As you get older, a slowing metabolism, changing digestive system and even changes in appetite or emotional health all add up to a new set of nutritional needs. But ensuring you stick to a healthy diet can also become more challenging with age, especially if you face mobility issues or other age-related conditions that make it harder to go grocery shopping and prepare healthy meals.
Amy Klassman, registered dietitian and staff nutritionist at The Clare, a continuing care retirement community in Chicago, notes that seniors can be set in their ways and used to eating what they want, making it tough to get them to change their dietary habits. She recommends that older adults make small changes toward a healthier diet that work with their unique daily schedules.
While residents of senior living communities have on-site chefs and nutritious meals provided, those who are aging in place have to do a bit more planning to ensure they’re maintaining a healthy diet.
Tim Murray, founder and president of North Carolina-based senior home care company Aware Senior Care, says he sees a lot of elderly clients eating poorly.
“We see it often – when you’re single or even in a couple, or if you have a chronic illness slowing you down, meals are tedious,” he says.
Over time, poor eating habits like reaching for convenient junk food over healthy meals and snacks can add up to weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, among other conditions. Being overweight can also make it harder for older adults to live independently, Murray notes. That’s why the company has teamed up with medical professionals to host seminars advising clients on better meal planning and preparation, he says.
In addition to planning meals, there are plenty of relatively easy ways for seniors to eat healthier – from commonsense approaches like swapping junk food for produce to enlisting loved ones to help with grocery shopping and cooking or trying out one of a growing number of meal delivery services.
In honor of National Nutrition Month, we asked nutritionists and senior care experts for their tips to help seniors eat healthier, this month and every month.
1. Make a list and follow it
Nutritionists and senior care experts alike highlight the importance of planning out meals and snacks before heading to the grocery store as a key habit to help ensure older adults get the nutrition they need.
Right at Home of Lower Manhattan, a senior home care company, recommends that seniors make a detailed list of food and drinks to last for several days, and stick to the outer ring of the supermarket where whole foods are typically stocked. “For older adults who typically cook for one or two, consider which foods can be made in larger quantities but safely stored for additional meals,” company representatives advised in a recently released tipsheet on healthy eating.
2. Plan for help
If you have an older loved one who needs help with grocery shopping, make a point to take them to the supermarket yourself or arrange for another relative, friend, neighbor or volunteer to help out.
“You have to build your circle of support – you’ve got to have transportation and meals planned out,” says Murray.
If you’re considering hiring in-home care for yourself or a loved one, be sure to ask the agency whether this is one of the services they provide. Right at Home and Aware Senior Care are examples of senior home care providers today whose services include assisting clients with meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking.
3. Go for nutrient-dense, whole foods
Nutrient-dense foods are those full of nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and healthy fats, but not a lot of calories. Whole foods (foods that aren't processed or refined) are typically nutrient-dense and include fresh produce, fish and lean meat, poultry, nuts, legumes and eggs.
Namita Nayyar, president of womenfitness.net, says seniors who want to eat better should focus on “on a healthy daily eating plan that consists of whole foods to provide needed nutrients for the second part of life.”
Many whole foods can also help older adults get their share of vitamin D and Calcium. This is essential after the age of 70, when people need more of both nutrients to stay healthy, notes Toronto-based registered nutritionist Andy De Santis. He advises seniors to regularly eat leafy greens, legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, nuts and seeds in order to get more calcium, and fish and eggs to get more vitamin D.
4. Prep meals and snacks ahead of time
Once the kitchen is stocked with healthy foods, the next step is to prepare the ingredients for meals and snacks to make it easier to stick to a regular eating schedule. Eating regular meals and snacks can not only help seniors keep their energy levels up, it also means they won’t have to get their nutrients from convenient but unhealthy sources like chips, cookies and fast food.
“I recommend frequent, small meals to aging adults because it keeps their blood sugar levels steady and helps them feel satiated throughout the day,” says Lisa Shepet, Director of Nursing for Maryland-based home care company Family & Nursing Care. “Planning snacks and meals and portioning them out in plastic bags makes snacking easy.”
5. Balance your plate and check your portions
Older adults who struggle with weight issues and related health conditions can follow a balanced plate method to ensure they’re getting the right ratio of different types of foods, says registered dietitian Andrea Goergen.
A balanced plate “with one-half non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter lean protein, and one-quarter starch can make losing weight and managing blood sugar levels much easier,” she says. Maintaining a healthy weight and blood sugar levels is key to lowering the risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other conditions that become more prevalent with age.
6. Try a meal delivery service
These days, there are a growing number of meal delivery services that seniors can turn to for a wider variety of food and to reduce the amount of time they need to spend on meal preparation, notes Klassman.
Meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated deliver ingredients and recipes to create healthy meals at home in many major metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. Smaller meal delivery services have also sprung up throughout the country to serve local communities. Murray says the emergence of local companies that deliver pre-cooked meals has been a big help to some seniors in the Raleigh, NC area.
Keeping hydrated is an essential yet easily overlooked part of a healthy diet for any adult, and especially for seniors. Adults over 50 are more likely to become dehydrated as both your sense of thirst and your kidneys’ ability to conserve water decrease, according to John Muir Health.
“Aging adults often do not consume enough liquids throughout the day,” says Shepet. “I recommend keeping a glass of water within easy reach and purposefully taking a sip during TV commercials or other automatic pauses in activities.”