How to Choose a Weight-Loss Diet for Seniors

Attractive senior woman with fruit lunch
Knowing which diets are healthy for seniors will help to avoid fads and gimmicks. Find out more about how to choose a weight-loss diet for seniors. lucentius / Getty Images

You may be committed to losing weight, but are you stymied by the number of diet plans out there? This time you want to be successful, and you don't want to waste your time on some gimmicky diet that can't deliver on its promises.

You also don't want to embark on a plan that doesn't fit your personality, either. Picking a healthful diet that can help you drop pounds AND choosing a diet you can live with long term are equally important.


The most important factor to consider is whether the diet is healthy. If it isn't, it doesn't matter whether it's easy to follow, lets you eat your favorite foods, or is inexpensive. Once you've eliminated the diets that are detrimental to your health, you'll find that most have their good points and their bad points.

Personal preference, lifestyle, cost, and simplicity will all influence your decision. That's why the diet you choose for yourself may not be the same one your best friend or your coworker chooses.

This article will give you the tools you need to weigh the pros and cons of diet plans you're considering. First we offer a series of questions whose answers will help you size up any diet's safety, efficacy, and practicality. And then we'll ask you to think about yourself, quizzing you about your likes and dislikes, your habits, and your lifestyle, so you can eliminate diets you just won't get along with.

The last page of this article addresses special diet considerations you should be aware of if you have any medical problems, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, or osteoporosis.

On the next page find out which questions seniors should ask before beginning a diet.

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Questions Seniors Should Ask Before Beginning a Diet

The answers to the following questions will raise the red flags and highlight the positive features of any diet plan you're contemplating:

Is it safe?


Watch out if the diet encourages you to take a lot of supplements that haven't been proven to assist weight loss or requires strange food combinations or extremely high levels of protein. Believe it or not, most dietary supplements sold today have not been proven safe or effective.

Most food-combining diets are so difficult to follow that you're liable to end up eating a diet that's unhealthy and possibly unsafe. High-protein diets promote ketosis, a metabolic state similar to starvation, which can be hard on your kidneys, toxic to the liver, and deficient in carbohydrates that provide essential instant energy for the brain.

Is it nutritionally sound?

A diet should include all the recommended intakes for vitamins, minerals, and protein (shown as Daily Value, or DV, on food labels). Diets that severely limit food choices or eliminate whole food groups, such as dairy, are unlikely to meet your nutritional needs.

For example, diets that are extremely low in fat can also be low in fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, and diets that ban dairy products may be deficient in vitamin D and calcium. Make sure that the diet takes into consideration the unique nutritional needs of people over age 50.

Does it make sense?

If a diet sounds like the answer to your prayers, watch out. If it says it's going to do what no diet has ever done before, you can be sure it won't. If it claims there is a medical conspiracy preventing you from hearing the truth about weight loss, you can be sure you won't find the truth you're seeking with this diet. There is no "hidden medical secret" and no such thing as instant weight loss. Let your common sense be your guide.

Does it require specially purchased foods?

For a diet to have any hope for long-term success, it's got to incorporate foods you can buy from the supermarket where you usually shop. Short-term use of prepackaged meals is OK and can actually help kick-start some people's efforts. However, if the plan requires you to buy special foods or supplements forever, forget it.

Who's behind the diet?

Was the diet written or developed by a credentialed doctor (M.D. or D.O.) or registered dietician (R.D.)? While those credentials don't guarantee that the diet provides good dietary guidance (some of the most popular but unsound diets have come from medical doctors), they do slightly increase the odds that the diet will be a sound one that you can stick with over the long haul.

But if the diet promotes a certain brand of supplements or a particular brand of meal replacement, for example, you can be fairly certain that the advice is heavily influenced by a sponsor and not by the expert--and it's likely to be expensive to follow.

Does it promise rapid weight loss?

Rapid weight loss often means rapid regain, especially because much of the initial weight loss on crash diets is water loss, not fat. When you start to eat more normally, the pounds will creep back. Most experts recommend a slow and steady weight loss of about a pound or two each week.

On any diet you'll probably lose more rapidly at first. After the first couple of weeks the pounds are likely to come off more slowly. But if rapid weight loss continues, you're inviting long-term failure. Only slow and sure can win the race.

Is it practical?

Does the meal plan offer concrete suggestions for what you can eat as well as substitutes you can make when you're away from home? Does it allow for special occasions, eating out, and feeding other family members?

Any diet that doesn't take changing circumstances into consideration isn't worth the time or the effort. The more tips and how-to information the diet book or program provides, the better your chances of sticking with it over the long haul.

Does it require a lot of calculations?

Eating isn't a one-time event; it's a recurring activity throughout each day. Many people don't have time to weigh every morsel, keep a running log of calorie intake, or play a Rubik's Cube game of food balancing. A good diet plan should lead you through an initial phase

of educating yourself about healthy foods and serving sizes. After that, little if any number crunching should be necessary.

Does the diet make physical activity an inseparable part of the plan?

If not, say hasta la vista, baby, because you'll go nowhere. Cutting calories and losing weight without physical activity is a temporary solution, at best. Any diet plan that ignores or gives short shrift to this critical aspect of weight management is missing the boat and will set you up for weight-loss failure.

Is a maintenance program included in the diet plan?

No? Then it's like being abandoned without a map by a tour guide when you're halfway to your destination. Losing the weight is a short phase of the diet plan. Maintaining that weight loss is something you'll be doing forever.

Does the diet allow you to individualize the plan?

If you're a 150-pound woman trying to lose 10 pounds, you shouldn't be eating the same diet as a 250-pound man trying to lose 50 pounds. Make sure the diet plan lets you figure the amount of food you can eat and allows for substitutions. If the diet plan makes tofu and grapefruit de rigueur for breakfast and you can abide neither, then you have a problem.

Does the diet plan suggest you check with your doctor first?

If you plan to lose more than 15 to 20 pounds, if you have any existing health problems, or if you take medication on a regular basis, you should check with your doctor first before starting any weight-loss program.

On the next page, find out everything you need to know about choosing the right diet as a senior.

To learn more about senior health, see:


How to Pick the Right Diet as a Senior

Picking a healthy, practical diet can be a tough job, especially considering all the choices out there. But there's more to selecting a diet plan than weighing the options. Diets have their unique personalities and characteristics, and so do you.

The trick is finding one that, like your best friend or mate, feels comfortable. You've already read about how to evaluate diets for safety, effectiveness, and nutritional content. Now you need to get personal.


Even if the diet is safe, effective, and nutritious, is it really right for you? Only you can accurately answer that question. Your answers to the questions below will lead you to a diet you can stick with.

Take the following self-quiz to determine the type of diet that's right for you.

Do you live by the clock? Can't function without your Day Runner?

If you answered yes, then you're better off with a diet that offers structure and a lot of direction, including preplanned menus and specific suggestions for substitutions. Some diets leave a lot of the decision-making up to the dieter, but if structure and planning are your life, those won't be right for you. Opt for a diet that sets it all out for you and leaves little to chance.

Are you a spur-of-the-moment kind of person? Hate to plan ahead?

If this describes you, then look for a diet plan that gives you some room to maneuver. If meals have to be planned in advance according to strict guidelines, then your go-with-the-flow lifestyle may doom you to failure before you even begin. Just because you want to lose weight doesn't mean you're going to alter your personality in the process.

Is the main ingredient in the diet one that you hate?

If the diet calls for cabbage at every meal and the smell of cooking cabbage makes you nauseated, then you're barking up the wrong diet tree. Be realistic. Just because it worked for your nearest and dearest friend (who loves cabbage) doesn't mean it's the right diet for you.

Do you prefer a lot of food flexibility or would you rather have your meals predetermined?

If you want to be led, step by step, through a diet plan, complete with sample menus, recipes, and lists of substitutions, you better make sure that the diet you're considering does just that. Some provide great visuals, grocery lists, and recipes. Others give broad, sweeping guidelines and leave the details up to you.

Do you even know how to operate the oven?

If you eat out most nights of the week and the diet calls for preparation of elaborate recipes for dinner each night, forget it. You'll be much better off if you find a diet that explains how to eat out while still sticking with the diet.

How's your budget?

If your budget is limited and the menus call for special ingredients from gourmet shops or organic ingredients from pricey health-food supermarkets, you won't be able to stick with it for long, at least not without cutting back on other expenses. The same holds true for diet programs that charge initiation fees and require you to buy prepackaged foods.

Do you have any existing health problems?

If you have any medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, a neurological disorder, or high blood pressure, be sure to check with your health care provider first to make sure the diet you're considering is safe for you.

Even if you've gotten your doctor's OK, make sure the diet meets your special nutritional needs, not only because you're past 50 but to accommodate your medical condition.

Be honest. Is this a diet you believe you can stick with forever?

While success is often mistakenly measured by weight loss, the real key to success is weight maintenance -- keeping the weight off once you've lost it. If the diet is too strict or too monotonous, leaves you drained of energy, or is just too weird for you, you won't stay with it. Give this some serious thought before you get started, so you don't face the all-too-familiar (and unhealthy) ups and downs of yo-yo dieting.

Do you need a strong support system?

If yes, then be sure the diet program offers counseling or the diet plan provides enough motivational and helpful resources to get you through. Or, be sure you put your own support system in place before you start. Your support person can be a close friend, a family member, or an online counselor.

Is the physical activity portion of the program something you can keep up with?

If the diet has led you to believe you're going to have "buns of steel" or "six-pack abs" from your weight-loss and exercise programs, toss the diet in the trash. Your goal should be a healthier, fitter you, not some supreme level of physical fitness.

Do you hate to count calories?

Then don't even try to stick with a diet that has you thumbing through calorie-counting books all day and keeping a running tally on every calorie you put in your mouth. Instead, look for a diet that focuses on balancing foods and food groups, not counting calories.

It never hurts to get familiar with the calorie counts of foods so there are no high-calorie surprises, but there's no need to live by calorie-counting rules if it's just not you. You'll be much better off in the long run.

Do you live alone or with a partner, roommate, kids, or grandkids?

Your family situation can either limit or broaden your dieting possibilities. Kids probably present the biggest obstacle to healthy eating. And their activity level and rapid metabolism allow them to get away with eating junk food along with all the healthy stuff. You should be so lucky. A diet that forbids treats of any kind may not be realistic when you keep them in the house for the kids.

But kids aren't the only problem. Spouses can be, too. A 225-pound man who stays fit will, due to sheer size and muscle mass, be able to eat almost twice a woman's food allowance. Make sure the diet educates you on portion sizes so you won't be influenced by his double portion sizes.

Whatever your living arrangements, make sure you take them into consideration when you choose an eating plan. It may affect everyone else in the household.

When you check out the diet plan, does something just not seem quite right?

Go with your instincts. If you don't feel comfortable and confident about your diet plan in the beginning, you probably never will. It should be "love at first sight." The initial excitement may eventually wear off, but somehow you'll know it's something you can live with forever.

Continue to the final page in this article to learn about special dietary concerns as a senior.

To learn more about senior health, see:


Special Diet Considerations for Seniors

If you suffer from any medical condition, you should check with your doctor before beginning any new diet plan. If you're given the green light, here are a few finer points to watch out for when trying to choose the diet that's best for you.

Cardiovascular Disease


If high cholesterol or a history of heart disease is an issue, steer clear of diets that encourage you to eat a lot of animal products. Only animal products contain cholesterol, and they are the primary sources of saturated fats -- two dietary components that you need to keep to a minimum.

Make sure the diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, as they contain an arsenal of phytochemicals that may help keep your heart healthy. And make sure you're getting plenty of folate and vitamins B6 and B12 from food or supplements, since this trio of "B's" has been shown to control homocysteine levels in the blood. High homocysteine levels increase your risk of clogged arteries and heart disease.

Breast Cancer

Though it's far from proven, some experts believe that women at risk for breast cancer should not consume a lot of soy products. That's because soy is one of the richest sources of isoflavones, naturally occurring compounds that have an estrogen-like action in the body.

Some tumors are estrogen-dependent and feed off the hormone to survive. Too much estrogen could increase the risk. Though the "proof" so far comes only from animal and lab studies, some experts say, why risk it?


If constipation is an issue for you, steer clear of diets that discourage the consumption of carbohydrates, such as high-fiber whole grains, or that limit your intake of fruits and vegetables. Try to get 21 to 30 grams of fiber a day from whichever diet plan you choose.


Don't tempt fate by trying any sort of unbalanced diet plan that emphasizes any one food or food group over another. Choose a diet plan that includes enough -- but not too much -- protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

Because diabetes puts you at increased risk for heart disease, opt for a diet that emphasizes heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and that includes a healthy dose of soluble fiber from beans, peas, lentils, oats, fruits, and vegetables. These foods will help keep both blood sugar and blood cholesterol under control.


Make sure you plan on sticking with your diet and maintaining your weight loss. Research shows that "weight cyclers," also known as yo-yo dieters, are putting themselves at risk for developing gallstones. If you already suffer from gallstones, you could make matters worse.

High Blood Pressure

If your blood pressure tends to be high, you're at an increased risk for a heart attack or stroke. The diet that offers the best protection against high blood pressure includes plenty of low fat dairy foods and lots of fruits and vegetables. The key nutrients to focus on? Calcium, potassium, and magnesium. And go easy on the salt.

Kidney Disease

There are many different kinds of kidney disease, so it's best to check with your doctor before you try any new diet plan. But in general, if you have kidney troubles, don't consume too much protein. That means you should steer clear of diet plans that emphasize eating meat, fish, and poultry. People with kidney disease should drink plenty of fluids to decrease the risk of developing kidney stones and bladder cancer.


Calcium and vitamin D are vital to the prevention of this debilitating, bone-robbing disease, so make sure that whatever diet you choose includes plenty of those two bone-building nutrients. And make sure the diet's not heavy on protein or sodium consumption, since both can leech the calcium right out of your bones, leaving them weak, brittle, and prone to fractures.

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Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D. is the author of seven books, including Foods for Better Health, The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!, and Super Nutrition After 50. Webb also writes about health and nutrition for numerous magazines, including Family Circle, Fitness, Parade, Men's Fitness, and Redbook. She is a regular columnist for Woman's Day and Prevention magazines, a contributing writer for The New York Times, the associate editor of Environmental Nutrition newsletter, and a writer for the American Botanical Council.

Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D. is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition newsletter and a contributing writer for She also writes for publications such as Parenting magazine and The Boston Globe.