A Well-Balanced Diet
Eating a well-balanced diet is an important part of staying healthy as you age. It can help you maintain a healthy weight, stay energized, and get the nutrients you need. It also lowers your risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
According to the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Aging, 1 in 4 older Americans has poor nutrition. Malnutrition puts you at risk of becoming overweight or underweight. It can weaken your muscles and bones. It also leaves you vulnerable to disease.
To meet your nutritional needs, eat foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Limit foods that are high in processed sugars, saturated and trans fats, and salt. You may also have to adjust your diet to manage chronic health conditions.
How Do Your Needs and Habits Change with Age?
As you get older, your nutritional needs, appetite, and food habits can change in several ways.
You’ll probably need fewer calories as you age to maintain a healthy weight. Eating more calories than you burn leads to weight gain.
You may find you have less energy and more muscle or joint problems as you get older. As a result, you may become less mobile and burn fewer calories through physical activity. You may also lose muscle mass. This causes your metabolism to slow down, lowering your caloric needs.
Many people experience a loss of appetite with age. It’s also common for your sense of taste and smell to diminish. This can lead you to eat less.
If you’re burning fewer calories through physical activity, eating less may not be a problem. However, you need to get enough calories and nutrients to maintain healthy organs, muscles, and bones. Not getting enough can lead to malnutrition and health problems.
As you age, you become more susceptible to chronic health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and osteoporosis. To help prevent or treat these conditions, your doctor may recommend changes to your diet.
For example, if you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, you should eat foods that are rich in nutrients, but low in excess calories, processed sugars, and saturated and trans fats. Your doctor may also advise you to eat less sodium.
Some older adults become sensitive to foods such as onions, peppers, dairy products, and spicy foods. You may need to cut some of these foods out of your diet.
You may need to take medications to manage chronic health conditions. Some medications can affect your appetite. Some can also interact with certain foods and nutritional supplements.
For example, if you’re taking warfarin (Coumadin), you need to avoid grapefruit. It decreases your body’s ability to metabolize the drug. You also need to maintain a steady level of vitamin K in your diet. You can get vitamin K from eating plenty of spinach, kale, or other leafy greens.
If you’re taking a medication, be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out whether you need to make any changes to your diet.
Seniors have their own set of oral health concerns. Some of these can interfere with your ability to eat. For example, dentures that don’t fit properly may lead to poor eating habits and malnutrition. Infections in your mouth can also cause problems.
Your immune system weakens with age. This raises your risk of food-borne illness, or food poisoning.
Proper food safety techniques are important at every age. However, you may need to take extra precautions as your immune system weakens. For example, your doctor may recommend avoiding foods with raw eggs, such as homemade mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing.
Losing a spouse or other family members can impact your daily habits, including your eating patterns. You may feel depressed, which can lead to lower appetite. If your family member did most of the cooking, you might not know how to prepare food for yourself. Some people simply choose not to eat, rather than cook a meal for themselves.
If you’re finding it difficult to prepare food for yourself, talk to a family member, trusted friend, or your doctor. Depending on your area, there may be services available to help make sure you’re getting the food you need. For example, Meals on Wheels is available across the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries.
Focus on Nutrient-Rich Foods
As you age, your caloric needs will probably decrease, while your nutrient needs stay the same or increase. Eating nutrient-rich foods will help you get the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats you need.
Get most of your calories from nutrient-dense foods, such as:
- vegetables and fruits
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy
- lean protein
Limit foods that are high in calories, but low in nutrients. For example, save deep-fried foods, desserts, and sweetened beverages for the occasional treat. Your doctor may recommend avoiding junk food altogether.