Nutrition Information for Older Adults

By Mary Louise Zernicke, MS MPH RD


According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, unhealthy eating and physical inactivity beat smoking as the leading causes of death in this country. By the year 2050, 20% of the American population—79 million people—will be 65 or older, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Did you know that………??

·       The National Cancer Institute states that 35% of all cancers are directly attributable to diet?  The relationship between diet and cancer is stronger than the relationship between smoking and cancer!!

·       Almost 40% of seniors take laxatives regularly.  A diet high in fiber such as whole grains and fruits and vegetables, adequate fluid intake and regular exercise can reduce the need for laxatives.

·       Tooth, mouth and swallowing problems can interfere with eating and cause weight loss.

·       Hydrogenated fats, commonly found in packaged foods, contain trans fatty acids.

·       Folic acid, found in leafy green vegetables, orange juice and beans, can help decrease the risk of heart disease by helping to lower homocysteine levels.

·       Half of a skinless, cooked chicken breast weighs about 3 ounces.

·       Almost half of women over 50 have low bone mass! Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is critical in order to avoid osteoporosis.   About 20 minutes a day of sun exposure several times a week on hands and face should be adequate, but sunlight that comes through glass, such as a window, won’t cause the skin to make vitamin D.


What Role Does Nutrition Play In Healthy Aging?

Good nutrition plus regular physical activity may retard the onset and development of many degenerative diseases faced by elders, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis.  While healthy eating can enhance the quality and length of life, it also has beneficial short term effects, such as increasing immune function, hastening healing, and preventing electrolyte imbalance and dehydration.  Most important, a tasty and nutritious diet contributes to feeling good!


Is there a special diet for seniors?

Seniors are a very heterogeneous group even though they share the same age category.  Does a 60 year old have the same nutritional needs as a 90 year old?  Not likely.  Seniors differ in terms of physical function, behavior, cognition, and emotional status, all of which may affect health.  That’s why we must focus on dietary needs as they pertain to a person’s physiological, rather than physical age.


Very little is known about the effect of nutrition on the physiological changes with aging.  The aging process is not uniform between individuals, nor is it uniform throughout the body.



What are some nutritional recommendations that can be made for seniors?

The most important recommendation to make for all seniors is to drink plenty of water daily!  Kidney function declines with age and so does the thirst reflex.  All seniors should make sure they drink eight glasses of water or other liquids daily.  Simple changes such as putting a water glass by the bed, or drinking a glass of water after brushing one’s teeth, will help to establish and keep this habit. Fruit and vegetable juices, milk, and caffeine-free coffees and herbal teas are also good liquid sources.

Second, there is convincing evidence that there is a strong protective effect against cancer and heart disease associated with increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.  Some are better than others but the best approach is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables that you enjoy.  If you are thinking of food as medicine, make it medicine that tastes good!


Controlling caloric intake is also important.  Very simply, seniors should not overeat.  Being overweight is associated with increased risk of death and chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, non-insulin dependent diabetes, and even some types of cancer.


Illness, medication and physical mobility can all affect nutritional needs.  Good choices are foods which pack lots of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients with the least amount of Calories, commonly known as “nutrient dense” foods.  Non-fat milk, broccoli, and baked fish are good examples of nutrient dense foods.


There is considerable research going on now regarding fat.  Are all fats equal? No. Are some fats actually good for you? Yes, but it is not clear yet which fats we can recommend based on scientific evidence.  It does seem clear that saturated fat is unhealthy and should be avoided.  Trans fatty acids, likewise, need to be avoided. Read food labels carefully.


Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, and vitamin B-12, found in animal products, are especially important for older adults because their absorption in the body decreases with age.


Should seniors take vitamins and minerals?

A daily multivitamin/mineral supplement is beneficial for most seniors, though the value of a supplement depends on many factors, including dietary habits and overall health status.  Seniors should talk to their dietitian or doctor for more specific recommendations.


Are herbal therapies effective? 

Most authorities on the subject consider that about 1/3 of all herbal remedies are useless but harmless, 1/3 are harmful, and 1/3 are effective.   Billions of dollars are spent annually for herbal products. The herbal industry is almost entirely unregulated, mostly as a result of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education  Act, which removed so-called “dietary supplements” from FDA control.  Manufacturers of medicinal herbs are not required to demonstrate safety or efficacy before marketing, nor are herbals regulated for quality or purity.  Buyer beware!


For more information….

Herbals/supplements: PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference) for Herbal Medicines.


Aging Statistics:      

Food Safety:                     

Nutrition for Seniors:






Distributed by

2004 Active Living Tool-Kit for Oakland Seniors

United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County

8 Eastmont Town Center, Oakland CA 94605

 (510) 729-0852



Funded partially by a grant from the Office of Traffic Safety through the Business, Transportation, & Housing Agency