Healthy eating tips for older adults

March 20, 2024 Providence Nutrition Team


In this article:

  • Eating a healthy diet is especially important as we age.

  • Providence Swedish Dietitian Megann Karch offers tips on how older adults can overcome obstacles to maintaining a healthy diet.

  • Learn more about how Providence Swedish can help you eat better as you age.

The secret to healthy aging is about nutrition

Eating a well-balanced diet is important at every stage of life. However, healthy eating becomes more important as we age. Good nutrition along with physical activity can help boost immunity and prevent serious health issues such as osteoporosis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and more.  

Although making healthy food choices may seem daunting, Providence Swedish Dietitian Megann Karch, RDN, CD, says it doesn’t have to be difficult.

“Eating a healthy diet is about making sure we include beneficial foods. Identify things that you enjoy and find ways to make it easier to eat those foods more often,” says Karch.

Choosing the right foods

The rules of healthy eating don’t change as we age, but we do need more protein to help maintain our muscle mass over time. It’s important to have protein with every meal and snack. While meat and dairy are dense sources of protein, it’s also beneficial to include plant-based protein sources such as legumes, beans, nuts and seeds. These foods come with important fiber, vitamins and minerals.

It’s still important to eat food from the five basic food groups which include fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein and grains. However, older adults generally need fewer calories and increased nutrients.

When it comes to choosing the right foods, Karch says you can start with these healthy eating tips:

  • Include plenty of fruits and vegetables – If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t get the recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables a day. These nutritious foods should fill half of your plate. You can eat fresh, frozen or canned fruit and vegetables. Read the nutrition facts label to make sure you are choosing low-sodium options.
  • Think about your protein sources – Getting enough protein is important as you age. Protein from animal sources provides vitamin B12, which is a nutrient many older adults need and can be harder to absorb due to certain medications. Choose lean protein options such as chicken, salmon, lentils and low-fat dairy. Limit red meat and ultra-processed meats like lunch meat, sausage and bacon, which can cause health problems such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
  • Get enough calcium – Calcium and vitamin D maintain strong bones and teeth and can help prevent osteoporosis. Try to have at least three servings of fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt or cheese each day. If you are choosing plant-based dairy alternatives, look for options that are calcium-fortified.
  • Choose “good fat” over “no fat” – Healthy fats, including omega-3s, are good for you. They promote heart health and can help lower your cholesterol. They also aid in joint health. You can find omega-3s in fatty fish like salmon, flaxseeds and walnuts.
  • Include more fiber – A diet rich in fiber is good for your digestive system and can prevent issues with constipation. Look for bread, cereal and other items made with 100% whole grain. Other foods with whole grains include brown rice, millet and oats.  
  • Drink water – Drink plenty of liquids throughout the day. Drinking water is best, but milk and 100% juice are great options too. 

Make a plan

Trying to figure out what to eat can be difficult. Karch says creating a meal plan can help you make healthy choices.

“Making a meal plan for the week can help you be more successful at eating the healthy foods you enjoy. By planning ahead and not waiting until you are hungry to make your food decisions, it can also help reduce stress and food waste. Make sure you plan for some treats too,” Karch says.

You can find sample meal plans online at the National Institute on Aging. When creating a meal plan, choose recipes you are comfortable making that are also within your budget. Creating a meal plan can also help when it comes time to go to the grocery store.

Overcoming obstacles

Eating healthy and getting the nutrients you need may become more difficult as you age. Some common issues include difficulty chewing or swallowing, budgetary concerns, physical or mobility issues and side effects from medication.

Karch says it’s important to recognize these challenges so you can overcome them. “In many cases, dietary issues can be dealt with by working with a dietitian or your physician. We can find ways to make food more appealing or substitute foods that could be causing an issue with something equally nutritious,” says Karch.

She has some advice for common issues older adults face when it comes to eating healthy.

  • Dealing with problems chewing or swallowing food – If you have trouble chewing, Karch suggests seeing your dentist. Your dentist can evaluate you for any issues and troubleshoot problems. If you have trouble swallowing, Karch recommends making an appointment with your health care provider.
  • Overcoming physical limitations – In some cases, health conditions such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease or stroke can make it difficult to cook or eat. An occupational therapist can give you exercises to help or recommend specialized tools to make mealtime easier.
  • Combatting medication side effects – Some medications may cause foods to taste or smell differently than you are used to. To enhance flavor you can try adding herbs, spices, vinegars or citrus juice to your foods. When you start a new medication, be sure to talk to your doctor about any food-related side effects.
  • Tackling loneliness – Make mealtime more enjoyable by doing things like eating with friends or loved ones, setting the table for yourself, listening to music and practicing mindful eating. Pay attention to your senses as you are eating. Focus on how the food smells, tastes and feels in your mouth.
  • Avoiding budget concerns – There are several programs available to ensure older adults have access to healthy foods. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides food benefits to those needing it.

If you feel like your diet isn’t meeting your nutritional needs, Karch suggests talking to your health care provider about including a supplement in your diet.

Contributing caregiver

Megann Karch is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Clinical Dietitian with Providence Swedish. 

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Related resources

How to embrace healthy eating with healthy habits

Eat your heart out: Food for better heart health

Start the new year with healthy habits

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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