Key Takeaways

  • When you don’t eat healthy, you’re at greater risk for malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, and a number of chronic diseases.

  • Healthy eating habits for older adults include eating more whole foods, getting enough protein, and limiting sodium.

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can make it more affordable to stick to healthy eating guidelines.

As we age, our nutrition needs change—and many older adults don’t eat as well as they should. This can result in malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, and a number of chronic diseases. The good news is that it’s never too late to develop better nutrition habits based on the latest healthy eating guidelines. Following a balanced-diet meal plan can help you reduce your risk for illness and stay active and independent for longer.

Here are some steps you can take now to reap the benefits of healthy eating.

1. Eat more whole foods, and limit processed foods.

Whole foods are foods that are close to their natural state when you purchase them; they are either minimally processed or not processed at all. Some examples of whole foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, unsweetened dried)
  • Meat, poultry, and seafood
  • Nuts, seeds, and beans
  • Whole grains (e.g., brown rice and quinoa)
  • Plain yogurt
  • Eggs

These are the opposite of processed foods, which undergo cooking, roasting, grinding, separation, boiling, or pasteurization to make them safe to eat, cheaper to produce, or shelf-stable. Processed foods are designed to be tasty and convenient. They are often high in salt, sugar, starches, refined grains, and preservatives as well as artificial colors and flavorings. Processed foods also tend to be low in nutrients and high in calories (“empty calories”). Some examples include potato chips, cookies and candy, powdered instant soups, and frozen, ready-to-eat meals.

The Healthy Eating Plate guidelines from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommend filling half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter of your plate with whole grains, and the rest with lean protein like poultry, fish, and beans.

2. Create a healthy-eating meal plan ahead of time.

When we're tired or stressed, cooking a healthy dinner is often the last thing we want to do—and it can be tempting to make unhealthy food choices. Meal planning done in advance, on the other hand, makes you better prepared to choose smart options. Meal planning can also help you stretch your budget further, since you're only buying the foods you need.

To create your healthy-eating meal plan, start by finding nutritious recipes and make a shopping list.

Some good resources for recipes include:

3. Drink water with your meals and eat water-rich foods.

Water is critical to almost all bodily functions, from lubricating our joints to pumping blood to our heart—yet many older adults don’t drink enough. Certain medications can also affect your hydration levels. That’s why staying hydrated is such an important part of healthy aging.

As a general rule, you should take one-third of your body weight and drink that number of ounces in fluids (e.g., if you weigh 150 pounds, aim to drink 50 ounces of water each day). If you have trouble drinking fluids, try including water-rich foods with every meal. These include watermelon, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, and celery as well as low-sodium soups, broths, and stews.

4. Focus on getting enough protein to prevent muscle loss.

Between the ages of 40 and 80, adults lose up to 50% of their muscle mass. Since dietary protein helps us maintain and build muscle, healthy eating guidelines emphasize getting enough of this nutrient. An older adult who weighs 150 pounds should aim to consume 68-83 grams of dietary protein daily.

Your protein intake should be spread out over several meals to provide the most benefit. Strive to get 25-30 grams at each meal, depending on how much you weigh. What are the best sources of dietary protein? Dairy products, meat, seafood, and poultry are all good choices. If you follow a mostly plant-based diet, whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans, and lentils are other protein-rich options.

5. Eat fiber-rich foods.

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that helps regulate our digestive system. It can even help reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Too little fiber can cause constipation and put you at greater risk for chronic disease. But about 95% of adults don't get enough in their daily diet.

The recommended daily intake of fiber for adults age 51-71+ is 30 grams for men and 21 grams for women. You can get your fiber from an array of plant-based and whole-grain foods, such as:

  • Bananas
  • Black beans
  • Apples
  • Quinoa
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Cabbage
  • Almonds

6. Watch your sodium intake.

Consuming excess dietary sodium can cause your body to retain too much fluid, causing high blood pressure. This creates extra strain on your heart and can lead to heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day for most adults, especially those with high blood pressure. You can reduce your sodium intake by limiting processed foods and by seasoning your food with herbs and lemon juice instead of salt.

Creating healthy-eating meal plans with SNAP

Fresh, nutritious, whole foods are often more expensive than processed, packaged foods. If you're on a tight budget, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can make it easier to stick to healthy eating guidelines—even if you only receive the minimum monthly SNAP benefit of $20.

Take Flora Wallace, for example. Wallace is 74 and has diabetes. She needs to purchase nutritious food to stay healthy, but this was becoming more difficult with rising food prices. Enrolling in SNAP has given her room to breathe.

"When I go to the store now, I can buy healthy items like fruits, vegetables, meat, and other necessities,” Wallace told NCOA. “It's been a huge relief and it's much easier to balance my budget now."

In addition to meal planning, some strategies to afford healthy eating at home include:

  • Shopping at discount grocery retailers (i.e., surplus stores).
  • Using store apps to take advantage of special discounts and promotions.
  • Buying rice, pasta, flour, and spices in bulk to save money vs. buying smaller quantities.