There’s no question about it: Our bodies change as we age. In turn, seniors have very different nutritional needs than teenagers, children, and even middle-aged adults.
Age-related changes can affect how your body processes food, which influences your dietary needs and affects your appetite. These are some of the changes:
- Your metabolism slows down. This happens naturally, but it becomes more pronounced if you don’t get as much exercise as you should. When your metabolism slows, your body doesn’t burn as many calories, which means you need to eat less to stay at a healthy weight. As a result, the foods you eat should be as nutrient-rich as possible. Most women with average activity levels need about 1,800 calories per day. Men with an average activity level need about 2,300 calories each day. You’ll need fewer calories if you’re sedentary, more if you are very active.
- Your digestive system changes. Your body produces less of the fluids that it needs to process food in your digestive system when you get older. These changes can make it harder for your body to absorb important nutrients like folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12.
- Your appetite may change. Many seniors take one or more medications for health conditions; these can cause side effects such as a lack of appetite or stomach upset, which can lead to poor nutrition.
- Your emotional health may be affected. Seniors who feel depressed or lonely often lose interest in eating. On the other hand, emotional issues may cause some people to eat more and gain unwanted pounds.
Healthy Eating Plans for Seniors
A healthy diet packed with vital nutrients can help ward off potential health problems that are common in senior citizens, like constipation, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Nutritious foods will also help you maintain a healthy weight and can work wonders for your energy level.
Even if you’ve never followed a nutrition-based diet before, healthy eating isn’t difficult. The National Institute on Aging suggests two options for seniors:
The USDA Food Guide MyPlate Plan. This plan offers tips for building a healthy, balanced diet, including:
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Make at least half your grains whole grains.
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.
The DASH Diet. The DASH eating plan includes all the key food groups, but is designed to help reduce blood pressure and emphasizes foods that are heart healthy. These are recommended daily serving amounts:
- Grains: 7 to 8 ounces
- Meat and beans: 6 ounces or less of chicken, meat, and fish plus 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds, and/or dried beans per week
- Milk: 2 to 3 cups
- Vegetables: 2 to 2.5 cups
- Fruit: 2 to 2.5 cups
- Oils: 2 teaspoons
Tips to Boost Your Nutritional Health
As you make food choices to improve your nutrition, keep these tips in mind:
- Stick to healthy fats. Choose healthy fats found in seeds, nuts, avocados, fatty fish, and vegetable oils rather than saturated fats and trans fats.
- Drink up. Water, of course. To stay hydrated, drink a lot of water and non-caffeinated beverages and eat foods with high water content (like soups, cucumbers, grapes, and melons) unless instructed otherwise by your doctor.
- Opt for whole grains. These fiber- and nutrient-rich foods will help your digestion and protect your heart. Choose brown rice, whole grain cereals, and whole wheat bread instead of white bread and refined grains.
- “Rough up” your diet. Include a variety of high-fiber foods every day, such as raw fruits and vegetables and whole grains. These foods help cut down on constipation; provide the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and nutrients that you need for healthy aging; help maintain your weight; and reduce your risk of heart problems. If you’re not sure you’re getting enough fiber, talk to your doctor about supplements.
- Pack in protein. Power your body with lean proteins like beans, eggs, chicken and fish, lean meats, and nuts.
- Remember that calcium is critical. Everyone needs calcium to protect bone health, but seniors should really bone up on calcium-rich foods like low-fat dairy products. A calcium supplement, usually paired with vitamin D — its partner in bone building — can also help you get what you need.
- Shop for B12. As an older adult, you should also look for foods, like cereals, that are fortified with vitamin B12. Because of the body’s decreased ability to absorb B12, getting more through diet and supplements will ensure that you meet your requirements.
Now that you know what to do, you can make the necessary changes to your diet and a real commitment to your senior health. It’s fine to start gradually: Exchanging junk foods for healthier options is a good first step. But try to make changes every day that will bring you closer to your goal of a healthy diet and a healthy life.