Good nutrition throughout a person’s lifespan helps prevent chronic disease, and it’s never too late to make improvements to support healthy aging. Older adults are at greater risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer as well as health conditions related to changes in muscle and bone mass such as osteoporosis. The good news is that this population can mitigate some of these risks by eating nutrient-dense foods and maintaining an active lifestyle.
Older adults generally have lower calorie needs but similar or even increased nutrient needs compared to younger adults. This is often due to less physical activity, changes in metabolism or age-related loss of bone and muscle mass. Nutrient needs in this population are also affected by chronic health conditions, the use of multiple medications and changes in body composition. Therefore, following a healthy dietary pattern and making every bite count is particularly important to this age group.
The Healthy Eating Index measures diet quality based on the federal government’s dietary guidelines. Compared to other age ranges, older adults have the highest diet quality, with a score of 63 out of 100. Although this is very encouraging, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy improves diet quality, as does cutting down on added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. Support from health professionals, friends and family can help older adults meet food-group and nutrient recommendations.
Eating enough protein helps prevent the loss of lean muscle mass. But older adults often eat too little protein — especially adults ages 71 and older. Since most older adults are meeting recommendations for meat, poultry and eggs, it’s important to remind them that seafood, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, beans, peas and lentils are great sources of protein. These protein sources also provide additional nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and fiber.
The ability to absorb vitamin B12 can decrease with age and the use of certain medications. Health professionals, friends and family can help older individuals get enough vitamin B12 by ensuring they’re consuming enriched foods such as breakfast cereals. Older adults should talk with their healthcare provider about the use of dietary supplements to increase vitamin B12 intake.
Healthy beverage choices for older adults
Sometimes it’s hard for older adults to drink enough fluids because the sensation of thirst declines with age. Drinking water is a great way to prevent dehydration and help with digestion. Unsweetened fruit juices, low-fat or fat-free milk and fortified soy beverages can also help older adults meet fluid and nutrient needs. Healthcare providers, friends and family can remind older patients to enjoy beverages with meals and throughout the day.
If older adults choose to drink alcohol, they should do so in moderation. Men should have two or fewer drinks per day, and women should have a maximum of one drink per day. Remember that this population may feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than they did when they were younger, which could increase the risk of falls and other accidents.
Find resources to help older adults eat healthy
There are a number of government resources that older adults can utilize to access and achieve a healthy dietary pattern. Congregate Nutrition Services provides meals for people ages 60 and older, as well as their spouses, in senior centers, schools and churches. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program distributes monthly packages of nutritious foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Home-Delivered Nutrition Services provides home-delivered meals for older adults who have trouble leaving home or have certain health conditions. Finally, the Child and Adult Care Food Program provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to older adults enrolled in daycare facilities.
Choosing healthy foods and actively using nutrition resources can help people make every bite count, no matter their age. For more information about these resources for older adults, check out nutrition.gov/topics/food-security-and-access/food-assistance-programs/nutrition-programs-seniors.
(Dana DeSilva is a health policy fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Dennis Anderson-Villaluz is a nutrition advisor at the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.)
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