Seniors’ Guide to Healthy Eating

Seniors' Guide to Healthy Eating

Seniors face unique and varied nutritional challenges:

  • Older adults need fewer calories while needing more vitamins and minerals.
  • Poor nutrition can speed up the loss of bone density and muscle mass, which are already a part of aging.
  • Depression or loneliness are likely, especially after the loss of a spouse. For widowers (and some widows), a lack of comfort in the kitchen can lead to choosing foods that are more convenient, but lacking nutritionally.

Barbara Spencer, a Virtua registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition for older adults, offers these helpful tips for seniors, their families, and caregivers.

Variety and moderation

Seniors need more fruits and vegetables in their diet than they did in younger years. Women are especially prone to bone loss and should get extra calcium and vitamin D from low-fat milk products. Also, B12 is not as easily metabolized as you get older. Supplements can help, but the best source comes from foods with fortified grains. When it comes to food, think fresh and colorful – that’s where the nutrients are.

Maintain a schedule

Issues such as living on a fixed income and limited mobility can make it harder to go grocery shopping, and these life changes can bring isolation. This can lead seniors to skip meals, overeat or make poor food choices. Keeping an active and regular schedule can help older adults maintain healthier eating habits. There are also programs through churches or community organizations like Meals on Wheels that provide hot meals, or freshly made meals that they can reheat during the week.

Chew it over

Losing teeth or replacing lost teeth with dentures can make seniors shy away from eating meat or foods that are harder to chew, and look to sugary liquid calories. This makes it harder to get needed fiber, protein and nutrients. Try shifting from grilled meat to ground, or try crock pot recipes that produce slow-cooked tender meats.

Senses and sensitivity

Older adults have a lower ability to fight off infections that makes them susceptible to food-borne illnesses. Since diminished senses and lapses in memory can be common, it can affect their awareness of when food has spoiled. Seniors should be careful not to leave food out at room temperature, and also need to clearly label foods to make sure that they’re used in a timely fashion. Older adults also have a diminished sense of thirst, so they need to be aware to drink more during the day. It helps to keep a supply of fresh juices, coffee and tea and, of course, to encourage drinking water.

Savor the flavor

Seniors are often on low-sodium, low-sugar or fat-restricted diets (read: low-flavor diets). When food is bland, it can be less appealing. Look for ways to reinvigorate and add flavor to meals with herbs, spices, lemon juice or flavored vinegars.  

Make it an occasion

Remember that food is social. If you have older adults in your life, create opportunities for them to spend mealtime with family and friends. Set a good example by bringing healthy foods and not just sugary snacks.

Related Resources

Looking for more recommendations? Visit ChooseMyPlate.gov and the NIH guide for senior nutrition.

Updated February 15, 2017

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