Maybe your mother can no longer drive to the grocery store, your dad doesn’t feel that hungry anymore, or grandma says foods just don’t taste the same these days. As people age, many roadblocks to healthy eating can arise. 

And these hurdles are translating into unhealthy diets for seniors. According to Scott Seabaugh of Home Assist, studies show many older adults do not get enough important nutrients needed to maintain a healthy body. “Eating the proper foods can give seniors more energy, keep them from getting sick, recover more quickly from illness, and help to control chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and obesity.”

With all these positive impacts, local, state and national health agencies are doing everything they can to promote healthy eating among the elderly. For example, the Modified Food Pyramid for Older Adults can educate seniors on the specific needs of their bodies as they age, Seabaugh notes. The pyramid includes:

• Whole, enriched, and fortified grains and cereals, such as brown rice and whole wheat bread

• Bright-colored vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli

• Deep-colored fruit, such as berries and melon

• Low- and non-fat dairy products, such as yogurt and low-lactose milk

• Dry beans and nuts, fish, poultry, lean meat and eggs

• Liquid vegetable oils and soft spreads low in saturated and trans fat

• Fluid intake

• Physical activity such as walking, house work and yard work

Seabaugh also advises including nutrient-dense, low-fat and high-fiber foods. “Studies have shown that eating three or more fruits and vegetables a day helps people maintain a healthy weight, decreases the risk of chronic diseases and increases energy and brain function.” He adds that as people age, less energy may be needed. “But you still need just as many of the nutrients in food.” To get those vital nutrients, he suggests:

• Choosing a variety of healthy foods

• Avoiding empty calories—foods with lots of calories, but few nutrients—such as chips, cookies, soda and alcohol

• Selecting foods that are low in cholesterol and fat, especially saturated and trans fats

Michael P. Gianino of Homewatch Caregivers agrees. “High-calorie, low-nutrient foods are bad for everyone, not just the elderly. Seniors should buy low-calorie, high-nutrient foods.” Gianino says the first step is to focus on food in the produce section at the grocery store, as opposed to the aisles filled with processed food. “Fruits and vegetables are always a must. We also encourage adding things like nuts and wheat germ to other foods such as cereal to boost nutrition.” And if seniors need extra help, home care agencies such as Home Assist and Homewatch Caregivers offer transportation to grocery stores and help with buying healthful foods. In addition, caregivers can help seniors with meal-planning and preparation.

When formulating nutritious meals, one option from the USDA suggests people 50 or older plan around the following healthy foods every day:

• 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of fruit

• 2 to 3 1/2 cups of vegetables

• 5 to 10 ounces of grains

• 5 to 7 ounces of protein foods

• 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk

• 5 to 8 teaspoons of oils

• Only small amounts of solid fats and added sugars

Gianino also recommends replacing refined food with fiber-filled substitutes, such as whole grain bread, which prevents constipation, a common health issue among the elderly. “And we encourage drinking lots of fluids, especially water, and taking medications with nutritious meals, because the chemicals from pills will absorb better when taken with food.”


How many calories do seniors need?

A woman older than 50 who is:

• Not physically active needs about 1,600 calories a day

• Somewhat physically active needs about 1,800 calories a day

• Very active needs about 2,000 calories a day

A man older than 50 who is:

• Not physically active needs about 2,000 calories a day

• Somewhat physically active needs about 2,200-2,400 calories a day

• Very active needs about 2,400-2,800 calories a day

Source: National Institute of Aging