Helpguide Logo

Eating Well as You Age

Nutrition and Diet Tips for Healthy Eating as You Age

Eating Well as You Age In This Article

For adults over 50, 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. But healthy eating doesn’t have to be about dieting and sacrifice. Whatever your age, eating well should be all about fresh, colorful food, creativity in the kitchen, and eating with friends.

Healthy eating as you age: Feeding your body, mind and soul

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 vibrant and healthy, 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.Regular consumption of antioxidant-rich green tea may also enhance memory and mental alertness as you age.
  • 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.

How many calories do adults over 50 need?

Use the following as a guideline:

A woman over 50 who is:

  • Not physically active needs about 1600 calories a day
  • Somewhat physically active needs about 1800 calories a day
  • Very active needs about 2000 calories a day

A man over 50 who is:

  • Not physically active needs about 2000 calories a day
  • Somewhat physically active needs about 2200-2400 calories a day
  • Very active needs about 2400-2800 calories a day

Source: National Institute of Aging

Of course, balanced nutrition is more than calorie counting. There are many other aspects to creating a nutritious lifestyle.

Healthy eating as you age: Choosing healthy foods

Adults over 50 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.

Food your body needs as you age

Fruit – Focus on whole fruits rather than juices for more fiber and vitamins and aim for 1½ to 2 servings or more 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 antioxidant-rich dark, leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli as well as orange and yellow vegetables, such as carrots, squash, and yams. Try for 2 to 2½ cups of veggies every day.

Calcium – Maintaining bone health as you age depends on adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. Older adults 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 more fiber. If you’re not sure, look for pasta, breads, and cereals that list “whole” in the ingredient list. Older adults need 6-7 ounces of grains each day (one ounce is about 1 slice of whole grain bread).

Protein – Adults over 50 without kidney disease or diabetes need about 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of bodyweight. This translates to 68 to 102g of high-quality protein per day for a person weighing 150 lbs. (0.5 g of protein per lb. of body weight is close enough). Try to divide your protein intake equally among meals. It’s important to vary your sources of protein instead of relying on red meat, including more fish, beans, peas, eggs, nuts, seeds, and low-fat milk and cheese in your diet.

Getting more high-quality protein in your diet

As you age, eating sufficient high-quality protein can improve your mood, boost your resistance to stress, anxiety, and depression, and even help you think clearly. It may also help you maintain physical function and reduce muscle loss, especially if accompanied by strength training at least twice a week. However, eating too much low-quality protein from red meat and processed meat products, such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami, can increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, or other diseases.

To include more high-quality protein in your diet, try replacing red meat and processed meat with fish, skinless chicken and turkey, low-fat dairy, and plant-based protein sources. Replacing the red meat you eat with high-quality protein for just a few meals a week could have a real beneficial impact on your overall health.

  • Try a “meatless Monday” each week—plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat, so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health.
  • Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates you consume—from foods such as pastries, cakes, pizza, cookies and chips—and replace them with fish, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu, chicken, low-fat dairy, and soy products.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips, replace a baked dessert with Greek yogurt, or swap out slices of pizza for a grilled chicken breast and a side of beans.
  • Add beans and peas to salads, soups, and stews to boost your protein intake.

Important vitamin and minerals

Water – As we age, some of us are prone to dehydration because our bodies lose some of the ability to regulate fluid levels and our sense of thirst is may not be as sharp. Post a note in your kitchen reminding you to sip water every hour and with meals to avoid urinary tract infections, constipation, and even 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 and boosting muscles—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 your diet with fortified foods or a multivitamin, especially if you’re obese or have limited sun exposure.

Healthy eating as you age: Eating more fiber

Eating foods high in dietary fiber can do so much more than keep you regular. It can lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improve the health of your skin, help you lose weight, and boost your immune system and overall health. As you age, your digestion becomes less efficient, so it’s important to include enough fiber in your diet. Women over 50 should aim to eat at least 21 grams of fiber per day, men over 50 at least 30 grams a day. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t getting even half those amounts.

  • In general, the more natural and unprocessed the food, the higher it is in fiber.
  • Good sources of fiber include whole grains, wheat cereals, barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts, vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes, and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits, and pears—further reason to add more fruit and vegetables to your diet.
  • An easy way to add more fiber to your diet is to start your day with a high-fiber, whole grain cereal. Simply switching your breakfast cereal from Corn Flakes to Bran Flakes can add about 6 extra grams of fiber to your diet. If you’re not a fan of high-fiber cereals, try adding a couple of tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran and fresh or dried fruit to your favorite cereal.
  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juice. You’ll get more fiber and consume fewer calories. An 8 oz. glass of orange juice, for example, contains almost no fiber and about 110 calories, while one medium fresh orange contains about 3g of fiber and only 60 calories. Peeling can reduce the amount of fiber in fruit, so try to eat the peel of apples and pears.
  • Liven up dull salads by adding nuts, seeds, kidney beans, peas, or black beans. You can also make tasty high-fiber additions to soups and stews by adding peas, beans, lentils, and rice.

Healthy eating as you age: Tips for wholesome eating

Once you’re used to eating nutrient-dense food, your body will feel slow and sluggish if you eat less wholesome fare. Here’s how to get in the habit of eating well:

  • Reduce sodium (salt) to help prevent water retention and high blood pressure. Look for the “low sodium” label and season meals with garlic, herbs, and spices instead of salt.
  • Enjoy good fats. Reap the rewards of olive oil, avocados, salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, and other monounsaturated fats. The fat from these delicious sources can protect your body against heart disease by controlling “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and raising “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Avoid “bad” carbs. Bad carbohydrates—also known as simple or unhealthy carbs—are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Bad carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and short-lived energy. For long-lasting energy and stable insulin levels, choose “good” or complex carbs such as whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Look for hidden sugar. Added sugar can be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, fast food, and ketchup. Check food labels for other terms for sugar such as corn syrup, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane juice, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, or maltose. Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned goods, and choose low-carb or sugar-free versions of products such as tortillas, bread, pasta, and ice cream. Try to avoid artificial sweeteners as well—it’s healthier to sweeten drinks with honey or use whole fruit or fruit juice to sweeten dishes.
  • Cook smart. The best way to prepare veggies is by steaming or sautéing (not frying at high heat) in olive oil, as it preserves nutrients. Forget boiling—it drains nutrients.
  • Put five colors on your plate. Take a tip from Japanese food culture and try to include five colors on your plate. Fruits and veggies rich in color correspond to rich nutrients (think: blackberries, melons, yams, spinach, tomatoes, zucchini).

Healthy eating as you age: Tips for creating a well-balanced diet

It doesn’t have to be difficult to swap a tired eating regimen for a tasty, well-balanced eating plan.

Avoid skipping meals – This causes your metabolism to slow down, which leads to feeling sluggish and making 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.

Healthy eating as you age: Coping with changing dietary needs

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

Physical changes that affect your diet

  • 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. Older adults 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, spices, 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.
  • Medications and illness. Some prescription medications and health problems 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.
  • 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.

Lifestyle changes that affect your diet

  • Loneliness and depression. Loneliness and depression affect your diet. For some, feeling down leads to not eating and in others it may trigger overeating. Be aware if emotional problems are affecting your diet, and take action by consulting your doctor or therapist. Sharing meals with others can also be an effective antidote to loneliness. Reach out to friends or neighbors—everyone loves a home-cooked meal and most people who live alone are in the same boat as you. They probably feel just as awkward about reaching out as you do. Be the one to take the initiative. You may even be able to share cooking responsibilities—one prepares the entrée, the other dessert, for example. Cooking with others can be a fun way to try out new recipes and deepen relationships.
  • Death or divorce. If you’re newly single, you may not be used to cooking or have little enthusiasm for preparing meals for just yourself. However, cooking your own meals can help you take charge of your health. No matter your age, living situation, or culinary skills, you can learn to prepare easy meals for one that not only taste great but can boost your energy and mood. The key to cooking for one is to master a few basic skills and get creative in making meals that work specifically for you. After all, that’s the great thing about cooking for one: you don’t have to please anyone but yourself.
  • Living on a limited budget. You may think that it’s impossible to afford a balanced, healthy diet on a limited income. But with the right tips and a little planning, it is possible to enjoy healthy food on the cheap. Often, by simply cutting out junk and processed foods and avoiding conventional grocery stores, you can free up enough in your budget to enjoy healthier, better quality food.

Understanding malnutrition

Malnutrition is a critical health issue among older adults caused by eating too little food, too few nutrients, and by digestive problems related to aging. Malnutrition causes fatigue, depression, weak immune system, anemia, weakness, digestive, lung, and heart problems, as well as skin concerns.

Tips for preventing malnutrition as you age:

  • Eat nutrient packed food
  • Have flavorful food available
  • Snack between meals
  • Eat with company as much as possible
  • Get help with food preparation
  • Consult your doctor

Healthy eating as you age: Overcoming obstacles to eating well

Let’s face it, there’s a reason why so many of us have trouble eating nutritiously every day. Sometimes it’s just quicker or easier to eat unhealthy food. If you’re having trouble getting started on a healthy eating plan, these tips can help:

Say “no” to eating alone

Eating with others can be as important as adding vitamins to your diet. A social atmosphere stimulates your mind and helps you enjoy meals. When you enjoy mealtimes, you’re more likely to eat better. If you live alone, eating with company will take some strategizing, but the effort will pay off.

  • Make a date to share lunch or dinners with children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, and neighbors on a rotating basis.
  • Join in by taking a class, volunteering, or going on an outing, all of which can lead to new friendships and dining buddies.
  • Adult day care centers provide both companionship and nutritious meals for older adults who are isolated and lonely, or unable to prepare their own meals.
  • Senior meal programs are a great way to meet others. Contact your local Senior Center, YMCA, congregation, or high school and ask about senior meal programs.

Loss of appetite

First, check with your doctor to see if your loss of appetite could be due to medication you're taking, and whether the medication or dosage can be changed. Try natural flavor enhancers such as olive oil, vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger, and spices to boost your appetite.

Difficulty chewing

Make chewing easier by drinking smoothies made with fresh fruit, yogurt, and protein powder. Eat steamed veggies and soft food such as couscous, rice, and yogurt. Consult your dentist to make sure your dentures are properly fitted.

Dry mouth

Drink 8 – 10 glasses of water each day. Take a drink of water after each bite of food, add sauces and salsas to your food to moisten it, avoid commercial mouthwash, and ask your doctor about artificial saliva products.

"I don’t like healthy food"

If you were raised eating lots of meat and white bread, for example, a new way of eating might sound off-putting. That’s understandable. But view eating healthily as an adventure and start with small steps:

  • First and foremost, commit to keeping an open mind. Just because a food is healthy, it doesn’t mean it can’t be tasty as well.
  • Try including a healthy fruit or veggie at every meal. You don’t have to change everything all at once. Add a side salad to your dinner, for example, or substitute unhealthy fries with baked sweet potato fries, or have a smaller portion of dessert and fill up with melon and pineapple slices.
  • Focus on how you feel after eating well—this will help foster new habits and tastes. The more healthy food you eat, the better you’ll feel afterwards.

Stuck in a rut

No matter how healthy your diet, eating the same foods over and over is bound to get boring. Rekindle inspiration by browsing produce at a farmers market, reading a cooking magazine, buying foods or spices you haven’t tried before, or chatting with friends about what they eat. By making variety a priority, you’ll find it easier to get creative with healthy meals.

If you can’t shop or cook for yourself…

There are a number of possibilities, depending on your living situation, finances, and needs:

  • Take advantage of home delivery. Many grocery stores have Internet or phone delivery services.
  • Swap services. Ask a friend, neighborhood teen, or college student if they would be willing to shop for you.
  • Share your home. If you live alone in a large home, consider having a housemate/companion who would be willing to do the grocery shopping and cooking.
  • Hire a homemaker. Try to find someone who can do the shopping and meal preparation for you.

Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels provides nutritious meals to people who are homebound and/or disabled, or would otherwise be unable to maintain their dietary needs. The daily delivery generally consists of two meals: a nutritionally balanced hot meal to eat at lunch time and a dinner, consisting of a cold sandwich and milk along with varying side dishes. See the Resources section below for information on finding a program in your area.

Healthy eating as you age: Tips for staying on track

Eating healthily is an ongoing commitment, but it’s easier than you think. Here are some tips for staying on course:

  • Ask for help. Admit when you need a hand to shop, cook, and plan meals and find someone to help. It’s important for your health not to revert to frozen dinners or takeout food.
  • Variety, variety, variety! Try eating and cooking something new as soon as boredom strikes.
  • Make every meal “do-able.” Healthy eating needn’t be a big production. Keep it simple and you’ll stick with it. Stocking the pantry and fridge with wholesome choices will make it easier to prepare quick, tasty meals.
  • Set the mealtime mood. Set the table, light candles, play music, or eat outside or by a window when possible. Tidying yourself and your space will help you enjoy the moment.
  • Break habits. If you eat watching TV, try eating while reading or use the time to catch up with your spouse or a friend. If you eat at the counter, set the table instead.

More help for aging well

Resources and references

Nutrition guidelines for older adults

DASH Eating Plan (PDF) – Provides specific eating recommendations for lowering blood pressure. (National Institutes of Health)

A Senior's Guide to Good Nutrition – Addresses specific eating-related problems along with tips on adapting to a special diet and preparing healthy meals. Written for vegetarians but many of the tips apply to all. (Vegetarian Resource Group)

Food Safety for the Elderly – Guidelines for safe food handling and preparation, including the minimum cooking temperature for all meats and eggs. (Clemson Extension)

Optimal Dietary Protein Intake in Older People – New evidence that shows older adults need more dietary protein than do younger adults. (JAMDA)

Dietary fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet – The health benefits of fiber and how to fit more into your diet. (Mayo Clinic)

Nutrition services for older adults

Meals on Wheels: Find a U.S. Program – A searchable database that allows you to find a Meals on Wheels program in your area of the U.S. (Meals on Wheels Association of America)

Meals at Home Services (UK) – In the UK, find out if you qualify to receive meals delivered to your home and access a directory of providers in your area. (Directgov)

Meals on Wheels Australia – Find your local Meals on Wheels service in Australia. (Meals on Wheels Australia)

Find a Meals on Wheels Location in Canada – Find a Meals on Wheels and other senior meal programs in your area of Canada. (MealCall)

Sugar and salt in a healthy diet for older adults

Sodium Content of Your Food – How sodium affects your body and how to cut down on dietary sodium. Included tips on reading nutrition labels, and suggestions for cooking and shopping. (University of Maine)

Sugar Stacks – Photos showing the amount of sugar in different foods. (Sugar Stacks)

The Dangers of Sugar and Salt – Article detailing evidence that too much of these ingredients can harm health. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Facts on Sugar and Salt – Includes how to interpret food labels. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Gina Kemp, M.A. Last updated: November 2014.