Quick – take a moment to think about what you’ve eaten today. Was your meal healthy? Did it make you feel full and satisfied?
Healthy eating can be complicated, and it may be hard to find your footing, especially for seniors. But here’s the thing: healthy eating can be simple. It’s not about completely changing all of your habits or going without the foods you love. It’s about making healthy decisions where and when you can!
Let’s take a second to go over what healthy nutrition means for seniors, foods to eat and avoid, and different tips for maintaining a healthy diet.
The importance of senior nutrition and what to look out for
We should all be eating healthily, right? What makes it different for seniors? As you grow older, your metabolism begins to change, slowing down so you don’t need as many calories. It’s important to modify portion sizes to maintain a stable weight.
However, unlike calories, as you age your body starts to need more of specific nutrients like calcium, vitamin C and magnesium. A balanced, healthy diet will help you stay active, energized and prevent a variety of chronic health conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis.
Experts consider these the best foods for seniors
So, what is the healthiest diet for seniors? It really depends on your individual needs, but there are specific foods that can benefit most seniors’ overall health. For instance, calcium-rich foods can help prevent osteoporosis. Heart-healthy foods for seniors include those rich in healthy fats and antioxidants. A diet high in potassium, calcium and magnesium can help seniors struggling with high blood pressure.
It’s all about choosing what works best for you. And while there are tons of different diets out there dedicated to specific health needs, it doesn’t have to be difficult. A good place to start? Talk with your doctor and start substituting healthy, whole foods into your diet like those recommended below.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and veggies pack a healthy punch when it comes to vitamins and antioxidants – think calcium and vitamins D and C. They can also be a great source of healthy carbohydrates and fiber, all things an aging body needs. Here are some of the most nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables to add to your shopping list.
Dark berries like raspberries, blueberries and dark cherries are rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C. They’re also relatively low in natural sugar, something that’s very important to consider when consuming fruit.
Nutrient-dense leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard and arugula are an excellent source of fiber. Leafy greens can also be rich in calcium, vitamins A and K and iron. They’re known to lower your risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.
Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit and tangerines are rich in vitamin C, which may help with immunity, repairing damaged tissue and fighting off infection.
A good source of both protein and fiber, legumes like chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and lentils can help with inflammation. They are rich in potassium, iron and magnesium but without much fat or cholesterol. Legumes make a great substitute for meat if you’re looking to add more protein diversity into your diet.
Protein plays an important role in a healthy diet for seniors. Within the body, it helps build and repair muscle, store energy and regulate many of our internal processes. There are many foods you can introduce into your diet that will give you the protein you need, especially as a senior. Aim for lean meats like wild-caught salmon, eggs, dense vegetables and even nuts and seeds.
What do we mean when we say, “whole grains”? Basically, it just means grains that are unprocessed. These grains keep the healthy natural layers they have during harvest, where processed grains have many of these nutritional layers stripped away. Because of this, whole grain wheat, oats and rice are rich in vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fats. They’re also an excellent source of fiber, which keeps you fuller for much longer. A diet rich in whole grains has been known to help prevent diabetes and heart disease.
It’s estimated that around 10 million Americans over 50 years old suffer from osteoporosis. This condition weakens your bones, making them brittle and increasing the likelihood of fracture. One of the best tools in your arsenal against osteoporosis is calcium. Make sure you maintain a healthy level of dairy intake with foods like milk, plain yogurt and cheese, which can help prevent the calcium deficiency many seniors face.
What foods should seniors avoid?
So now that we’ve covered the best of the best, let’s take a look at some of the most common health offenders. These foods can seriously compromise a happy, healthy future full of playing with the grandkids and enjoying retirement. Not only can they contribute to chronic conditions, but studies also suggest that some of these foods can even cause depression and mental health issues.
Fast food is ultra-processed food, and it is heavy in fat, salt and sugar. That’s why it’s often cited as one of the easiest foods for seniors to taste, because as we age, our number of taste buds starts to decrease. And while the occasional treat is perfectly fine, a diet based around fast food can cause a lot of health issues for seniors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
As you age, alcohol begins to affect the body differently. The tolerance you had when you were younger shifts as your metabolism starts to slow and your lean body mass drops. Not only can alcohol disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure and worsen diabetes, but alcohol impairment can lead to slips and falls – something seniors already struggle with. And even worse, it can also affect the medicines you take.
Most American adults consume way too much salt, and that’s a big problem. Heavy sodium intake can greatly affect your overall health, raising blood pressure and increasing your risk of stroke or heart attack. Some salty foods to avoid include processed snack foods (like chips and nuts), frozen and canned food, salted meats and more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for anyone over the age of 14.
Try these healthy eating tips for seniors
As we mentioned above, healthy eating can seem a little overwhelming, but you don’t have to do everything at once. Even seemingly minor changes to your diet or habits can have a big impact.
Here are some healthy eating tips that may help you get started.
Strive for a balanced diet
Variety is the name of the game in terms of a balanced diet. Your plate should be diverse and colorful as too much of a single thing can lead to health problems. At meals, try to dedicate half of your plate to vegetables, a quarter to whole grains and the remaining quarter to healthy fats and lean proteins.
Modify your portions
Remember, as you age, your body doesn’t need as many calories as it once did. This makes adjusting or downsizing your portions important. Try feeling out smaller portion sizes to see what makes your body feel its best. Smaller portions don’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself or that you should cut out foods that you need. It just means to keep an eye out, eat slower and make smaller plates. If you’re not sure where to start, or you notice yourself gaining or losing weight quickly, it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Make sure to stay hydrated
As you age, the body starts to conserve less water and your appetite and thirst diminish. This may lead to dehydration, resulting in fatigue, headaches, muscle problems or more serious issues. Dehydration (and certain medicines) can also cause dry mouth, which is not only uncomfortable, but increases your risk of oral infection. A good rule of thumb for staying hydrated is drinking a third of your weight in ounces each day. To assist in daily water intake, you can also add more water-rich foods to your diet like watermelon, celery, bell peppers and broccoli.
Plan in advance
It’s easy to make healthier decisions when you’ve planned in advance. Before heading to the market, create a nutrition-focused grocery list to make sure you get the things you need. Once you get your goodies, start preparing some of your healthy snacks in advance. Washing and cutting your produce (if you’re able) and making other healthy snacks more accessible could be the difference between easily grabbing a handful of grapes or grabbing a bag of chips.
Focus on fiber
Each year, 1 in 3 seniors is likely to struggle with constipation. While many factors can contribute, changes in activity levels, an unhealthy diet or medication side effects are common culprits. One of the best things you can do is avoid eating too much dairy, processed foods and caffeine. Incorporating more fiber-rich foods into your diet, like lentils and leafy greens, or even supplements suggested from your doctor, will go a long way.
Pay attention to nutrition labels
Packaged foods are a huge part of the American diet, so it’s unrealistic to recommend completely staying away. However, if you’re grabbing a snack or ingredient with a nutrition label, keep your eyes on the specific nutrients listed in the Daily Value chart. Aim for packaged foods that are low in saturated fats, sodium and added sugars, but high in fiber, vitamin D, calcium and potassium.
Use your Medicare benefits for chronic conditions
Managing and preventing chronic conditions is a multi-pronged approach, and diet plays a critical role, especially for those facing type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline, kidney issues and cardiovascular disease. If you’re a Medicare beneficiary, you don’t have to figure it out all by yourself. For those with diabetes or kidney disease (or who have had a kidney transplant in the last 36 months), Medicare Part B may cover medical nutrition therapy services.
If you’re eligible, you’ll get access to a registered dietician who will assist you with medical nutrition therapy. This includes:
- An initial nutrition and lifestyle assessment
- Individual or group nutritional therapy services
- Guidance on managing lifestyle factors that affect your diabetes
- Follow-up visits to gauge your progress in managing your diet
Nutrition and your Medicare annual wellness visit
Do you have some questions about your diet? Your Medicare annual wellness visit is a great time to ask your provider any questions you may have about nutrition, healthy habits and adjustments to your diet. If you have diabetes, Medicare will cover diabetic care, such as nutrition therapy services, so you can work with a professional to make informed decisions about your health.