Healthy eating habits reduce the risk for diet-related chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain kinds of cancers (HHS & USDA, 2015). They also help to ensure your body is receiving the nutrients it needs. Diet fads and nutrition misinformation in the media may make this area of health seem confusing, but there are science-based studies from credible sources that can provide some clearer guidance. Here are some guidelines on creating healthy eating patterns from some of these sources, specifically for older adults.
MyPlate is a set of recommendations for healthy eating that shows you the proportions of different food groups you should have on your plate. It is highlighted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a tool for meeting the 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (HHS & USDA, 2015).
MyPlate places food into five groups: Vegetables, grains, fruits, protein, and dairy. This graphic shows around how much of each group you should try to have for your intake.
Image credit: USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (USDA, n.d.)
As the graphic shows, vegetables are the largest category, followed by grains, then protein and fruit, and finally dairy. The measurable amounts you eat from each depend on your caloric intake. Visit MyPlate Plan to find out your personalized calorie recommendation, plus the specific amounts of each food group that you are advised to eat.
Seeking Nutrient-Dense Foods
In addition to these portions, the kinds of foods you eat from each group is important to note. Here are some guidelines for choosing healthy foods within the MyPlate groups (HHS & USDA, 2015):
- Vegetables: Vegetables can vary in their type ̶dark green, red, orange, legumes (beans and peas), starch-heavy, and more. Try to eat a variety of different types.
- Fruits: Eating whole fruits, like an apple or banana, provides more dietary fiber than non-whole forms of fruit, like juices or smoothies.
- Grains: Try to have at least half of your grains be whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, and products made with whole wheat flour.
- Protein: Healthy sources of protein include lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
- Dairy: Try to prioritize fat-free or low-fat dairy and look for products fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
Many of these guidelines are geared towards maximizing the amount of nutrient-dense foods you eat. “Nutrient-dense” means that nutrients and other healthy components (like vitamins and minerals) are concentrated in a food, rather than being diluted by other calories from solid fats, sugars, or refined starches. Since older adults tend to require a lower caloric intake, it is especially important for them to prioritize nutrient-dense foods like the ones listed above, in order to consume the necessary amount of nutrients (NIDDK, 2020).
Reading Nutrition Facts Labels (FDA, 2020a)
Nutrition Facts labels are a helpful way to evaluate what foods you eat based on their nutritional content. It is broadly separated into four parts: Servings Per Container, Serving Size, Calories, and % Daily Value.
- Servings Per Container tells you the number of servings that the food package contains. The Nutrition Facts label gives you information for a single serving, although packages often contain multiple servings.
- Serving Size indicates how much one serving is. This feature can help you track how much you are eating within the MyPlate food groups, if you are measuring the amount consumed of each.
- Calories tells you how many calories are in one serving of food.
- % Daily Value it tells you how much of each nutrient the food contains, measured against the recommended amount for a 2,000-calorie diet. For example, if the number next to “Total Carbohydrate” reads “20%,” that means that one serving contains 20 percent of the recommended daily amount of carbohydrates.
- In general, when a food contains 5 percent Daily Value or less, it is considered low in that nutrient. When it contains 20 percent Daily Value or more, it is considered high.
Image Credit: Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (FDA, 2020b)
Nutrition Facts: What to Look For, What to Limit (FDA, 2020a)
Older adults are encouraged to search for foods high in dietary fiber, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Many older adults do not consume enough of these nutrients, which are important for digestion, bone health, and functioning of the heart, muscle, and nervous systems.
Older adults often consume too much saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Try to choose foods that have lower amounts of these three components. In general, older adults should also try to limit foods that contain many calories and few essential nutrients. These include sugar-sweetened drinks and foods, foods made with solid fats (butter, lard, margarine, shortening), and foods high in added fat and salt.
Asian cooking can tend to be especially high in sodium – for information on reducing the kinds of sodium commonly found in Asian foods, see JACL’s “Facts on Salt”. Instead of adding more salt to different meals, consider adding flavor through various herbs and spices.
Malnutrition and Maintaining a Healthy Appetite
Creating and following healthy eating habits like those outlined in MyPlate helps prevent against malnutrition. Malnutrition is a health condition that happens when a person’s body does not receive enough nutrients, and is often indicated by rapid weight loss, tiredness and irritability, and a lack of interest in food and drink. Older adults tend to be at a higher risk for malnutrition as a result of restricted diets, illness, social isolation, or other health-related factors (NHS 2020).
Despite the prevalence of malnutrition in older adults, this condition often goes undiagnosed by physicians and nurses (Volkert et al 2010). However, you can do a basic check for malnutrition on your own. A simple way to test this is checking your Body Mass Index (BMI), using a BMI Calculator. In general, a BMI of lower than 18.5 is considered malnourished. If you think you or a loved one is experiencing malnutrition, inform your doctor. Malnutrition can be linked to an underlying health cause, which should be addressed.
Here are some additional tips to stimulate appetite and plan for healthy eating (Semeco 2017).
- Exercise: Light, daily exercise can stimulate appetite by burning calories and increasing the speed at which your body digests food.
- Seasoning: As people age, their sense of taste and smell may weaken, which can lead to a decreased desire to eat. Try experimenting with stronger herbs and spices to add more flavor to your food. Additionally, a category of seasoning called carminative herbs and spices helps decrease bloating and stimulates appetite. Some of these include fennel, peppermint, black pepper, coriander, mint, ginger, and cinnamon.
- Schedule your meals: Setting times to eat your meals can remind you to eat even if you do not feel hungry. Additionally, knowing when your meals are coming up can keep you on track for planning what foods you will be eating.
- Make meals social: If you know when you will be eating, you can start planning to eat with others, so that mealtimes are something to look forward to. Try to eat with others in your household; or alternatively, schedule a mealtime Zoom call with a loved one.
- Snack: If you find yourself eating less in one sitting, try to incorporate nutrient-rich snacks throughout your day. Some examples of healthy snacks are fruit, nuts, granola bars, yogurt, and trail mix.
In addition to the nutrients you consume, your body needs a healthy amount of fluids in order to digest your food and absorb nutrients from it. The amount of water you need depends on your level of activity and other physical factors, but in general, you are recommended to drink four to six cups of water a day (Harvard Health, 2016).
When planning your next meal, we challenge you to try selecting your food in accordance with MyPlate guidelines. Find out your recommended amounts with the MyPlate Plan, and practice reading the Nutrition Facts labels on your food packaging as you prepare. Before starting a new meal plan or changing your food intake, be sure to check in with your physician or a nutritionist to determine that this change will work for you and your current health situation. Additionally, if you take any medication that affects your appetite, ask your doctor if they have any suggestions or options to address that issue.
Bobroff, L. B. (2016, June 07). MyPlate for Older Adults. Retrieved from http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1260
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 8th Edition. (2015, December). Retrieved from http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020, March). How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020, March). Using the Nutrition Facts Label: For Older Adults. Retrieved July, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/using-nutrition-facts-label-older-adults
Facts on Salt: Asian Foods. (2013, June). Retrieved from https://jacl.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/13101007_JACL_SodiumFactSheet_June2013-f.pdf
Harvard Health Publishing. (2016, September). How much water should you drink? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-water-should-you-drink
Health Tips for Older Adults. (2019, October 01). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/healthy-eating-physical-activity-for-life/health-tips-for-older-adults?dkrd=/health-information/weight-management/health-tips-older-adults
MyPlate Graphic Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/resources/myplate-graphic-resources
Scotland National Health Service. Malnutrition symptoms and treatments. (2020, February 14). Retrieved from https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/nutritional/malnutrition#about-malnutrition
Semeco, A. (2017, September 18). 16 Ways to Increase Your Appetite. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/16-ways-to-increase-appetite
Volkert, D., Saeglitz, C., Gueldenzoph, H., Sieber, C. C., & Stehle, P. (2010). Undiagnosed malnutrition and nutrition-related problems in geriatric patients. The journal of nutrition, health & aging, 14(5), 387–392. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12603-010-0085-y