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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Healthy Eating over 70
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Lisa Jahns, R.D., Ph.D.

Whatever a person’s age, it is always important to eat a healthy diet.  As folks get older, their calorie and nutrient needs change and often, their eating habits change as well.  While a balanced diet—including a variety of nutrient-rich foods—is recommended for everyone, there are some extra things older individuals may wish to keep in mind for themselves and others they know.

Foods:  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (www.choosemyplate.gov) recommend that adults eat about 5 cups of vegetables and fruits, 3 cups of dairy foods, whole grains, and protein sources that include beans, fish and eggs. These amounts will vary according to a person’s activity level and whether he or she is trying to gain, lose, or maintain weight.  Consult a doctor before trying any weight-loss program.

Nutrients:  Most Americans do not consume enough fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin D.  Fiber helps to lower cholesterol, keeps blood sugar in a healthy range, promotes bowel health, and can prevent or reduce constipation. Fiber is found in whole grains, beans and many vegetables and fruits. Adequate potassium, along with eating less salt, helps to reduce risk of high blood pressure. Potassium is found in fresh vegetables and fruits and in dairy foods. Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health and are found in dairy products. Another nutrient of special concern is vitamin B12, which is found in meats and fortified breakfast cereals.  Because vitamin B12 may not be well utilized by older individuals, it is recommended that it be taken as a supplement or fortified food.   In general, it is best to meet nutrient needs with a varied diet, as foods also provide other health-promoting compounds.

Loss of appetite: Most people can expect to experience a loss of appetite as the years go by. Partly, this comes from burning fewer calories and, thus, needing less food. But other reasons can contribute:  acid reflux or other digestive disorders, physical difficulties in shopping or preparing foods, loneliness or just plain losing interest in food. Some ideas for keeping well-nourished include eating frequent, small meals or snacks instead of large meals, and not eating too late or before lying down.  For those who are cooking for one, consider using single-serving meals and frozen or canned vegetables that make stocking-up and preparing foods easier.  Try to eat with family or friends as often as possible—eating with others feeds the soul as well as the body.

Loss of thirst: Many people also lose the desire to drink fluids, and dehydration can be a serious problem.  Paying attention to how much fluid is being consumed and trying to get in 8 glasses of water each day will help.  Coffee and other caffeinated beverages can count, but most fluid intake should be plain water.

Food safety:  Older adults are more vulnerable to food poisoning, so extra attention to food safety is very important. Proper hand washing is the first step in avoiding food-borne illnesses, as well as reducing risk of colds and flu. Washing hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds is key. It is also important to promptly refrigerate leftovers and discard open packages of lunchmeat within 3 to 5 days. Be sure to check the expiration dates on milk and other perishables, and discard these products after the date has passed. Don’t thaw frozen meat on the counter, and be sure to use a separate knife and cutting board for raw meats.  The doctor should be called right away if food poisoning is suspected.

Food and drug interactions: Some foods when eaten can interact with some peoples’ medications, and make the medication more or less effective.  Grapefruit juice is an example of one such food.  Checking with the doctor to see if there are any foods that should be avoided when taking medications will lower the risk of this problem occurring.

Eating a balanced diet based upon the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can help people feel their best physically, emotionally, and mentally, and their bodies will be well nourished for it!

More individualized nutritional information can be obtained by contacting the Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC) of the USDA National Agricultural Library.  The FNIC Registered Dietitians and nutritionists are available to answer questions and help consumers locate resources. The FNIC Web site (www.fnic.nal.usda.gov) contains more than 2,500 links to current and reliable nutrition information as well as a “Contact Us” web page that includes an “Ask a Question form”. 


Last Modified: 12/30/2013
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