For older adults, proper nutrition is especially important for maintaining or improving health and overall well-being. While everyone’s exact dietary needs are different and should be discussed with a healthcare professional, the following nutrition tips are some best practices for everyone – especially seniors.
Eat Less Added Sugar
Simply put, added sugar is bad for you because it contains no essential nutrients – it’s basically empty calories. Plus, it’s bad for teeth, can overload the liver, and excess consumption can be a contributing factor for type II diabetes. For the average senior without specific dietary concerns that consumes 2000 calories per day, the World Health Organization recommends consuming less than 50g of sugar daily.
Seniors looking to cut back on artificial sugar should focus on incorporating more natural sugars into their diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain natural sugar, but also contain fiber, which slows the rate of carbohydrate absorption and digestion to aid in weight loss.
Incorporate Beans, Nuts, & Seeds
There is some evidence showing that a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help reduce the risk of various health concerns like heart disease. Nuts and seeds provide protein and plant-based mono- and polyunsaturated fats. All legumes, beans included, are high in fiber and protein.
All of these foods are packed with vitamins and minerals, which is especially important for seniors because their bodies don’t absorb nutrients as efficiently as younger adults. The American Heart Association recommends 5 servings a week of nuts, seeds, and beans.
Control Portion Sizes
To reach or stay at a healthy weight, how much you eat is almost as important as what you’re eating. The number of calories seniors should consume is based on a variety of factors, including:
- Activity level
Seniors typically have a slower metabolism, which means the body doesn’t digest food and absorb nutrients as quickly. Therefore, most seniors don’t need to eat as much as they did when they were younger. Women over 50 need 1600 – 2000 calories per day, and men over 50 need between 2000 – 2800 calories.
Instead of eating a large portion once or twice a day, it’s better to eat 3-6 smaller meals throughout the day. This keeps you from getting too hungry and splurging on junk food. It also helps speed up the metabolism.
Although salt often gets a bad reputation, everyone needs a certain amount of sodium chloride for the body to function properly. Sodium is crucial for proper nerve function and muscle contraction.
However, too much sodium can lead to or worsen heart disease. As seniors age, the kidneys don’t function as well, making it more difficult for the body to remove excess sodium. That’s why it’s important to most seniors to consume no more than 1500mg of sodium daily, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
To help reduce your sodium intake, remove the salt shaker from the table and avoid these foods in excess:
- Soy sauce
- Processed meats
- Breakfast cereals
- Vegetable juice (ex: V8)
- Canned soups
- Canned vegetables
You’ll also want to avoid pre-packaged frozen meals from the grocery store, which usually contain high amounts of sodium and preservatives.
Eat Calcium-Rich Foods
Getting enough calcium helps prevent osteoporosis, a disease where the bones become weak and brittle. Osteoporosis is especially problematic for seniors prone to falling because it increases the likelihood of a bone break.
As you age, the intestines don’t absorb as efficiently and the kidneys have trouble retaining calcium. For both of those reasons, calcium intake recommendations are higher for older adults. The recommended daily allowance of calcium for people age 70+ is 1200mg per day. As is true for any nutrient, the more you can consume through whole foods as opposed to supplements the better.
Some high calcium foods to incorporate into your diet include:
By the time you’re thirsty you’re probably dehydrated, and the sense of thirst is diminished with age. This means by the time some seniors feel thirsty the body’s fluid levels are already extremely low.
Most older adults need around 64oz of fluid per day, but exact requirements vary based on humidity, activity level, and medical conditions. Carrying a water bottle with you throughout the day can help remind you to drink water, and eating high water content foods like tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and watermelon can also be beneficial.
To be clear, we’re not talking about milkshakes loaded with ice cream and sugar, rather whole food smoothies loaded with fruits and vegetables. Smoothies are great because there’s an endless combination of ingredients you can blend up, and they’re loaded with nutrients.
To turn a smoothie into a meal replacement, try adding a scoop of whey protein powder. You can also add spinach (high in vitamin K) or kale (high in calcium) to most smoothie recipes and you’ll barely notice the taste. Finally, superfoods like chia seeds and flax meal add much-needed fiber.
At Chefs For Seniors, one of our favorite smoothie recipes is spinach, banana, peanut butter, whey protein, and almond milk. We call it the Green Elvis Smoothie!
Skipping a meal, especially breakfast, isn’t a good idea for seniors (or anyone for that matter). A balanced breakfast can help regulate the metabolism and gives the older adults the energy they need to get through the day. For diabetics, it’s especially important to eat breakfast because skipping a meal early in the day can throw blood sugar levels out of whack.
For some healthy breakfast ideas, try oatmeal with berries, a nutrient-packed smoothie, or a frittata with seasonal vegetables.
Eat More Protein
Getting enough protein is important for muscle building, maintaining a healthy immune system, and cell repair. Most seniors should aim for 2-3 servings of high-protein foods each day, which amounts to roughly 50-55g.
Lean meats like fish, chicken, and pork provide ~20g of protein per 3-oz serving. Eggs provide ~6g of protein per serving. For seniors trying to eat less meat or follow a vegetarian diet, focus on eating a variety of nuts, seeds, and beans. You can also supplement your protein intake with a whey protein shake.
Ask Your Healthcare Provider For Advice
Finally, ask your doctor or dietitian about your specific dietary needs, what foods to avoid, and foods to emphasize. Many healthcare providers can give you recipes and even offer classes for people wanting to improve their diet.
Here are some questions you can ask your healthcare provider regarding your diet:
- Do any of my medications interact with certain foods or affect my appetite?
- I’m not very hungry during the day, is that normal for someone my age?
- Should I be taking any supplements?
- Should I cut back on salt?
- If I start eating properly, would it be possible to cut back on some of my medications?
- Do you offer any nutrition classes?
What If You Don’t Like Cooking
It’s tough to follow a healthy diet if you’re eating out all the time because restaurants tend to load up meals with fats, sugars, and salt (that’s why they taste so good). And frozen meals from the grocery store are typically loaded with salt and other preservatives, plus the taste can leave something to be desired.
So what to do if you want to eat healthy but are tired of cooking? One exciting new options for seniors is to hire a personal chef, that can prepare affordable, homemade meals that meet your dietary needs.