Healthy Eating for Older Adults: The SilverSneakers Guide

By Matthew Kadey, R.D. |

Fueling your body with nutritious food shouldn’t be a chore. Learn how to get started with a plan that works for your life.

Healthy eating tips for seniors

Good nutrition is important at every stage of life. But to stay active and independent as you grow older, it’s essential.   

Not only does a healthy diet give you the energy you need to tackle your daily to-do list, it can also lower your risk for chronic health problems. Think of food as your secret healthy-aging superpower.  

But what should a day of healthy eating really look like? It turns out that eating well is not as complicated as it might seem. This simple guide has everything you need to know about good nutrition for healthy aging, plus tips to turn your diet around—starting today.  

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Why is healthy eating important for older adults?    

Good nutrition is key for better aging. Here are some of the ways that a following a healthy diet over the years can pay off.   

Stronger bones. A well-balanced diet that includes the right mix of protein, vitamin D, calcium, and other nutrients has been shown to cut the odds of developing osteoporosis and age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), notes research published in the journal Nutrients.   

Better heart health. Sticking closely to the recommendations in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been shown to help adults lower their long-term risk for cardiovascular disease and premature death caused by it, according to a study in the American Journal of Medicine.    

Diabetes prevention. Similarly, a 2022 study in PloS Medicine shows that eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of whole foods (ones that are unprocessed or minimally processed), reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 30 percent, compared to a diet that lacks healthy foods. Researchers found a high-quality diet also helped reduce any genetic risk for the condition.  

Lower cancer risk. Including more fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, and unsweetened yogurt in your meals helps protect against four of the biggest types of cancer: colorectal, breast, lung, and prostate. Those were some of the findings of a 2021 report published in Nutrients.   

Improved brain functioning. Food fuels our minds too. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables have been tied to a lower risk for dementia in adults over 45, per a 2022 investigation published in Neurology.  

Healthier body weight. Not surprisingly, eating well for the long-haul helps us stay slimmer. According to a 2021 report in the British Journal of Nutrition that followed nearly 54,000 adults over 10 years, those who ate quality diets (such as following the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans more closely) were less likely to gain weight.    

What is healthy eating? 

There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about what makes a diet healthy. From pescatarian to vegan to gluten-free, healthy eating can mean different things to different people. And any of those eating strategies can keep you healthy too.   

While there is no formal definition of a healthy diet for older people, health professionals widely agree that it involves eating mostly less-processed whole foods from across all the food groups.  

Older adults may need fewer calories than younger ones, but the need for vitamins and minerals to avoid chronic health problems may become even more important in our later years. Eating a variety of healthy foods helps make sure you get enough of the different nutrients your body needs.   

The food we eat is typically categorized into five food groups, which are: 

  • Fruits  
  • Vegetables 
  • Grains 
  • Dairy 
  • Protein foods   

Including a variety of healthy choices from each of these food groups every day will make it easier to meet your nutrition needs for good health. 

What are macronutrients?   

You may have heard this term before but didn’t know what it meant. Macronutrients are broad categories of energy-providing nutrients that your body needs.  

The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each one of these plays an important role in the body. Here’s a quick description of each: 

Carbohydrates: These break down into glucose (sugar) in the body that fuels your body with energy. Carbs are found in foods such as whole grains (oats, whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice etc.), fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils. 

Protein: Think of protein as the building blocks for your body’s cells and tissues, including muscles, skin, hair, and bones. It’s found in unsweetened dairy (milk, plain yogurt, etc.), legumes (beans, lentils, tofu), fish, seafood, eggs, and poultry.   

Fat: The fat in food maintains your cell membranes, promotes the health of your nerves and brain, and increases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D and K. It’s found in avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds, olive oil and vegetable and seed oils (canola, flax etc.) 

While many foods contain a mixture of these macronutrients, most contain mainly one or two of them. For instance, chicken is primarily protein, pasta is mostly carbs, and olive oil is fat. 

You need all three macronutrients as part of a healthy diet, so you shouldn’t exclude or seriously restrict any of them. Low-carb and low-fat diets may be popular, but restricting entire food groups isn’t the healthiest way to eat.

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide older adults with a percent range for each macronutrient. They recommend consuming: 

  • 45–65 percent of your total calories from carbohydrates
  • 10–35 percent from protein
  • 20–35 percent from fat

Keep in mind that as you age, it might be important to adjust these percentages. Older adults may need to consume a higher percentage of protein to help preserve lean body mass, for example. Working with a registered dietitian can help you better decide what levels of macronutrients will work best for you. 

What are micronutrients? 

Cousins to macronutrients, there are nearly 30 vitamins and minerals that your body cannot make in sufficient amounts on its own. These are known as essential micronutrients. Not eating enough of them can lead to weaker bones, a decline in mental functioning, and worse heart health.    

Examples of essential micronutrients that older people should get include:  

  • Vitamins A, C, D, E, and K 
  • Calcium 
  • Magnesium 
  • Iron 
  • Vitamin B12 
  • Folate 
  • Selenium 
  • Phosphorus  
  • Zinc 
  • Iodine 

A varied diet focused on whole foods can be the key to meeting all your micronutrient needs. The best way to get the full range of vitamins and minerals you need is from a well-rounded diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, along with healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil.   

Ideally, you should try to meet your vitamin and mineral needs through your diet rather than supplements. A healthcare professional can help you determine if you would benefit from taking certain supplements such as vitamin D, which is required for bone health and is challenging to get enough of from food alone.   

What are antioxidants? 

This word gets used a lot, but you may not understand what antioxidants are. They are disease-fighting molecules that help protect against free radicals (unstable molecules) that can harm the cells in your body and accelerate the aging process. Free radicals also put you at risk for medical conditions like heart disease and cancer.    

An important source of antioxidants comes from whole foods, both from plants and animals. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain loads of them, but meat, dairy, and grains contain some too. Vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene are all antioxidants.  

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Where does water fit in? 

A healthy diet also means staying well hydrated. Water is necessary for nearly every bodily function, from lubricating joints to regulating body temperature to maintaining brain functioning. So not getting enough of it can lead to serious health consequences. 

As you age, your sense of thirst may decline, but you still need to drink regularly whether you feel thirsty or not. A study from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Nursing found that up to 40 percent of older adults may be chronically underhydrated.

Older adults are at greater risk for dehydration because of a tendency to consume less fluids, plus older adults have less water in their bodies to start with. Many common medications can also put you at risk for dehydration, including some taken for high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart failure.    

To stay hydrated, drink fluids throughout the day and with each meal and snack. You may find that drinking smaller amounts of fluid at regular intervals is easier than drinking a lot at once.  

Not a huge fan of water? It’s okay to satisfy your thirst with other unsweetened liquids. These can all be a part of any healthy diet:  

  • Milk 
  • Coffee 
  • Low-sodium soups 
  • Juicy fruits 
  • Plant-based beverages like soy milk and almond milk    

Which foods should I avoid or limit? 

There is room for all foods in a healthy, well-rounded diet, but there are some that should play only a minor role. One notable dietary villain is ultra-processed foods (UPFs).    

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There’s no single accepted set of criteria for defining a UPF. But most health professionals agree on some common features: UPFs undergo multiple processing steps and are combined with any number of substances by manufacturers. Those can include hydrogenated fats, sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, coloring agents, and emulsifiers to alter taste, texture, and shelf life.   

UPFs often contain high levels of added sugar, fat, and salt, but lack the vitamins, minerals, and fiber present in lesser processed options. Examples of these foods can include: 

  • Pastries and baked goods 
  • Frozen meals 
  • Soft drinks 
  • Processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, deli meats) 
  • Boxed cereals 
  • Ice cream 
  • Potato chips 
  • Candy bars 
  • Refined grains (white bread and bagels)   

Adults who eat more ultra-processed foods are more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology  

Each additional daily serving of UPFs was associated with a 7% increased risk. Another recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked higher intakes of UPFs with increased incidence of kidney malfunctioning.   

But you don’t have to avoid everything that comes in a box or package. Processing refers to any method that’s used to turn a whole food into a food product. Heating, pasteurizing, canning, and drying are all considered forms of processing.   

A healthy diet can include generous amounts of canned beans, frozen vegetables and fruits, nut butters, extra virgin olive oil, and plain yogurt. These are technically processed foods—even if they aren’t UPFs. 

Another food category worth reconsidering is red meat. Steak, bacon, and deli roast beef are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease risk, according to a study of Americans aged 65 and older in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. If you’re in the mood for animal protein, you’re better off eating chicken or fish most of the time.  

How can I plan and prepare healthy meals?   

Cooking and eating nourishing food doesn’t have to be hard, time-consuming or expensive. Here are some tips that make it easier to put healthy meals on your table.   

Plan out your meals and snacks in advance. Look for recipes that focus on whole foods and that have a short list of ingredients. Use your menu to make a shopping list. Learn more with these 12 Tips to Make Your Meal Planning Easier. 

Look for shortcuts. Remember that healthy convenience foods like canned beans and frozen vegetables are your friends. Here are four unexpected convenience foods that registered dietitians recommend for older adults. 

Lean into leftovers. Making large amounts of healthy stews, soups and chili lets you reap the rewards all week.  

Prepare foods differently. If some crunchy nutritious go-tos have become more difficult to eat as you ger older, get creative. For example, you can cook vegetables instead of eating them raw or choose nut butter instead of whole nuts.  

Stay motivated. Write down all the reasons healthy eating is important to you. Maybe you want to lower your risk for certain health conditions or have more energy to do the things you love most. Post your list front-and-center on your fridge for a daily dose of motivation.   

Recommended reading:
How to Start Eating Plant-Based: The SilverSneakers Guide
What Is the Mediterranean Diet: The SilverSneakers Guide
The DASH Diet: Is It Right for You?

See our sources:
USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Healthy eating and brain functioning: Neurology
Diet and bodyweight: British Journal of Nutrition
Diet and cancer risk: Nutrients
Diet and type 2 diabetes risk: PLoS Medicine
Diet and cardiovascular disease risk: American Journal of Medicine
Diet and bone health: Nutrients
Fiber intake and heart disease: The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging
Ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease risk: Journal of the American College of Cardiology
Red meat intake and heart disease: Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 

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