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Health Information Older Adult Nutritional Needs

Good nutrition — tailored to the needs of older adults

It sounds simple enough: For good health, eat a balanced, nutritious diet.

But with all the food choices out there, you might have a hard time describing what a balanced, nutritious diet is. Furthermore, many older adults have health challenges that can make it difficult for them to get the nutrients they need.

Fortunately, eating well isn’t as complicated as it sometimes seems.

A recipe for health

Generally, older adults need about 1,600 calories per day, says Kristin Gustashaw, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Grains, fruits and vegetables should make up the core of your diet. Complement those foods with low-fat or nonfat dairy products and lean meats or other sources of protein.

Gustashaw recommends that each day you get:

  • 5 to 6 ounces of grain foods (1 piece of bread; ½ cup potato; 1/3 cup rice or pasta). At least half of your grain foods should be whole grains. Examples include whole-grain bread, whole-wheat crackers, oatmeal, brown rice and whole-wheat pasta.

Whole grains are particularly important because, unlike processed grains, they retain all the edible parts of a grain — the endosperm, bran and germ. Combined, these parts maximize the amount of minerals, proteins and important B vitamins your body receives. They are also an excellent source of fiber.

“If you remove any of those parts, you lose a substantial amount of nutrients,” Gustashaw says. “Fiber, especially, is usually lost in processing.”

  • 2 to 2 ½ cups vegetables. Vegetables (fresh or frozen) — and fruit — also supply fiber, and they’re a major source of antioxidants.

Fiber is essential for older adults because your gastrointestinal system slows down as you age, Gustashaw says. That can contribute to constipation. But fiber — combined with fluids — can help keep you regular.

Make sure you eat plenty of dark green, red, orange and yellow vegetables. They tend to have the most antioxidants, Gustashaw says. Strive for variety — both in what you eat and whether your choices are cooked or fresh.

  • 1 ½ to 2 cups fruit. Choose fruits of many different colors. Fresh, canned (in its own juice) and dried fruits are all options. One-hundred percent fruit juice (1/4 cup) can also be part of the equation occasionally. But with juice you will lose out on the fiber!

  • 3 cups nonfat or low-fat dairy products. Dairy is one of the best dietary sources of bone-building calcium. You need calcium to help prevent osteoporosis.

Some older people have a hard time digesting milk. They may produce less of an enzyme called lactase than they did when they were younger. However, they may tolerate smaller amounts at a time, or do better with eight ounces of yogurt, one and ½ ounces of natural cheese or two ounces of processed cheese.

  • 5 to 5 ½ ounces of protein. Foods high in protein include meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, nuts and seeds. These foods help build and repair body tissues and regulate body processes.

A 3-ounce serving of meat or fish — about half the amount you should get each day — is about the size and thickness of a deck of cards. Each of the following is equivalent to approximately one ounce: one egg; ½ cup of cooked beans; two tablespoons peanut butter.

Foods to limit

Foods you should limit include those that supply large amounts of calories but few nutrients. Examples are sweets and beverages high in added sugar. Try to consume them no more than once a week.

You should also limit butter, margarine, shortening and foods containing saturated fats, trans fats and sodium. Most of the fat in your diet should be monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Sources of these fats include fish, nuts and canola and olive oils.

The importance of fluids

In addition to eating the right foods, you also want to make sure that you consume adequate fluids. Fluids have many important jobs, such as ridding your body of toxins, preventing illness and keeping your organs working properly.

“None of your physiological functions are going to work as well if you are dehydrated,” Gustashaw says.

Dehydration is a common problem for older adults. Various things including a decreased sense of thirst, certain medications and a reluctance to drink much because of incontinence can contribute to the problem.

Try to drink eight cups of water daily. Water-containing fluids, such as 100 percent fruit juice, milk and broth can count toward this goal, but don’t count alcohol or caffeinated beverages. If something is preventing you from getting adequate fluids, talk to your doctor.

The big three

Finally, there are several key nutrients that are especially important to be aware of later in life, Gustashaw says.

Calcium, as mentioned previously, is needed for bone health. Current recommendations state that men and women older than 65 should generally get 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams per day. Aside from milk, good food sources of calcium include broccoli, beans, canned salmon with bones, and foods with added calcium, such as orange juice and breakfast cereals.

If you’re not getting at least three servings of milk or other dairy foods such as yogurt or cheese each day, you may need supplements, Gustashaw says.

Vitamin D is necessary for your body to absorb calcium. Your body makes this vitamin naturally when exposed to sunlight, but you can also get vitamin D in foods such as fish and eggs. Four hundred to 800 international units per day are recommended.

Vitamin B12 helps maintain nerve function and can reduce the incidence of dementia. It is found in animal foods, but your body can lose its ability to absorb this vitamin from food. You may need to get a B12 shot from your doctor every three months and/or take supplements. The recommended daily intake is 2.4 micrograms.

Your nutritional needs may have changed, but one thing hasn’t: Rush is here to help. To make an appointment with a geriatrician or a dietitian who can help you learn more about your specific dietary requirements and whether you are meeting them, call Rush at (888) 352-RUSH (7874).


Health Services for Older Adults at
Rush University Medical Center in Chicago

Rush University Medical Center offers comprehensive health care services for older adults and their loved ones.

  • For information on medical services for older adults, visit the Geriatric Services home page. Or call (800) 757-0202.
  • To learn more about our a free health and aging membership program for older adults and the people who care for them, visit the Rush Generations home page. Or call (800) 757-0202. Rush Generations can help you with your goals for vital, healthy living.
  • Are you facing tough decisions as you or a loved one grow older? The Anne Byron Waud Patient and Family Resource Center for Healthy Aging offers help with your current needs and difficult questions. For more information, see their home page or phone (312) 563-2700 or (800) 755-4411.

Looking for Other Health Information?

Visit Discover Rush’s Web Resource page to find articles on health topics and recent health news from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. You will also find many helpful links to other areas of our site.

Looking for a Doctor?

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, is a leader in caring for people of all ages, from newborns through older adults.

Just phone (888) 352-RUSH or (888) 352-7874 for help finding the Rush doctor who’s right for you.


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