Senior hunger and nutrition is a serious issue in the United States with upwards 10 million older Americans at risk of facing hunger and possibly malnutrition. There are many resources available to help seniors access food and learn healthy eating habits. As our bodies age, our nutritional requirements change. Our metabolisms slow down reducing the need for as many calories as once required. It is especially important to choose foods which give the best nutritional value.
Our bodies need the right nutrients as well as healthy body weight. These are two crucial parts of staying active and independent. This is especially true if you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease. Healthy eating habits can reduce the time spent seeing your doctor and give you more time to do the things you enjoy.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has guidelines for showing seniors what they should eat each day. MyPlate is a simple graphic which shows exactly how the five food groups should stack up on your plate. Your plate should look like a rainbow, bright, colored foods are always the best choice! Remember to choose foods that are high in fiber and low in sodium or salt. Also, look for Vitamin D, an important mineral as we age. MyPlate link to healthy eating.
- Drink plenty of liquids
With age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst. Drink water often. Low-fat or fat-free milk or 100% juice also helps you stay hydrated. Limit beverages that have lots of added sugars or salt. Learn which liquids are healthier choices.
- Make eating a social event
Meals are more enjoyable when you eat with others. Invite a friend to join you or take part in a potluck at least twice a week. A senior center or place of worship may offer meals that are shared with others.
- Plan healthy meals
Find sensible, flexible ways to choose and prepare tasty meals so you can eat the foods you need. Get advice on what to eat, how much to eat, and which foods to choose, all based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans found at the ChooseMyPlate website.
- Know how much to eat
Learn to recognize how much to eat so you can control portion size. When eating out, pack part of your meal to eat later. One restaurant dish might be enough for two meals or more.
- Use Herbs and Spices
Foods may seem to lose their flavor as you age. If favorite dishes taste different, it may not be the cook! Maybe your sense of smell, sense of taste, or both has changed. Medicines may also change how foods taste. Add flavor to your meals with herbs and spices.
- Eat for your teeth and gums
People with dental problems sometimes find it hard to chew fruits, vegetables, or meats. Many seniors find that their teeth and gums change as they age. Try cooked or canned foods like unsweetened fruit, low-sodium soups, or canned tuna. Eating softer foods may help reduce the pain and soreness.
- Ask your doctor about vitamins or supplements
Should you take dietary supplements such as vitamins or powders with herbs and minerals? Some vitamins, minerals, and herbs can interfere with your medical conditions and/or your medicines. Food is the best way to get the nutrients you need. It is always best to check with your doctor about supplements.
- Read the Nutrition Facts label
Pay attention to important nutrients as well as calories, fats, sodium, and the rest of the Nutrition Facts label. Ask your doctor if there are ingredients and nutrients you might need to limit or to increase. It is important to make wise choices when buying food.
- Keep food safe
A food-related illness can be life-threatening for an older person. Throw out food that might not be safe. Don’t take chances with your health and avoid certain foods that are always risky for seniors, such as unpasteurized dairy foods. Other foods can be harmful to you when they are raw or undercooked, such as eggs, sprouts, fish, shellfish, meat, or poultry.
- Vary your vegetables
Most vegetables are a low-calorie source of nutrients and a natural source for fiber. Include a variety of different colored, flavored, and textured vegetables. Dark green vegetables include broccoli, collard greens, spinach, and kale. Some red and orange vegetables are acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, tomato, and sweet potato. Other vegetables include eggplant, beets, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, celery, artichokes, green beans, and onions. Starchy vegetables are foods like corn, green peas, and white potatoes.
Even when you know what healthy foods to choose, being able to pay for them can be hard, especially if you are on a fixed income. Start by deciding how much you can afford to spend on food. Once you have a budget, find store ads in the newspaper or grocery store websites to see what is on sale. Try to plan some meals around featured items and pick up some extra canned goods or staples that are on sale. A product might be on sale because it is almost out of date. Choose items with dates farthest in the future. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. To meet nutrient needs within calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts.
When your body lacks nutrition, your white blood cell count can decrease, making it harder for your body to heal and fight illnesses and affecting your body’s immune system. A deficiency of fluids and electrolytes can cause your kidneys to overwork and affect their ability to function. This can lead to dehydration, joint pain, and heart issues.
It may seem overwhelming at first, but the first step is easy. Decide what you like to eat and set your monthly food budget. If you are over age 50 and you want to stay at the weight you are now—not lose and not gain, how many calories do you need to eat each day? For a woman who is not physically active, the daily calorie intake is 1600 calories. A man is not physically active should have 2000 to 2200 calories per day. The more active you are the more calories allowed.
National Council on Aging (NCOA 2019). https://www.ncoa.org/economic-security/benefits/food-and-nutrition/senior-nutrition.
National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health (NIH. April 29, 2019). https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/choosing-healthy-meals-you-get-older.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA 2019). https://www.choosemyplate.gov.