Nutrition needs change as our bodies age. To follow a doctor’s therapeutic diet recommendations or maintain healthy meal habits, older adults keep up their energy and get the right mix of nutrients one plate at a time. A balanced and well-planned diet for older adults makes every bite count.
Now, “balanced diet” may sound boring, but variety keeps meals from being humdrum—plus, it helps slow the aging process. How does this work? The skin needs vitamins and minerals to stay moist and smooth, and protein and calcium to keep muscles and bones strong. Fluids and fiber help the digestive system work efficiently.
A better balance on the plate meets all the nutrition needs to keep the heart pumping more efficiently, with fewer saturated fats to clog the blood vessels and less salt to raise blood pressure. It’s not just about what’s on your plate, but what your body needs as you advance in years.
What Size Is Your Plate?
Healthy meals for older adults are about finding a new balance. If you have budget or mobility issues, take time in advance to scan coupons, special deals and a helper if needed to get wise shopping completed. As people get older, they tend to eat less, but that just makes it even more important to ensure health is supported with food full of nutrition and not empty calories. That’s because people need fewer calories as they age as well.
Not everyone has to count calories, but everyone should work with their doctor to find and maintain a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle. Dietary guidelines at myplate.gov call for fewer calories at age 60—depending on activity, 1,600 to 2,200 calories for a woman of average weight and size and 2,000 to 2,600 calories for the typical man.
Maintaining a healthy weight is always important, but even more so with age. Why? Overweight people are at greater risk of developing diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke and other health issues. Doctors may refer people to nutrition therapy services, which give therapeutic diet advice to manage these medical conditions.
The proportions and portions on a plate require the same attention. Meal planners suggest a half-and-half diet--fruits and vegetables filling half the plate, grains and proteins the other. That division is a basic rule for getting variety into a diet. Veggies in particular have been shown to have more essential nutrients and health-protective vitamins and minerals. Dietitians now say veggies should take up even more of the plate than the “main course” proteins.
Also vital for health is what you leave off the plate. Cutting down on sugar, fat and starchy foods will lower the calorie count and create more room for the good stuff. Bread, pasta and rice can take up less space on the plate, making a meal “nutrient dense” instead of “calorie dense.” Choose whole or multigrain bread, vegetable pasta or brown rice, and go easy on added, fat-laded ingredients—buttered bread, creamy mac and cheese, mayo on the potato salad. Whole grains also help regulate blood sugar. These carbohydrates are processed into sugar over a longer time for energy when you need it.
Getting More at the Store
Health-conscious cooks will want to shop for whole grains and prepare lighter sauces. If you’re in the habit of avoiding low-calorie foods, try them again in lower-calorie preparations. For instance, plain low-fat yogurt with your own fruit is a tastier combination than regular flavored yogurt, which most likely has more sugar than fruit.
Several needed nutrients are listed in the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods:
- Dietary Fiber: Many adults don’t get enough fiber to maintain their cardiovascular health. The Daily Value for dietary fiber, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, is 28 grams (g) per day.
- Calcium: This mineral keeps bones strong. The Daily Value for calcium is 1,300 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Vitamin D: Working with calcium, Vitamin D reduces the risk of osteoporosis. It also helps manage blood pressure and the immune and nervous systems. The Daily Value for vitamin D is 20 micrograms (mcg) per day.
Labels can also suggest what to avoid. Many packaged foods have more salt than is necessary. Cutting back and experimenting with other seasonings will make foods taste better, even the low-fat options you might have rejected before. For example, try yogurt, minced garlic and your favorite spice as a dip for pita crisps or other low-fat munchies.
Whether you’re splurging on a special dish or sitting down to an everyday meal, don’t rush it. Cut digital distractions and pace yourself to relish the look, smell and taste of the bounty. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive signals that you’re full, so take time to enjoy what you’re eating. You’ll be less likely to overdo it and have regrets later.