It’s common for eating habits to change as we get older. Lifestyle changes may mean that we prepare fewer of our own meals, while health conditions or medications can reduce our appetites or impair our ability to taste or smell food. For all of these reasons and others, seniors may have to adapt their eating habits to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition to meet their evolving needs as they age.
General nutrition guidelines for older adults
- Choose fiber-rich foods (great choices are dark-green vegetables, beans, and lentils). This will help you stay regular, control your weight, and prevent disease.
- Drink water (at least 8 glasses of 8 ounces, every day) to stay hydrated.
- Choose foods rich in important vitamins and minerals to protect your brain, bone, and heart health. B-complex vitamins (B12, B6, and folate / folic acid), calcium, and vitamin D are at the top of the list. More information on these important vitamins and minerals appears below. Daily requirements come from the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations for people over age 50.
Vitamin B12 helps keep your red blood cells and nerves healthy. Good food sources include fish, shellfish, lean meats, and dairy products. B12 also can be supplemented by eating fortified breakfast cereals or taking a doctor-recommended pill (may vary if you use acid reflux medicine). Daily requirements for seniors are about 2.4 micrograms (mcg).
Vitamin B6 is needed to create red blood cells. Good food sources include beans, poultry, fish, dark leafy greens, potatoes, bananas, papayas, oranges, cantaloupe, and fortified cereals. Daily requirements for seniors are 1.7 milligrams (mg) for men, and 1.5 mg for women.
Calcium works with vitamin D to strengthen your bones. Good food sources include dairy products, fish with soft bones like sardines, dark leafy greens, and fortified cereals or juices. Daily requirements are 1200 mg for women over 50; 1000 mg for senior men under 70; and 1200 mg for men over 70 (not to exceed 2000 mg).
Vitamin D is important for bone health and cancer prevention. Vitamin D deficiency is fairly common in older Americans and has been associated with muscle weakness. Some people’s bodies (but not all seniors’) can produce adequate vitamin D with 10-15 minutes of sunlight at least twice a week. Good food sources include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel and fortified foods like milk, cereal, or orange juice. Daily requirements for seniors are 600 international units (IU) up to age 70, and 800 IU over age 70 (not to exceed 4000 IU).
You may have heard of the “Mediterranean Diet,” which involves eating a lot of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fish, fruits and vegetables, and lesser amounts of dairy products and meat. It turns out this is a pretty good rule of thumb for senior nutrition. Seniors should eat healthy (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) fats like olive oil, and avoid saturated and trans fats. These foods are good for your brain and heart health, and may even reduce your risk for cancer and weight-related disability and diseases like type 2 diabetes.
Keep your brain healthy, too.
Although age is the number one risk factor for dementia, nutrition is a key factor. The right dietary choices can support brain function and help keep you mentally sharp. They include:
- Fruits and vegetables: Avocados, cherries and berries (especially dark ones like black cherries, blackberries, and blueberries), and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and dark leafy greens are wonderful sources of nutrition to protect brain function and memory. Beans also are a good source of iron, which benefits learning, memory, and attention.
- Seafood, algae, and fatty fish: Omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential for brain health. They can be found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and herring, or in supplements made from fish oil, seaweed, or microalgae.
- Nuts: Nuts like walnuts contain healthy fats and vitamin E that can help slow cognitive decline as you age. Opt for an ounce per day to reap the benefits without consuming too many calories.
Make it interesting.
If you find you don’t enjoy the smell or taste of food as much as you used to, try enhancing its flavor with herbs and spices (not salt). Many dried varieties are available in table-top shakers that should replace your salt shaker (since too much salt is a cardiovascular health risk). When choosing flavor enhancers, read the ingredient label and avoid those containing salt, sodium, or monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Meals are more enjoyable when shared with others. Seniors should make an effort to take meals in a social environment at least a couple times every week. Sit with others in your residential dining room, senior center, or place of worship. Or invite your friend to join you at a potluck or restaurant.
What about meal replacements and supplements?
Even though there are many meal replacement and dietary supplement products marketed for seniors, please use caution and ask your doctor or nutritionist before use. With some exceptions which depend on your individual needs, whole foods usually are the best sources of good senior nutrition.