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Ask the Expert

Get Smart about Nutrition

By Nora L. Howley

We all know that as we age our bodies change. What does not change is the need for a healthy diet. Here are some common diet questions about getting older.

1. How much should I be eating?

Many of us experience a loss of appetite as we age. This can happen for a number of reasons, including changes to our senses of taste and smell. Decreased physical activity can also make you less hungry. In addition, as we age, our metabolism may change, meaning that we burn the calories we eat differently and for most of us, we burn them slower.

According to the American Dietetic Association, the amount of food we eat should be based on our level of activity. They recommend the following calorie ranges for healthy adults over the age of 51.

2. Are there specific nutrients I should be getting?

One of the challenges for older adults is getting the same nutrients from less food. To do this, dieticians recommend choosing foods that are “nutrient dense.” This means foods that are high in nutrients in relation to their calories. Milk is a great example. Skim and low-fat milk are more nutrient dense than whole milk because they have the same nutrients but fewer calories.

In general our protein needs do not change that much with age. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends between 5 ounces (women) and 5 ½ ounces (men) a day of protein. Protein foods include meat, legumes (beans such as kidney or black), fish, and soy. Eggs and cottage cheese are good, low-calorie sources of protein. (An egg white from a single large white egg has about 17 calories.) A little less than a quarter of your plate should be proteins.

Because, like all Americans, we need to be careful how much fat we get in our diet, focus on lean protein sources. Cutting fat is one of the easiest ways to cut calories. But we all need a little fat in our diets, so focus on selecting so called “good fats” such as olive oil.

Half your plate should consist of vegetables and fruits. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults over the age of 50 eat between 1 ½ cups (women) and 2 cups (men) of fruit and between 2 cups (women) and 2 ½ cups (men) of vegetables per day. Be sure and get a mix of red, orange, and dark-green vegetables in addition to foods such as potatoes (watch calories, though), corn, and lettuce. And eat a variety of fruits, including orange, blue, and purple fruits. 

The last food group on your plate is the grains group. Grains are divided into whole grains and refined grades. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half your grains be whole grains. Some examples of whole grains include whole-wheat flour, whole corn, oatmeal, and brown rice. Women over the age of 50 should eat the equivalent of 5 ounces a day of grains and men should eat 6 ounces.

Dairy products are the final group, and on ChooseMy it is represented by a glass of milk. This group also includes calcium-fortified soy-beverages. Most of the dairy consumed should be low- or no-fat products.

All of these recommendations are based on low levels of physical activity. If you are physically active, or if you need more information, go to for additional information on making healthy choices.

3. What about water?

Although water is not included in any food group, it is an important part of your daily intake. Drinking water can help keep your skin smooth and improve your overall health and well-being. Water can also help with digestion. Remember that flavored or “vitamin” waters may have added sugars or other ingredients you should avoid. If you drink caffeinated beverages such as coffee, teas, or colas, try to replace them with water.

4. Where can I learn more?

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a great starting point for deciding what to eat. It is also important to know how to read a nutrition label. The Food and Drug Administration has a great video series on how to read the food label.

5. I need more help with a healthy diet, where can I get it?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers a “Find a Registered Dietician” service through its web site Many hospitals, health departments, and senior centers also can provide referrals to nutrition professionals.


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