As we age, our nutritional needs change. We may not absorb nutrients from food as well as before. Muscle mass naturally decreases over time, and our calorie needs are lower as our metabolism slows down. Since thirst declines with age, we may not drink enough fluids. In addition, we may be less active than when we were younger.
“My Plate for Older Adults” is a useful tool based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that shows how nutritious foods fit into a healthy eating plan one plate at a time. It reminds us how important it is to have balance at each meal and snack with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins. It also encourages staying active and drinking plenty of fluids.
I always say to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and “My Plate for Older Adults” shows just that. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense, meaning they have lots of nutrients and are lower in calories. The more colors on your plate, the more the variety of nutrients you have. The fiber you get from eating fruits and vegetables helps you feel full, helps to regulate blood sugar, may lower your risk of heart disease and some cancers, and keeps you regular. Fresh, low-sodium canned, and frozen vegetables, without added sauces and flavor packets, are all great options. You can eat fresh fruit, dried fruit, and fruit canned without added sugar.
Whole grains should take one quarter of your plate. How do you know if you’ve chosen whole grains? Whole grains are generally brown, not white. Look for whole wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, and whole grain cereals like oatmeal. Read food labels to find lower sodium options without added sugar, especially when buying cereals, breads, and crackers. A serving is one slice of bread or a half cup of rice or pasta. Whole grains provide energy, many important vitamins and minerals, and fiber.
Low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products provide protein, calcium, and other key nutrients like vitamin D. Seniors are at higher risk of calcium and vitamin D deficiency, two of the most important nutrients for bone health. Enjoy dairy products like yogurt, cheese, milk, and nonfat powdered milk, and aim for three servings each day.
Lean proteins make up just under one quarter of a healthy plate. Choose poultry without the skin, fish, lean cuts of meat like round or loin cuts, and plant-proteins like nuts, beans, legumes, and tofu. All of these foods provide protein for muscle health. Fish like tuna, salmon, and herring, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, also promote heart health. The serving size is 3-4 ounces, which is about the size of the palm of your hand.
Staying active is an important part of healthy aging. Try to find an activity you enjoy and do it several times a week. Walking, swimming, dancing, and gardening are all great ways to get active. Remember to drink throughout the day. Stick with water and unsweetened drinks like tea or coffee. If you want a little something different, try adding sliced fruit like lemons, limes, or oranges to your water, or try an unsweetened fruit-infused seltzer water.
You can improve your nutrition one plate at a time for better health as you age. Drink plenty of fluids and find a way to be active on a regular basis. Use “My Plate for Older Adults” as a reminder to build a healthy plate each time you eat.
Kirsten Romero, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian with the wellness program at Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. She believes that proper nutrition is not a secret formula, nor is it found in the latest fad diet. Instead, her nutrition coaching is tailored to each client’s individual goals and objectives to establish an eating plan that is enjoyable and sustainable. Kirsten provides nutrition education at our congregate meal sites, and she is available to provide one-on-one nutrition coaching to participants in the congregate and home-delivered meal programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 757-461-9481 ext 230.