As we get older, our bodies undergo various changes. That means some of our eating habits need to change to stay healthy.
According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), “As you grow older, your metabolism slows down, so you need fewer calories than you did before. Your body also needs more of certain nutrients. That means it’s more important than ever to choose foods that give you the best nutritional value.”
Seniors generally have higher rates of heart disease, cancer, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure than younger populations, so nutrition becomes more of a focus. Also, as they age, many people become heavier, so watching calories and trying to maintain a healthy weight is important. Others may develop a poor appetite and become at risk of being malnourished. If you have a chronic medical condition, ask your health care provider if there is a specific diet you should follow.
Foods have different effects on the body. For example, too much sodium (found in many processed foods) and too little potassium (found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy) contribute to hypertension and heart disease. Too much phosphorus (particularly in processed foods) or not enough calcium (found in dairy, soy products, and some fish) or magnesium (found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vegetables) adversely affects bone rebuilding, which may contribute to osteoporosis.
Eating right can make you feel better, boost your energy levels, and help prevent diseases associated with aging — or slow down their progression. A general rule of thumb is to include a lot of plant-based foods and have a daily intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Use healthy fats such as olive and canola oil instead of butter, and cut back on sugar.
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be pricey. You can reduce costs if you can make your own meals with whole foods rather than buying premade ones. Consider getting healthy choices such as nuts, oatmeal, bran, and whole wheat flour and pasta at bulk food stores where they are often cheaper.
Avoid fast food, which is often pricier, calorie-rich, salty, or made with unhealthy oils. Also, many seniors may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which can help you afford healthy foods.
- Eat a variety of foods in each meal so that you get the nutrients you need. Meals should consist of:
- Protein (lean meats, seafood, eggs, beans). Some heart-healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, recommend limiting red meat to only once a week but having fish or poultry at least twice a week.
- Fruits and vegetables are low-calorie and a good source of fiber. Varying the vegetables you eat daily is even better, as this gives you a wider mix of nutrients.
- Whole grains (examples are whole wheat bread, brown rice).
- Low-fat dairy (such as low-fat milk or low-fat yogurt).
- Choose high-fiber foods. Examples include beans (such as red beans, peas, and baked beans), barley, cornmeal, bran, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and many kinds of fruit. Foods with fiber have a variety of benefits. Some types of fiber help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Others help move material through your digestive system, improve colon health, and reduce constipation.
- Read ingredient labels. Check calories, sodium levels, sugars, and types of fats.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Avoid fruit juices and sodas that have sugar (including fructose or glucose) added to them.
- Avoid foods with “empty calories.” These are foods that are high in calories but offer few nutrients. Examples are cookies, chips, soda, and alcohol.
- Spice things up. If food becomes less interesting to eat because things taste bland, it may be because your sense of taste and smell have decreased. Try spicing things up with a bit more pepper, garlic, herbs, or other spices.
- Match calories with your age and weight. Take your activity level into account.
- Eat with others. Eating can be a chore if you spend a lot of time alone. Try to get out a couple of times a week, or have someone over and enjoy a meal together.
- Check with your health care provider to see if there are any additional supplements or vitamins you need.