Healthy Eating for Older Adults

Our guide explores how to navigate making healthy choices as your nutrient needs change.

Medically reviewed by:
Last updated: Jul 9th, 2023
Older adult eating healthily

It’s never too late to make good dietary choices to support your health. As we age, our caloric and nutritional needs change. We also experience shifts in our appetite. Our metabolism slows down, and we become susceptible to bone and muscle mass loss. However, maintaining an active lifestyle and making the right eating choices can help fill in the nutrient gaps to support our bodies as we get older and help prevent disease. These positive choices can also keep us active and independent, with less time spent in the doctor’s office.

Jump to

Jump to:

Quick tips for a healthier diet

Your diet can directly impact your heart health, diabetes risk, bone strength, brain function, and cancer risk. Taking care to make healthy choices in your daily diet is especially important later in life when the risk of developing these conditions is heightened. We’ve broken down some key concepts to eating well in older age.

Enjoy more whole foods

These are foods that are minimally processed and don’t have added sugar, fat, or salt. Some whole foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, eggs, and nuts. Highly processed food is made for convenience but often contains extra sugar, salt, preservatives, and artificial flavoring. Learning how to read nutrition facts labels and ingredient lists is a great idea. Choosing whole foods can help you avoid added sugars and sodium. Whole grains (like brown rice and whole wheat pasta) and low-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) make excellent staples in your daily diet and help you meet your nutrient needs without consuming highly processed food.

Go for variety

Variety is important for meeting your nutritional needs. Aim for a colorful plate that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. Some examples of this include dark green vegetables like broccoli and leafy greens or orange foods like carrots and butternut squash. The greater the variety in your diet, the better chance you have of meeting your daily nutrient needs.

Pick protein

Protein is an essential building block of a healthy diet. As you age, it becomes increasingly important for helping maintain muscle mass. Protein also helps your body fight infections and gives you energy. A number of different foods provide a source of protein, such as poultry, lean meat, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, and soy. Americans tend to focus more on poultry and meat for their protein, so try to include more fish, beans, and peas if that’s also the case for you. Each type of protein has different health benefits in addition to protecting muscle mass (for example, seafood is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids), so enjoying a variety in your diet can provide you with more benefits.

Portion control

It’s important to take a look at nutrition labels and understand recommended serving sizes. Unfortunately, oftentimes listed serving sizes are much smaller than what you might realistically eat. So what does a healthy plate really look like? The USDA has a helpful resource at MyPlate, where you can visualize the five food groups and learn what portion sizes should look like during mealtime. Aim to fill half of your plate with fruits and veggies, a quarter with protein, and a quarter with whole grains. The National Institute on Aging also has a great resource covering all the different food groups, with suggestions and serving size examples.

Stay hydrated

It’s easy to forget to drink enough water. The sensation of thirst can even decline throughout the aging process. Certain medications can also contribute to dehydration. Drinking enough fluids is essential for good digestion and hydration. In addition to water, milk is a great option (especially if it’s fortified with vitamin D), as well as unsweetened fruit juice. It’s best to avoid too many sugary drinks that add empty calories. Evidence-based guidelines suggest that each day, for adults over 65, women should strive to drink 1.6 liters of water (about six and a half cups) and men should aim to drink 2.0 liters (a little over eight cups).

Limit saturated and trans fats

Try to pick foods low in saturated and trans fat. Saturated fats usually come from animal products, and trans fats were typically found in processed foods like vegetable shortening and margarine, but the use of artificial trans fats has been banned in the United States. While you don’t need to fully avoid saturated fats, some experts recommend limiting them, and even though artificial trans fats are banned, there are some that naturally occur in meats and dairy. Eating mainly healthy fats (mono- and polyunsaturated fats) is critical for the prevention of heart disease, the leading cause of death in older adults, according to the CDC. When preparing food, use oils (like olive and canola oil) instead of solid fats. Also, consuming more healthy fats like the mono- or polyunsaturated fats found in fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds can be beneficial.

Essential nutrients for older adults

As our bodies get older, our nutrient needs change, too. When making meal choices, consider finding foods rich in these nutrients.


Older people are at a higher risk of bone loss, and calcium is an essential mineral for sustaining healthy bones. Primary sources of calcium include milk and other dairy products, fortified foods, dark-green leafy vegetables, and soybeans. Women over age 50 (and men over 71) need to consume 1,200mg per day. It’s important to note that vitamin D is key to your body’s absorption of calcium. Be sure to keep your vitamin D levels in a healthy range to ensure you’re absorbing enough calcium, as well.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D not only helps support strong bones, but it also plays a role in immune system health. Older adults have a greater tendency to be deficient in vitamin D. The recommended dietary allowance for adults up to 70 years old is 15mcg per day and 20mcg for those over 70. You can consume vitamin D in your diet from fish and fortified milk products, and certain mushrooms. You can also get vitamin D through sun exposure or by taking a supplement. A deficiency in this vitamin can cause muscle weakness and fatigue, so ask your doctor for a simple blood test if you suspect you may not be getting enough vitamin D in your diet.


Fiber not only helps your digestive system and feeds healthy gut bacteria but also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Good sources of fiber include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Men over 50 should consume at least 30g of fiber daily, while women need a little less (21g). Be sure to drink plenty of liquids as you increase your fiber intake.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin that plays a vital role in nerve function, red blood cell formation, and energy metabolism. Unfortunately, older adults aren’t able to absorb vitamin B12 from food sources as well as they used to. Eating fortified foods (like some cereals) or taking a supplement may help you to reach the recommended dietary allowance of 2.4mcg. Lean meat, poultry, fish, and other seafood are naturally good sources of vitamin B12. Symptoms of a B12 deficiency include tingling in the hands and legs, fatigue, and difficulty walking.


Potassium helps us to keep normal levels of fluids within our cells. It’s crucial for heart function and also plays a role in muscle contraction and digestion. The recommended intake of potassium for adult women is 2,600mg per day, and men should ingest more at 3,400mg. Fruits and vegetables (like bananas, avocados, and potatoes), fish, and poultry are good sources of potassium. Getting enough potassium in your diet, along with reducing salt intake, can lower your risk of high blood pressure.

What to do when you’re struggling to eat healthy

There are little things you can do to help support your commitment to eating healthy. It’s no secret that sometimes our sense of smell and taste diminish as we age, which can really put a damper on enjoying a meal. Isolation and loneliness can also take the joy out of eating. When possible, sharing your mealtime with others can help make eating more pleasurable and has the added benefit of companionship.

Sometimes people have difficulty eating or swallowing due to a medical condition. If this is the case for you, consult with your doctor and maybe take the time to try out different foods and discover what textures and bite sizes work well for you. If you struggle with keeping your weight up, you may want to consider what time of day you have the biggest appetite and plan to consume your healthiest, most protein-rich foods at that time of day.

And if meal prep is weighing you down or your energy is zapped by dinner time, you might want to try to do some preparation in advance. For example, pick one day a week when you make several meals and refrigerate or freeze them to grab and reheat throughout the week. Also, if chopping and cutting have become difficult, look for pre-cut fruits and veggies at the grocery store to help relieve your meal prep burden. Pre-cooked chicken and bagged salad can also be easy time savers. Lastly, grocery delivery services are available in most areas. This can be a great option for those with limited mobility, and it allows you to plan healthy meal choices in advance without leaving home.

Benefits of physical activity

Exercise, coupled with a healthy diet, is an excellent way to stay in good shape and support your longevity. Physical activity can help maintain bone strength, help to build muscle, boost mood, and increase metabolism. So how much should you aim for? Setting a goal for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (enough to get your heart rate up) activity per week is ideal. If this feels like too much, try breaking it down into a few smaller sessions a day.

Physical activity doesn’t need to be an intense gym workout — it can look like brisk walking, riding a stationary bike, or a water aerobics class. Adding in muscle strength training at least two days a week is also recommended by the CDC. You can view all of the CDC’s physical activity recommendations for older adults by following this link.

Additionally, you might be getting a workout without realizing it; gardening, walking the dog, and playing with the grandkids all get you moving and active! Remember to start slow if you have not exercised in a while, and be sure to get the all-clear from your physician before starting a new program or if you have any serious medical conditions.

Nutrition assistance for older adults

If you are having trouble affording healthy and nutritious food, many resources are available to help.



Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Osteoporosis. Cleveland Clinic.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Sarcopenia. Cleveland Clinic.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. (2022). How to Use and Understand the Nutrition Facts Label. FDA.

  4. The Nutrition Source. (2023). Healthy Eating Plate. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

  5. National Institute on Aging. (2022). Healthy Eating As You Age: Know Your Food Groups. National Institutes of Health.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Heart Disease Facts. CDC.

  7. Khazai, N., Judd, S. E., & Tangpricha, V. (2008). Calcium and Vitamin D: Skeletal and Extraskeletal Health. Current Rheumatology Reports, 10(2), 110.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Understanding the Endocrine Impact of Vitamin D, Calcium Deficiency in the Elderly. Cleveland Clinic.

  9. Partula, V., Deschasaux, M., Druesne-Pecollo, N., Latino-Martel, P., Desmetz, E., Chazelas, E., Kesse-Guyot, E., Julia, C., Fezeu, L. K., Galan, P., Hercberg, S., Mondot, S., Lantz, O., Quintana-Murci, L., Albert, M. L., Duffy, D., Milieu Intérieur Consortium, Srour, B., & Touvier, M. (2020). Associations between consumption of dietary fibers and the risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, type 2 diabetes, and mortality in the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112(1), 195–207.

  10. Quagliani, D., & Felt-Gunderson, P. (2017). Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap: Communication Strategies From a Food and Fiber Summit. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 11(1), 80-85.

  11. Stover, P. J. (2010). Vitamin B12 and Older Adults. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 13(1), 24.

  12. Plumbo, G. (2013). Vitamin B-12 Supplements Recommended for Older Adults. Mayo Clinic.

  13. The Nutrition Source. (2023). Potassium. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). How Much Physical Activity Do Older Adults Need? CDC.

  15. Sfera, A., Cummings, M., & Osorio, C. (2016). Dehydration and Cognition in Geriatrics: A Hydromolecular Hypothesis. Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, 3, 18.

  16. Putra, C., Konow, N., Gage, M., York, C. G., & Mangano, K. M. (2021). Protein Source and Muscle Health in Older Adults: A Literature Review. Nutrients, 13(3), 743.

  17. Masot, O., Miranda, J., Santamaría, A. L., Paraiso Pueyo, E., Pascual, A., & Botigué, T. (2020). Fluid Intake Recommendation Considering the Physiological Adaptations of Adults Over 65 Years: A Critical Review. Nutrients, 12(11), 3383.

  18. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2018). Trans Fat. FDA.

  19. Maki, K. C., Dicklin, M. R., & Kirkpatrick, C. F. (2021). Saturated fats and cardiovascular health: Current evidence and controversies. Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 15(6), 765–772.

  20. Islam, M. A., Amin, M. N., Siddiqui, S. A., Hossain, M. P., Sultana, F., & Kabir, M. R. (2019). Trans fatty acids and lipid profile: A serious risk factor to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome, 13(2), 1643–1647.

  21. National Institutes of Health. (2022). Calcium - Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH.

  22. Oria M., Harrison M., Stallings V., & Food and Nutrition Board, National Academies. (2019). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Elements. National Academies Press (US).

  23. Ross A., Taylor C., Yaktine A., & Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. (2011). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins. National Academies Press (US).

  24. National Institutes of Health. (2022). Vitamin D - Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH.

  25. Ross A., Taylor C., Yaktine A., & Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. (2011). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Total Water and Macronutrients. National Academies Press (US).

  26. National Institutes of Health. (2022). Vitamin B12 - Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH.

  27. National Institutes of Health. (2022). Potassium - Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH.

  28. Filippou, C. D., Tsioufis, C. P., Thomopoulos, C. G., Mihas, C. C., Dimitriadis, K. S., Sotiropoulou, L. I., Chrysochoou, C. A., Nihoyannopoulos, P. I., & Tousoulis, D. M. (2020). Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet and Blood Pressure Reduction in Adults with and without Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Advances in Nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 11(5), 1150–1160.