a senior discount at many of your favorite restaurants. However, sodium and fat are a common ingredient in restaurant food, so it can be hard to stick to your healthy eating goals when you dine out. In order to enjoy your favorite restaurant fare, without sacrificing your healthy eating goals, here are some practical tips you can take with you the next time you eat out.
Choose sides wisely. Opt for the fresh fruit or veggies instead of the starchy potatoes.
Ask for low salt. Many restaurants will add salt to food, and you can request less salt to be added. Remember, you can always add some at the table if you need to.
Request a box at the beginning. Many restaurants serve huge portions, and you can box up half of your meal before you start eating. This gives you two meals for the price of one, and you won’t be tempted to overeat.
Plan your restaurant choice. Check menus before you leave to see what restaurants have foods that work with your dietary needs.
Avoid fried foods. Fried foods can be difficult to digest and are high in saturated fat and sodium, so choose grilled options instead.
Eat slowly. The brain will not register the fact that you are full if you eat your food quickly. Savor the experience!
Skip the bread basket, which adds simple carbs and calories to your meal.
Ask questions about how the food is prepared to ensure it works for your body and nutrition needs.
Eat out for breakfast or lunch, not dinner. You will be consuming more calories earlier in the day, so you have time to burn them off, and you will have time to avoid digestive discomfort from the food.
Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget
One of the more challenging parts of learning to eat healthier is managing the costs of healthy eating. Unfortunately, healthy food options often cost much more than less-healthy choices, and if you are living on a fixed income, this can make eating well difficult. So how can you maintain a healthy diet while working within the limits of your income as an older adult? Here are some practical tips:
Choose whole food options first. Cooking from scratch almost always costs less than buying a boxed mix.
Shop sales. Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t have to be costly, if you stock up on what is on sale.
Only buy what you will eat. Food you throw away is wasted money, even if the food was healthy.
Read the price tag to see how much the unit price is. Choose the item with a lower unit price, as long as you can consume the food before it spoils.
Plan healthy meals around the foods that are on sale so you can save.
Use beans and whole grains to make foods more filling without sacrificing nutritional quality.
Avoid fancy “health foods” in favor of foods from the fresh produce aisle.
Invest in a quality blender to make smoothies, which pack a powerful
nutritional punch at a lower cost.
As you age, your nutritional needs may change, but the main facts of healthy eating, such as avoiding processed foods and stocking up on fruits and veggies, do not. With these tips, you can ensure you are getting the best possible nutrition to support a healthy body as you get older.