Healthy Eating 55+

The joy of eating well and aging well

For adults 55+, the benefits of healthy eating include increased mental acuteness, resistance to illness and disease, higher energy levels, faster recuperation times, and better management of chronic health problems. As we age, eating well can also be the key to a positive outlook and staying emotionally balanced.

Fortunately, healthy eating at any age doesn’t have to be about dieting and sacrifice. Eating well as an older adult is a lifestyle that embraces fresh, colorful food, creativity in the kitchen, and eating with friends. You are the boss when it comes to food choices and by making healthy choices you can supercharge your life and experience the joy of eating well and aging well.

Remember the old adage, you are what you eat? Make it your motto. When you choose a variety of colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins you’ll feel simply marvelous inside and out.

  • Live longer and stronger – Good nutrition keeps muscles, bones, organs, and other body parts strong for the long haul. Eating vitamin-rich food boosts immunity and fights illness-causing toxins. A proper diet reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, bone loss, cancer, and anemia. Also, eating sensibly means consuming fewer calories and more nutrient-dense foods, keeping weight in check.
  • Sharpen the mind – Key nutrients are essential for the brain to do its job. People who eat a selection of brightly colored fruit, leafy veggies, and fish and nuts packed with omega-3 fatty acids can improve focus and decrease their risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Feel better – Wholesome meals give you more energy and help you look better, resulting in a self-esteem boost. It’s all connected—when your body feels good you feel happier inside and out.

55+ Nutrition: What your body needs

Older adults can feel better immediately and stay healthy for the future by choosing healthy foods. A balanced diet and physical activity contribute to a higher quality of life and enhanced independence as you age.

55+ Food pyramid guidelines

Fruit – Focus on whole fruits rather than juices for more fiber and vitamins and aim for around 1 ½ to 2 servings each day. Break the apple and banana rut and go for color-rich pickings like berries or melons.

Veggies – Color is your credo in this category. Choose anti-oxidant rich dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli as well as oranges and yellows, such as carrots, squash, and yams. Try for 2 to 2 ½ cups of veggies every day.

Calcium – Aging bone health depends on adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. Adults 55+ need 1,200 mg of calcium a day through servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese. Non-dairy sources include tofu, broccoli, almonds, and kale.

Grains – Be smart with your carbs and choose whole grains over processed white flour for more nutrients and a higher fiber count. If you’re not sure, look for pasta, breads, and cereals that list “whole” in the ingredient list. Adults 55+ need 6-7 ounces of grains each day (one ounce is about 1 slice of bread).

Protein – Adults 55+ need about .5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Simply divide your bodyweight in half to know how many grams you need. A 130-pound woman will need around 65 grams of protein a day. A serving of tuna, for example, has about 40 grams of protein. Vary your sources with more fish, beans, peas, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, and seeds.

Important vitamin and minerals

Water – Adults 55+ are prone to dehydration because our bodies lose some of its ability to regulate fluid levels and our sense of thirst is dulled as we age. Post a note in your kitchen reminding you to sip water every hour and with meals to avoid urinary tract infections, constipation, and possibly confusion.

Vitamin B – After 50, your stomach produces less gastric acid making it difficult to absorb vitamin B-12—needed to help keep blood and nerves vital. Get the recommended daily intake (2.4 mcg) of B12 from fortified foods or a vitamin supplement.

Vitamin D – We get most of our vitamin D intake—essential to absorbing calcium—through sun exposure and certain foods (fatty fish, egg yolk, and fortified milk). With age, our skin is less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D, so consult your doctor about supplementing with fortified foods or a multivitamin.

Changing dietary needs and physical changes

Every season of life brings changes and adjustments to your body. Understanding what is happening will help you take control of your nutrition requirements.

  • Metabolism. Every year over the age of forty, our metabolism slows. This means that even if you continue to eat the same amount as when you were younger, you’re likely to gain weight because you’re burning fewer calories. In addition, you may be less physically active. Consult your doctor to decide if you should cut back on calories.
  • Weakened senses. Your taste and smell senses diminish with age. Adults 55+ tend to lose sensitivity to salty and bitter tastes first, so you may be inclined to salt your food more heavily than before—even though older adults need less salt than younger people. Use herbs and healthy oils—like olive oil—to season food instead of salt. Similarly, older adults tend to retain the ability to distinguish sweet tastes the longest, leading some to overindulge in sugary foods and snacks. Instead of adding sugar, try increasing sweetness to meals by using naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or yams.
  • Digestion. Due to a slowing digestive system, you generate less saliva and stomach acid as you get older, making it more difficult for your body to process certain vitamins and minerals, such as B12, B6 and folic acid, which are necessary to maintain mental alertness, a keen memory and good circulation. Up your fiber intake and talk to your doctor about possible supplements.
  • Medicines and Illnesses. Prescription medications and illnesses can often negatively influence appetite and may also affect taste, again leading older adults to add too much salt or sugar to their food. Ask your doctor about overcoming side effects of medications or specific physical conditions.

Tips for creating a well-balanced diet

Thinking of trading a tired eating regime for a nutrient-dense menu? Good for you! It’s easy and delicious.

Avoid skipping meals – This causes your metabolism to slow down, which leads to feeling sluggish and poorer choices later in the day.

Breakfast – Select high fiber breads and cereals, colorful fruit, and protein to fill you with energy for the day. Try yogurt with muesli and berries, a veggie-packed omelet, peanut-butter on whole grain toast with a citrus salad, or old-fashioned oatmeal made with dried cherries, walnuts, and honey.

Lunch – Keep your body fueled for the afternoon with a variety of whole-grain breads, lean protein, and fiber. Try a veggie quesadilla on a whole-wheat tortilla, veggie stew with whole-wheat noodles, or a quinoa salad with roasted peppers and mozzarella cheese.

Dinner – End the day on a wholesome note. Try warm salads of roasted veggies and a side of crusty brown bread and cheese, grilled salmon with spicy salsa, or whole-wheat pasta with asparagus and shrimp. Opt for sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes and grilled meat instead of fried.

Snacks – It’s okay, even recommended, to snack. But make sure you make it count by choosing high-fiber snacks to healthfully tide you over to your next meal. Choose almonds and raisins instead of chips, and fruit instead of sweets. Other smart snacks include yogurt, cottage cheese, apples and peanut butter, and veggies and hummus.

Source: HELPGUIDE.ORG in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications
Authors: Sarah Kovatch, M.F.A. and Gina Kemp, M.A.