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What is healthy eating?

Healthy eating and regular physical activity are keys to good health at any age. They can lower your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. They can even help ward off depression and keep your mind sharp as you age. Here are some tips to help people aged 65 and over eat well and get active. Talk to your health care provider for more specific advice if you have health problems or concerns. Remember, it is never too late to make healthy changes in your life.

A healthy eating plan includes a wide variety of foods. Every day, you should try to eat:*

  • 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, or pasta. One serving equals one slice of bread, 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal (about 1 cup of most cereals), or 1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice, or pasta.
  • 3 to 5 servings of vegetables. One serving equals 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables or 1/2 cup of chopped vegetables, cooked or raw.
  • 2 to 4 servings of fruit. One serving equals one medium piece of fruit like an apple, banana, or orange; 1/2 cup of chopped fresh, cooked, or canned fruit; 1/4 cup of dried fruit; or 3/4 cup of 100 percent fruit juice.
  • 3 servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese. One serving equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese like cheddar or mozzarella, or 2 ounces of processed cheese like American.
  • 2 to 3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, or nuts. One serving of cooked meat, poultry, or fish is 2 to 3 ounces; you should eat no more than 5 to 7 ounces a day. One cup of beans, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons of peanut butter, or 2/3 cup of nuts also equal one serving.

* Servings and serving sizes are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Department of Health and Human Services Food Guide Pyramid.

Tips for healthy eating

To help you stay on track with your healthy eating plan, follow these tips:

  • Eat breakfast every day.

  • Select high-fiber foods like whole grain breads and cereals, beans, vegetables, and fruits. They can help keep you regular and lower your risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

  • Choose lean beef, turkey breast, fish, or chicken with the skin removed to lower the amount of fat and calories in your meals. As you age, your body needs fewer calories, especially if you are not very active.

  • Have three servings of low-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese a day. Dairy products are high in calcium and vitamin D and help keep your bones strong as you age. If you have trouble digesting or do not like dairy products, try reduced-lactose milk products, or calcium-fortified orange juice, soy-based beverages, or tofu. You can also talk to your health care provider about taking a calcium and vitamin D supplement.

  • Keep nutrient-rich snacks like dried apricots, whole wheat crackers, peanut butter, low-fat cheese, and low-sodium soup on hand. Eat only small amounts of dried apricots, peanut butter, and other high-calorie foods. Limit how often you have high-fat and high-sugar snacks like cake, candy, chips, and soda.

  • Drink plenty of water. You may notice that you feel less thirsty as you get older, but your body still needs the same amount of water. Aim for eight to ten 8-ounce glasses of water, unless your health care provider tells you to drink less because you have heart or kidney problems. Water-based beverages like milk or juice count towards your daily amount of water. If you have diabetes remember that milk and juice contains high amounts off sugars. So you should be careful and watch your portions.

Planning and preparing your meals

It is easier to eat well when you plan for your meals and make them enjoyable. Try these tips:

  • Grocery shop with a friend. It is pleasant and can help save you money if you share items that you can only use half of, such as a bag of potatoes or head of cabbage.
  • Cook ahead and freeze portions to have healthy and easy meals on hand for days when you do not feel like cooking.
  • Keep frozen or canned vegetables, beans, and fruits on hand for quick and healthy additions to meals. Rinse canned veggies and beans under cold running water to lower their salt content.
  • Look for fruit canned in juice or light syrup.
  • Try new recipes or different herbs and spices to spark your interest in food. Set the table with a nice cloth and even a flower in a vase to make mealtime special.
  • Eat regularly with someone whose company you enjoy.

If you are unable to cook for yourself, find out about a community program in your area that serves meals or delivers "Meals on Wheels." Call the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 for information on the program nearest you.

Check with your health care provider

If you have a problem eating well, such as trouble chewing or not wanting to eat, talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian. They can give you specific advice on following a healthy eating plan. You can also use the new Soft Foods meal plans. They were designed by our registered dietitians specifically to address those issues. Check with your dentist about caring for your teeth or dentures and your gums. can help you find the a registered dietitian to follow you step-by step, email our customer service if you would like more information.

The death of a loved one or moving from your home of many years may affect your desire to eat. Talk to your health care provider if events in your life are keeping you from eating well.

Ask your health care provider if you should take a daily multi-vitamin/mineral supplement. No pills have been proven to "prevent aging" or "improve your memory." Taking a "one-a-day" type, however, can help you meet the nutrient needs of your body every day.

What is a healthy weight?

uses your biometric data to show your weight analysis and provides tables to compared it to a healthy ideal weight. Just sign in, click on Meals and Meal Plans to see your analysis. If you start to gain or lose weight and do not know why, your health care provider can tell you if this change is healthy for you. If you are underweight, overweight or obese, you are more likely to have certain health problems.

Health risks of being underweight

  • Poor memory
  • Decreased immunity
  • Osteoporosis (bone loss)
  • Decreased muscle strength
  • Hypothermia (lowered body temperature)

If you are underweight, you may not be getting enough nutrients. Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian about the best way to gain weight and meet your nutritional needs.

Health risks of being overweight

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Some types of cancer
  • Sleep apnea (when breathing stops for short periods during sleep)
  • Osteoarthritis (wearing away of the joints)
  • Gallbladder disease

If you already have one or more of these diseases, a modest weight loss (5 to 10 percent of your body weight) could help you feel better or need less medicine.
Do not try to lose weight unless your health care provider tells you to.

Tips for safe physical activity

Physical activity is good for your health at every age. If you have never been active, starting regular physical activity now can improve your strength, staying power, and flexibility. Being active can help you live on your own for a longer time and lower your chance of getting type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. Whatever activity you choose, follow the safety tips below:

  • Take time to warm up, cool down, and stretch.
  • Start slowly and build up to more intense activity.
  • Stop the activity if you feel pain.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • When you are active outdoors, wear lightweight clothes in the summer and layers of clothing in the winter.
  • Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for sun protection.
  • Wear shoes that fit well and are right for your activity.

Getting active

To get started, pick an activity you enjoy. Begin with small, specific goals such as "I will take a 10-minute walk three times this week." Slowly increase the length of time and the number of days you are active. You can benefit most from a combination of aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility activities. Build up to 30 minutes or more of aerobic activity on most days of the week. Try to do balance and flexibility activities daily as well. Work toward doing strength exercises on 2 or 3 days a week.

Aerobic activities
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Housework or gardening
  • Active play with children
Regular aerobic activity can help you to:
  • Lose or maintain your weight by burning calories
  • Lower your risk of heart disease and stroke by strengthening your heart and lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Keep your joints moving and reduce your arthritis pain
  • Lower your stress and boost your mood
  • Have more energy
  • Meet new friends by joining a class or walking group.

Strengthening activities

  • Lifting weights
  • Push-ups or sit-ups
  • Household or garden tasks that make you lift or dig

Doing strengthening activities regularly can help you to:

  • Keep your muscles and bones strong as you age
  • Increase your strength and independence
  • Reduce your need for a cane
  • Reduce the risk of bone fractures and other injuries, or recover faster if you are injured
  • Maintain or lose weight because muscle burns more calories than body fat.

Balance activities

  • Walking heel to toe in straight line
  • Standing on one foot
  • Standing up from a chair and sitting down again without using your hands

Doing balance activities regularly can help you to:

  • Stay steady on your feet
  • Avoid falls.
Flexibility activities
  • Stretching
  • Yoga

Doing flexibility activities regularly can help you to:

  • Maintain the movement of your muscles and joints
  • Prevent stiffness as you age
  • Prevent injuries
  • Lower your stress.

Many activities give you more than just one benefit. For example, doing chair aerobics using hand weights gives you aerobic and strengthening benefits. Yoga combines balance, flexibility, and strengthening benefits. You do not have to do four separate types of activities each week. Choose what you like to do and round out your activities from there. Remember, any amount of physical activity you do is better than none.

Work physical activity into your day

There are plenty of ways to be active without setting aside a special time for "exercise." The tips below can help you to add more activity into your everyday life.

  • Take short walks throughout your day. Try a 10-minute walk before breakfast, at lunchtime, and after dinner.
  • Ride your bike to visit a friend who lives nearby.
  • Clean your house or garage, or wash your car.

Be good to yourself

Due to loss of loved ones, health problems, trouble paying bills, or other reasons, many older people feel lonely, sad, or stressed in their daily lives. Feelings like these can cause you to lose energy, not feel like doing anything, not eat enough, or overeat. Being good to yourself can help you to cope with your feelings and improve your energy level, eating habits, and health. Here are some ideas for being good to yourself:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Stay connected with family and friends.
  • Join a walking group, or other social group.
  • Surround yourself with people whose company you enjoy.
  • Volunteer or get active with groups in your community.
  • Try a part-time job at a place you would enjoy working for a few hours a week.
  • Watch a funny movie and laugh.
  • Take up a hobby such as playing cards, gardening, cooking, or dancing.

Remember, it's never too late to improve your eating plan, be more physically active, and be good to yourself for a healthier life.

Tips for older adults

  • Eat breakfast every day.
  • Select high-fiber foods like whole grain breads and cereals, beans, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Have three servings of low-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese a day. Dairy products are high in calcium and vitamin D and help keep your bones strong as you age. Or take a calcium and vitamin D supplement.
  • Drink plenty of water. You may notice that you feel less thirsty as you get older, but your body still needs the same amount of water.
  • Ask your health care provider about ways you can safely increase the amount of physical activity you do now.
  • Fit physical activity into your everyday life. For example, take short walks throughout your day. You do not have to have a formal physical activity program to improve your health and stay active.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Stay connected with family, friends, and community.

Source: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, National Institutes of Health, NIH Publication No. 02-4993, June 2002
Adapted by Editorial Staff, May 2003
Last update, July 2008


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