HowStuffWorks

How to Eat Right as a Senior


The Food Guide Pyramid for people age 70+ speaks directly to age-related body changes. See more pictures of healthy aging.

Because you need fewer calories as you get older, your food choices are more critical than ever. You've got only so many calories with which to make the right decisions. If you don't choose wisely, you may gain weight while attempting to get the nutrients you need from your daily diet -- and weight gain carries its own set of health risks.

ChooseMyPlate.gov -- Steps to a Healthier You, provides information on eating a healthy, balanced diet. Developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the ChooseMyPlate tool -- which you can customize based on your age, sex, and activity level -- is interactive and offers personalized guidance on sources of nutrition and portion size. To customize your own plate, visit USDA ChooseMyPlate.

To help older people manage nutritional and caloric intake, the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University also developed a food guide pyramid specifically for people age 70 and older. It's a good guide for anyone over age 50, too.

Whether you're trying to lose weight, stay fit, or just feel better, it's important to pack the most nutritious foods possible into your daily diet. In the following pages we'll explain how to pick the foods that give you the biggest nutritional "bang" for the least caloric "buck."

 In the next section, find out about the protein and fat requirements for seniors and how to make sure you get enough each day.

Meeting Protein and Fat Requirements for Seniors

The majority of foods contain at least some protein. Foods from animals, such as milk, eggs, beef, poultry, and fish, are highest in protein. Fruits, vegetables, and grains provide less. You can get all the protein you need if you make wise food choices. One 3-ounce serving of meat (about the size of a deck of cards), poultry, or fish provides about 50 percent of your daily protein requirement.

What about protein supplements? They may seem like a quick protein fix, but most nutritionists say they offer few benefits. Protein supplements can be costly, both to your pocketbook and your waistline, since they're expensive and high in calories.

You also have to be careful not to overload on protein; otherwise, you could tax your kidneys, the organs responsible for discarding waste once protein has been digested. That can happen if you add a protein supplement to a diet that's already plentiful in protein.

Protein Power

Below is a list of concentrated sources of protein. Choose low-fat or nonfat varieties when possible.

  • Beef
  • Cheese
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Pork
  • Tofu
  • Turkey
  • Yogurt

Good Fat, Bad Fat

You may be accustomed to hearing that fat is bad, but the truth is you need some fat in your diet to stay healthy. Fat carries the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and components of fat known as essential fatty acids. There are four types of fat: saturated, which is found mainly in animal foods; monounsaturated, which is found mainly in plant foods, such as olive oil; polyunsaturated, which is found in plant foods and in fish; and trans fat, a type of fat formed when normal polyunsaturated fat is put through a process called hydrogenation.

The amount of fat generally recommended -- from 20 to no more than 30 percent of your day's calorie intake -- stays pretty much the same throughout adulthood. Because fat is the most concentrated source of calories (nine calories per gram), you need to control your fat intake. Otherwise you could put on unwanted pounds.

The flip side of that, however, is not to go too low. Extremely low-fat diets (ten percent of calories or less) can deprive your body of the essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins it needs.

Choosing the right kind of fat is the key to staying healthy while managing your calorie intake. Focus on getting fewer saturated fats, which clog the arteries, and more of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to keep your arteries clean and your heart healthy.

If you can, try to stick primarily with monounsaturated fats. And make sure that some of the polyunsaturated fats in your diet come from fish and flaxseed. Research suggests that these fats may help reduce dangerous blood clotting, prevent abnormal heart rhythms, improve immune function, keep your eyes healthy and your brain functioning properly, fight depression, ease the pain of arthritis, and possibly even reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Avoid trans fat. Not only does it raise LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) --"bad cholesterol" -- but it lowers HDLs (high-density lipoproteins) --"good cholesterol." The trans fat content of foods is listed on the ingredients label. If a food contains "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils, it contains trans fat.

Here is a list of foods that are high in saturated fat:

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Cream
  • Fatty cuts of meat
  • Ground chicken or turkey (if it is not from breast meat only)
  • Ice cream
  • Whole milk

Here are foods that are high in monounsaturated fat:

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Canola oil
  • Olive oil
  • Walnuts

Finally, here is a list of foods that are high in polyunsaturated fat:

  • Corn oil
  • Fish (anchovies, bass, herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna)
  • Flaxseed
  • Safflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sunflower oil

Continue to the next page to find out how to meet your daily carbohydrate requirements without "carbing out."

Meeting Carbohydrate Requirements for Seniors

Carbohydrates are your best source for instant energy, vitamins, and fiber -- if you choose whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Carbohydrates should make up 55 to 60 percent of your day's calories, or at least 130 grams. Most of that should come from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

There's little room in a healthful diet for sugar and other refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, when you're trying to get the most nutrients you can for the fewest calories. Make sure you keep tabs on the "extras" that traditionally go hand-in-hand with carbohydrates, such as margarine, cream cheese, cheese, and cream sauces.

These high-calorie, high-fat add-ons can turn even healthful carbohydrate foods into dietary disasters. Carbohydrates, by themselves, provide four calories per gram.

Here is a list of healthy high-carbohydrate foods:

  • Bran cereals
  • Brown rice
  • Canned or dried beans and peas
  • Dried fruit
  • Lentils
  • Popcorn
  • Shredded wheat
  • Whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Whole-wheat pastas

Fiber

Fiber, a form of carbohydrate, helps prevent constipation and maintain a healthy balance of "good" bacteria in your intestinal tract. There are two types of fiber, each with its particular benefits. Soluble fiber forms a gel in the intestinal tract that carries unwanted cholesterol out of the body. It can also help regulate blood sugar levels.

Insoluble fiber is known for its ability to help prevent and treat constipation. Over age 50, men should get 35 grams of fiber a day, and women should get 21 grams

Here is a list of foods high in soluable fiber:

  • Bran cereals
  • Brown rice
  • Corn
  • Popcorn
  • Whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Seeking Soluble Fiber
  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Barley
  • Carrots
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Figs
  • Oatmeal and oat bran
  • Okra
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Psyllium
  • Strawberries

In the next section, find out what you can do to ensure that you meet your vitamin requirements each day.

Meeting Vitamin Requirements for Seniors

As you age your vitamin needs will change from what they were as a younger person. Follow these guidelines for the proper intake of vitamins.

Vitamin A

There are only a handful of foods that provide "preformed" vitamin A, or retinol. These include fortified milk, liver, fish liver oils, and eggs. Preformed vitamin A is also typically found in vitamin supplements. But unless you eat large portions of animal foods or take supplements with preformed vitamin A in them, chances are most of your vitamin A will come from plant foods.

Colorful plant foods are rich in carotenoids, especially beta-carotene, which the body is able to convert to vitamin A. Look for bright orange, red, yellow, and green fruits and vegetables. Their bright colors signal that they are good sources of carotenoids.

Avoid vitamin A supplements unless specifically recommended by your doctor. If you take a multivitamin, choose one that gets most or all of its vitamin A content from beta-carotene, the safest form of this vitamin, rather than from retinol, which can accumulate to toxic levels in the body.

Here is a list of foods that are high in carotenoids:

  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Mango
  • Peppers, red or green
  • Pumpkin
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash

Riboflavin

The principle sources of riboflavin in the diet are milk and yogurt, though whole grains, wheat germ, and eggs are rich sources as well. Because riboflavin is sensitive to light, milk stored in see-through plastic jugs and glass containers is likely to have lost some of the vitamin during storage.

More riboflavin is likely to be retained in milk sold in cardboard cartons. Most multivitamins provide about 100 percent of the recommended intake for riboflavin, but some "B formula" supplements have even higher levels of all the "B's."

Here is a list of foods that are high in riboflavin:

  • Almonds
  • Asparagus
  • Chicken thighs
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Milk
  • Turkey
  • Wheat germ
  • Whole-grain or enriched bread
  • Yogurt

Vitamin B6

Foods rich in protein, such as chicken, fish, and pork, are also rich in vitamin B6. Refined grains are low in vitamin B6 because the B vitamins are generally removed during the refining process. While enriched breads have other B vitamins added back, B6 isn't one of them. Fortified cereals, however, are good sources of the vitamin.

Though B6 is considered a safe vitamin, experts discovered several years ago that if you take more than one gram a day for an extended period of time, it can cause temporary tingling and loss of feeling in your hands and feet. When you stop taking such large amounts, the symptoms should go away.

Here are foods that are high in vitamin B6:

  • Bananas
  • Beef
  • Bran flakes
  • Fish
  • Spinach
  • Wheat germ

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is unique to animal tissues, so it's not found naturally in plants or plant food products. However, it is added to most fortified breakfast cereals, making them a good source of the vitamin. It takes only a small, 4-ounce serving of lean beef to provide all the vitamin B12 you need for the day. Three ounces of drained, canned light tuna also satisfies daily requirements.

Vegans, vegetarians who shun all animal products, are at risk for a B12 deficiency if they don't also take a vitamin supplement or eat a fortified cereal. Most supplements provide 100 percent of the recommended intake for the vitamin, but taking larger amounts is safe.

The following are foods that are high in vitamin B12:

  • Beef
  • Cheese
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Turkey

Folate

Folate is one of the rare instances in which the synthetic form, folic acid, is actually better absorbed by the body than the natural form found in foods. So, fortified cereals and vitamin supplements (both of which use folic acid) are excellent sources of folate.

In fact, the law requires folic acid to be added to enriched breads and grains. In supplements it is often found in combination with other B vitamins, especially B6 and B12, since they all work together to prevent the buildup of homocysteine in the blood.

Here is a list of foods that are high in folate:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Beets
  • Chickpeas
  • Enriched bread, pasta, and rice
  • Lentils
  • Orange juice
  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens
  • Wheat germ

Choline

Choline is primarily found in meats and dairy and soy products, but it can also be found in lesser amounts in other foods, such as fish and vegetables. Eggs, including the yolks, and organ meats have the highest amount of choline. In fact, one egg provides about half your daily recommended intake.

Most people get an adequate amount of choline from the foods they eat, so choline supplements are not necessary if you eat a balanced, varied diet. However, because many of the foods highest in choline are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol, moderate your intake.

Here is a list of good sources of choline:

  • Bacon
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Organ meats
  • Pork
  • Salmon
  • Wheat germ

Vitamin C

Some nutrients are hard to get by diet alone, but vitamin C isn't one of them. Load up on fruits and vegetables, and you've got it made. Even the saturation level of 200 milligrams a day can easily be figured into your daily diet.

If you opt for supplements, there is no need to go over 400 milligrams a day, since the extra C appears to offer no health benefit. If you take more than 1,000 milligrams a day, you could trigger diarrhea and cramps.

These foods will help you get your dosage of vitamin C:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Cranberry juice cocktail
  • Grapefruit
  • Mango
  • Orange juice
  • Peppers, green or red, sweet
  • Strawberries
  • Swiss chard
  • Tomatoes

Vitamin D

Few foods actually contain vitamin D in its ready-to-use form. Fortified breakfast cereals may provide approximately 40 to 50 International Units (IU) of vitamin D, but this amount does not ensure adequate intake. Even in milk the levels of vitamin D vary considerably. That's why it's a good idea to get at least some exposure to the sun, which allows your skin to make up the difference by manufacturing D on its own.

To ensure adequate intake of vitamin D, it's best to take a multivitamin with 400 IU of vitamin D and eat a balanced diet. Limit your intake -- from food sources and supplements -- to an absolute maximum of 2,000 International Units, or 50 micrograms, a day. Taking more could spell trouble and put you at risk for weakened bones.

The following foods are all good sources of vitamin D:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Eggs
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Margarine
  • Milk

Vitamin E

There's much disagreement over how much E is enough to keep you healthy. The official recommended intake is 15 milligrams of alpha-tocopherol a day, which is easy to obtain from your diet with a little planning. But some evidence suggests that you need far more than that amount for antioxidant protection.

Since vitamin E is naturally packaged in fatty foods, you'd need to take vitamin E supplements for higher intakes of the vitamin. Eating too many fatty foods would put you at risk of exceeding your calorie quota. Vitamin E supplements range widely.

Consuming up to 1,000 milligrams a day of any form of supplemental alpha-tocopherol is considered safe. Supplements containing natural, rather than synthetic, vitamin E pack more antioxidant punch per milligram, so opt for natural when you can.

Here is a list of foods that are high in vitamin E:

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Kale
  • Mayonnaise
  • Olive oil
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Wheat germ

Continue to the next and final page in this article to review the mineral requirements for seniors.

Meeting Mineral Requirements for Seniors

Minerals might not receive as much attention as vitamins, but they can be just as important to your diet. The following are mineral recomendations for people over 50.

Calcium

Low fat dairy foods are your best bet for getting calcium into your diet. No other natural calcium source can beat an 8-ounce glass of milk or an 8-ounce carton of yogurt (300 milligrams). Some soy milks are fortified with calcium, but they are not naturally rich in calcium. Be sure to read labels carefully.

Calcium-fortified orange juice is another calcium-rich option. An 8-ounce glass of fortified orange juice provides as much calcium as an 8-ounce glass of milk. For an extra calcium boost, you can also try adding nonfat dry milk to dishes such as casseroles, cream soups, puddings, breads, pancake and waffle batter, and even to already calcium-rich dairy foods such as yogurt, milkshakes, and even a glass of milk.

If you're not a fan of dairy, then calcium supplements are your best bet. Try to limit your dosage to no more than 500 milligrams at a time. Research shows that's the dose at which absorption is best. Calcium citrate and calcium citrate malate, the forms found in some supplements and in fortified juices, appear to be among the most absorbable kinds of calcium.

Here is a list of calcium-rich foods:

  • Black-eyed peas
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk
  • Cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Kale
  • Milk
  • Spinach
  • Tofu prepared with calcium sulfate
  • Yogurt

Chromium

You won't find a long list of foods that are rich in chromium. Unrefined foods that aren't overly processed are your best bets, since chromium is often one of the casualties of food processing. Some fortified cereals add chromium to the nutrient mix, making them good sources of the mineral.

Multivitamins usually contain 100 percent of the recommended chromium intake. However, there are several supplements that offer chromium in larger amounts for lowering blood sugar and losing weight. Studies show that chromium supplements (chromium picolinate is one of the best-absorbed forms of chromium) may help regulate blood sugar, but the jury is still out on its effectiveness as a weight-loss aid.

Here is a list of foods that have high chromium levels:

  • American cheese
  • Beef
  • Beer
  • Black pepper
  • Bran cereals
  • Brewer's yeast
  • Broccoli
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fortified cereals
  • Oysters
  • Red wine
  • Wheat germ

Iron

To keep your iron intake down, limit or avoid iron-fortified foods. Read Nutrition Facts and Supplement Facts labels carefully to avoid fortified foods and supplements that contain extra iron. Supplements dubbed "senior" or "silver" often have low levels of iron or none at all. Don't take in more meat (a source of the readily absorbed heme iron) than you need. A small 3-ounce serving is all the iron you need.

The following are foods that are rich in iron:

  • Beef
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Fortified cereals
  • Liver
  • Molasses, blackstrap
  • Oysters
  • Wheat germ

Magnesium

Magnesium is present in a broad selection of plant and animal foods, which should make it fairly easy to get enough in your diet. But magnesium intakes are notoriously low because the mineral is usually present in small amounts. Depending on the food choices you make, you could easily be low in the much-needed nutrient.

Magnesium is also available in some laxatives (think Milk of Magnesia). Most multivitamins contain 100 percent of the recommended intake, but some bone-formula supplements provide even more. Take in too much, however, and you could feel magnesium's laxative effects.

These foods will help you meet your magnesium requirements:

  • Almonds
  • Artichokes
  • Brown rice
  • Cashews
  • Lentils
  • Oat bran
  • Peanut butter
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Wheat germ
  • Whole-wheat bread

Potassium

Because potassium is present in all plant and animal cells, it's pretty easy to come by in the diet. Among the richest sources, however, are fruits and vegetables. There's no need to take potassium supplements unless prescribed by a doctor; in fact, they can be deadly, causing the heart to stop beating if you take too much.

Here is a list of foods that are high in potassium:

  • Apricots, dried
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Chickpeas
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Dried plums
  • Lentils
  • Milk
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomato juice
  • Yogurt

Selenium

Probably the best sources of selenium are the strange trio of Brazil nuts, organ meats, and seafood. Selenium also is in a variety of vegetables, but how much depends to a great extent on the level of selenium in the soil in which they were grown. Selenium supplements are okay, but be cautious. More than 400 micrograms a day could cause hair loss and nerve damage.

The following foods are all high in slenium:

  • Beef or calf liver
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic
  • Halibut
  • Lobster
  • Mushrooms
  • Oysters
  • Sardines
  • Shrimp
  • Wheat germ
  • Whole-wheat bread

Zinc

Vegetarians may have a bit of trouble getting enough zinc in their diets since red meat is one of the richest sources of the mineral, outdone only by oysters. Fortified cereals almost always have zinc added at levels of about 25 percent of the recommended intake; multivitamins usually have 100 percent or more of the recommended intake.

Be sure not to overdo on zinc supplements because you can suppress your immune system as well as lower HDLs (high-density lipoproteins), the "good cholesterol" in your blood.

Last but not least, here are foods that are rich in zinc:

  • Beef
  • Brewer's yeast
  • Crab
  • Fortified cereals
  • Legumes
  • Liver
  • Oysters
  • Pork
  • Shrimp
  • Turkey
  • Wheat germ
  • Yogurt

Credits:

Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D. (writer) 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. (consultant) 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 WebMD.com. She also writes for publications such as Parenting magazine and The Boston Globe.

Related Articles