There’s a reason they’re nicknamed “the golden years”—they are meant to be a time of renewal, rest, or leisure after years of hard work. However, many older adults are occupied dealing with chronic health conditions instead of living their best life.
Luckily, there are many ways to prioritize nutrition for seniors, and healthy eating plays a major role. Read on for the top nutrition tips for seniors, including the best diet for seniors.
Importance of Healthy Eating for Seniors
Nutrition is important for everyone, but nutrition for older adults is especially crucial. Healthy aging is influenced by a number of factors, and diet is a big influence on health during the later years of life. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says it best: “The golden years are not the time for extreme diets or drastic weight loss.”
Leading up to and during “the golden years” is a great time to focus on healthy eating. Honing your habits as you age can help you create positive patterns that allow you to sustain an excellent level of wellness throughout this special stage of life.
As a general goal, aim to meet your nutrient needs while staying within your recommended calorie range each day. Similar to other health goals, like exercising enough, you can lean on the advice of trusted healthcare experts when you encounter barriers to healthy living along the way. A dietitian is considered the top nutrition expert, and working with a geriatric dietitian can help you overcome the unique nutrition challenges you experience as a senior.
Key Nutrients for Aging Adults
Understanding which nutrients you need can help you to make more informed food choices. The following nutrients are especially important for seniors and can help you feel full between meals and fueled each day.
Protein plays an important role in the body, especially for seniors. It’s a macronutrient (along with fats and carbohydrates), and helps to build and maintain lean muscle mass. Additionally, protein helps to repair body tissues and fight infection. These functions are crucial for seniors, since seniors are considered a vulnerable population.
Some popular protein foods include:
- Lean meats (like poultry)
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy products (such as tofu)
You may have heard that fat is “bad” for heart health. However, the body needs healthy fats (the unsaturated kind), and choosing healthy fats over saturated fast can actually help prevent heart disease. Fats are also crucial to promoting a feeling of fullness, which can help older adults without an appetite.
A helpful reminder when choosing between fats is that most saturated fats are solid at room temperature. On the other hand, saturated fats are often liquid at room temperature. Here are a few healthy fats to choose over butter, lard, or tropical oils (like coconut or palm oil):
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Safflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Sunflower oil
Vitamins and Minerals
So, what micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are good for seniors? One necessary nutrient is calcium, which helps to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. A major source of calcium is dairy, but leafy green vegetables also contain a good amount. Fortified milk alternatives and soy products also usually contain sodium.
Along with calcium, vitamins like vitamin D are important. Vitamin D works with calcium to keep bones strong. Luckily, fatty fish (especially those eaten with the small bones) like sardines and salmon contain both calcium and vitamin D. Since it may be difficult to obtain in adequate amounts from the diet, many milk and cereal products are fortified with vitamin D. Sunlight also helps convert this vitamin in the body into a more usable form, so getting at least 15 minutes of sunlight each day may also help.
Nutrients that act as antioxidants are also important. Antioxidants help to maintain and repair the body at a cellular level, and help to prevent cellular stress. Many vitamins and minerals act as antioxidants in the body, such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
Getting enough vitamin B12 is also crucial. Like other B vitamins, vitamin B12 contributes to metabolism, cell health, and nerve health. It’s believed to be strongly tied to energy levels, yet some people over the age of 50 have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 as they age.
Work with a doctor to better understand your vitamin B12 status and whether supplementation of B12—or any of the other vitamins or minerals listed—may be necessary.
Addressing Nutritional Challenges in Older Adults
Some difficult nutritional roadblocks may occur as you age. Luckily, there are many available solutions to help make eating during “the golden years” easier.
Loss of Appetite
One common problem for elderly eaters is loss of appetite. Some seniors begin losing weight unintentionally because their body’s hunger cues aren’t quite communicating with the rest of their body properly.
Fortunately, eating healthy calorie-dense foods can help you obtain enough calories and enough nutrients.
With swallowing, chewing, or gastrointestinal (GI) difficulties, meals may feel more like a chore than something to look forward to. If eating is painful in any way for you, working with a doctor, dietitian, or other healthcare provider can be helpful.
For example, a dietitian may recommend a soft foods diet to ease the eating process if you experience complications with chewing or swallowing.
Immobility & Disability
Immobility and disability can cause significant barriers to eating well. Physical limitations can complicate nearly every step, from obtaining food from the grocery store to cooking to eating. It can also make physical activity more difficult. As with eating complications, working your healthcare team can help introduce solutions while ensuring you’re getting the nutrients you need.
Meal delivery or programs like Meals on Wheels may also be appropriate for your situation and make mealtime more enjoyable.
What’s the Best Diet for Seniors?
The “best” diet for you is the one that fulfills your personal nutritional needs. For example, the best diet for someone with diabetes may be carbohydrate-controlled, while the best diet for a senior with celiac disease is a gluten-free diet.
If you don’t have major health conditions but are looking for a more formal diet to follow, the following eating patterns may help maintain health as an aging adult:
- Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH diet)
- Mediterranean diet
- Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND diet)
General nutrition tips can also provide guidelines for healthy eating that can help you fill your plate with nutrient-rich foods.
How to Create a Healthy Diet for Seniors
Wondering where to start? The following tips can encourage you to choose foods that can maintain health and wellness at any age.
Focus on Nutrient-Rich Options
So, what exactly is considered “healthy food,” and what isn’t? Foods that are healthy are generally lower in calories, salt, added sugars, and saturated fats, and higher in nutrients—aka nutrient-dense. This may require a mindset shift and careful studying of a nutrient label before purchasing products.
Other times, it may require remembering a simple phrase. For example, the adage “make half your grains whole” can help remind you to minimize refined grains when you can and choose whole grains whenever possible.
Since snacks can be high in sugar, salt, and calories, snacks are a great place to start practicing better healthy eating skills. It may also be helpful to think of food as fuel— premium (nutrient-rich) picks can help optimize your body’s efficiency and performance.
Create a Colorful Plate
Another simple tip for creating a nutritious plate is to “eat the rainbow.” In other words, add as many different colored foods as possible (fruits and vegetables in particular).
This tip can naturally prompt you to include foods from every food group without having to think too hard about each food’s nutrient content. Interestingly, the chemical compounds that cause produce to be certain colors are often the same compounds that make the food so nutritious!
It may sound silly, but it’s important to eat enough. Consuming too few calories can send the body into survival mode, where surviving is the priority instead of thriving.
A better understanding of portions and serving sizes can help you eat enough foods, without eating too much. This may require careful attention at first, but over time, measuring out portions will become second nature.
Along with consuming enough food, it’s important to drink enough hydrating fluids. Water is an obvious choice, and widely considered the healthiest option for hydrating the body. Other drinks that can contribute to your hydration goal include:
- Bone broth
- Fruit-infused, sparkling, or coconut waters (with no added sugar)
- No-sugar-added electrolyte drinks
- Smoothies or 100% fruit or vegetable juice
Other Nutrition Tips for Seniors
Creating a healthy meal may seem overwhelming, but these simple tips can help you streamline your meal-planning process.
Embrace Simple Meals
Meals don’t have to be complicated to be healthy. Quick, simple meals can be made with a crockpot, air fryer, or Instant Pot.
Devoting one day to meal prep or batch-cooking many meals at once can help you prepare multiple meal combinations in a relatively short amount of time. Hiring someone to cook or meal prep for you is also an option and may be especially helpful if living with a disability.
Consider Meal Delivery
Instead of hiring help to make meals, meal delivery is also an option. There’s no shame in outsourcing meals! Silver Cuisine is an excellent option, with various accommodations for different dietary limitations and preferences.
Eat Meals with Others
Missing the social component of meals? Invite loved ones or new friends to join you at your table. Not only can this be an easy way to share in the duties of meal planning (such as a weekly potluck meal among friends), but it can also be beneficial for mental health and seniors facing isolation.
Sharing a meal can be a meaningful way to connect with people you care about while also nourishing your body.
Nutrition for Seniors: Final Takeaways
Although seniors face unique challenges heading into their “golden years,” a qualified healthcare team can suggest helpful resources for fine-tuning a diet to individual needs. The best diet is the one that meets personal nutrition needs, and a dietitian can help you identify individualized healthy eating goals.
Even for apparently healthy seniors, following a formal diet (like the Mediterranean diet) can promote wellness and reduce disease risk. Options like meal delivery or sharing meals with friends can also help make mealtime easier, and tips like “eat the rainbow” and “make half your grains whole” can keep nutrition top of mind when preparing a plate.
Harvard School Of Public Health. Antioxidants. Hsph.harvard.edu.
National Institute on Aging. Healthy Eating As You Age: Know Your Food Groups. Nia.nih.gov. Published February 2022.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Healthier Fats and Oils Fact Sheet. Nhlbi.nih.gov. Published November 2022.
National Institute on Aging. How Much Should I Eat? Quantity and Quality. Nia.nih.gov. Published February 2022.
National Institute on Aging. Vitamins and Minerals for Older Adults. Nia.nih.gov. Published January 2021.