Nutrition as We Age: Healthy Eating with the Dietary Guidelines

By Dana DeSilva, PhD, RD, ORISE health policy fellow, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and LT Dennis Anderson-Villaluz, MBA, RD, LDN, FAND, nutrition advisor, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

Good nutrition across the lifespan helps prevent chronic disease — and we know that it’s never too late to make improvements to support healthy aging. Older adults are at greater risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer — as well as health conditions related to changes in muscle and bone mass, such as osteoporosis. The good news is that this population can mitigate some of these risks by eating nutrient-dense foods and maintaining an active lifestyle.

Older adults generally have lower calorie needs, but similar or even increased nutrient needs compared to younger adults. This is often due to less physical activity, changes in metabolism, or age-related loss of bone and muscle mass. Nutrient needs in this population are also affected by chronic health conditions, use of multiple medicines, and changes in body composition. Therefore, following a healthy dietary pattern and making every bite count is particularly important to this age group.

Special Considerations for Older Adults

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) measures diet quality based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Compared to other age ranges, older adults have the highest diet quality, with an HEI score of 63 out of 100. Although this is very encouraging, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy improves diet quality — as does cutting down on added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Support from health professionals, friends, and family can help older adults meet food group and nutrient recommendations.

Eating enough protein helps prevent the loss of lean muscle mass. But older adults often eat too little protein — especially adults ages 71 and older. Since most older adults are meeting recommendations for meats, poultry, and eggs, it’s important to remind them that seafood, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, beans, peas, and lentils are great sources of protein. These protein sources also provide additional nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and fiber.

The ability to absorb vitamin B12 can decrease with age and with the use of certain medicines. Health professionals can help older individuals get enough vitamin B12 by ensuring that they’re consuming enough through foods, such as breakfast cereals. Older adults should talk with their health care provider about the use of dietary supplements to increase vitamin B12 intake.

Healthy Beverage Choices for Older Adults

Sometimes it’s hard for older adults to drink enough fluids to stay hydrated because the sensation of thirst declines with age. Drinking enough water is a great way to prevent dehydration and help with digestion — and water doesn’t add any calories! Unsweetened fruit juices and low-fat or fat-free milk or fortified soy beverages can also help meet fluid and nutrient needs. Health care providers can remind older patients to enjoy beverages with meals and throughout the day.

If older adults choose to drink alcohol, they should only drink in moderation — 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women. Remember that this population may feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than they did when they were younger, which could increase the risk of falls and other accidents.

Supporting Older Adults in Healthy Eating

Similar to other life stages, health professionals, family, and friends can support older adults in achieving a healthy dietary pattern that fits with their budget, preferences, and traditions. Additional factors to consider when supporting healthy eating for older adults include:

  • Enjoyment of food — Sharing meals with friends and family can increase food enjoyment and provide a great opportunity to share a lifetime of stories, all while improving dietary patterns.
  • Ability to chew or swallow foods — Experimenting with different ways of cooking foods from all food groups can help identify textures that are acceptable, appealing, and enjoyable for older adults — especially those who have difficulties chewing or swallowing. Good dental health is also critical to the ability to chew foods.
  • Food safety — Practicing safe food handling is especially important for this age group. The risk of foodborne illness increases with age due to a decline in immune system function. Find more information on food safety for older adults and food safety for people with decreased immune system function [PDF – 2.4 MB].

Find Resources to Help Older Adults Eat Healthy

There are a number of government resources that health professionals can use to support older individuals in accessing and achieving a healthy dietary pattern.

  • Congregate Nutrition Services provides meals for people ages 60 and older and their spouses in senior centers, schools, and churches.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides temporary benefits to help with food purchases for people with limited incomes.
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) distributes monthly packages of nutritious foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Home-Delivered Nutrition Services provides older adults who have trouble leaving home or have certain health conditions with home-delivered meals.
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to older adults enrolled in daycare facilities.

Choosing healthy foods and actively using nutrition resources can help people make every bite count, no matter their age. For more information about these resources for older adults, check out Nutrition Programs for Seniors from Nutrition.gov.

Categories: health.gov Blog