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Should my diet change as I get older?
Eating well when you’re over 60 will help you maintain your health and independence. A good diet can also help you manage conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
As you age, your nutritional requirements may change — even if you’ve been eating healthily as a younger adult. Nutritional needs can also differ between men and women.
After 60, you may not be as active as you were and so you need fewer kilojoules. You may also have a reduced appetite. So, you’ll need to pack more nutrients — such as vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre — into a smaller amount of food.
How much food do I need as I age?
To get the nutrients you need, aim to eat enough foods from all 5 food groups every day. Here are the recommended number of serves of each food group for an average-height person with sedentary-to-moderate activity levels:
Why is it important to maintain a healthy weight?
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can help older Australians be more active — preserving bone health and muscle strength as they age.
Excess body weight puts strain on the heart, joints and spine, which can make existing conditions worse. It also increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Even if your weight doesn’t change, the composition of your body can change. The average person loses muscle mass and function as they age — known as sarcopenia. Muscle is often replaced with fat tissue.
Do strength or resistance training if you can to maintain or increase muscle mass and function. Muscle mass also helps prevent type 2 diabetes since it helps keep your blood sugar levels under control.
After menopause, some women find that their body shape changes and they develop fat deposits around their middle — known as central obesity. This puts a woman at higher risk of heart disease and cancer, even if she is a healthy weight. To minimise the risk, follow a healthy diet, and do resistance training and moderate aerobic exercise.
ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.
NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT? — Use the BMI Calculator to find out if your weight and waist size are in a healthy range.
Do I need more fibre in my diet as I age?
It’s important to consume enough fibre, especially as you get older, since it helps prevent constipation, bowel cancer and haemorrhoids. Fruit and vegetables are good sources of fibre, along with wholegrain breads and cereals, beans and lentils.
Wholegrain high-fibre foods, which are rich in insoluble fibre, reduce the risk of heart disease. Soluble fibre, found in fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils and oats, can lower cholesterol levels and help manage blood glucose levels.
High-fibre foods are also filling and help with weight control.
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Australian adults should have the following:
- Men (aged 19 years and older) — 30 grams (g) of fibre per day
- Women (aged 19 years and older, not pregnant or breastfeeding) — 25g of fibre per day
Which vitamins and minerals are important for older people?
It can be challenging to meet your vitamin and mineral needs if you eat less food as you get older. But older people need more of certain vitamins.
Vitamins B2, B6 and D
Vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, is found in dairy foods and fortified cereals and breads. Your recommended dietary intake (RDI) increases after age 70, as follows:
- Men 51-70 years — 1.3 milligrams (mg) per day
- Men over 70 years — 1.6mg per day
- Women 51-70 years — 1.1mg per day
- Women over 70 years — 1.3mg per day
Vitamin B6 is found in wholegrain cereals, meats, vegetables and fruit. It’s rare to be deficient. The RDI is:
- Men 51 years and over — 1.7mg per day
- Women 51 years and over — 1.5mg per day
Vitamin D is made mostly in the skin. It helps you absorb calcium, so it’s vital for good bone health. It is also important for muscle function and possibly immune function.
Adults aged 51 to 70 need twice as much vitamin D as younger adults. Those aged over 70 need 3 times as much vitamin D as adults under 50 years. This is because the skin is not as efficient at making it.
Your body makes vitamin D from sunlight and gets limited amounts from the food you eat. It’s virtually impossible to get enough from your diet, so it’s important for older people to spend a short time in the sunshine each day.
People who cover up for cultural reasons are at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency, as are people with dark skin, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who need more exposure to make the same amount of vitamin D. If you can’t get outside often, talk to your doctor about vitamin D supplements.
Calcium is needed for healthy bones, and nerve and muscle function. Inadequate calcium can lead to low bone density (osteoporosis) and a risk of fractures, which is a greater risk for women after menopause.
The RDI of calcium for older Australian adults is:
- Men 51-70 years — 1,000mg per day
- Men over 70 years — 1,300mg per day
- Women 51 years and over — 1,300mg per day
Good sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, fish with soft edible bones — such as tinned sardines and salmon — almonds and calcium-enriched milks.
All your iron comes from food and is stored in the body. Good sources of iron include meat, poultry (such as chicken), fish and wholegrain cereals.
If you don’t get enough iron, you might deplete your iron stores, which can lead to iron deficiency and eventually, iron-deficiency anaemia.
Iron deficiency develops gradually — there are usually no symptoms until a person develops anaemia. Symptoms of anaemia include fatigue, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and memory and concentration problems.
In older people, low iron is not necessarily due to a lack of iron in the diet. It can be a sign of hidden bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, or a problem with the small intestine that affects the absorption of iron. Anyone with symptoms of anaemia should see their doctor.
The RDI of iron for Australian men and women aged over 51 years is 8mg per day.
How much protein do older people need in their diet?
Protein is essential for cell growth and repair, and for muscle strength. Men and women aged over 70 need about 20% more protein than younger adults.
The RDIs for protein are:
- Men aged under 70 years — 64g per day
- Men aged 70 years and over — 81g per day
- Women aged under 70 years — 46g per day
- Women aged 70 years and over — 57g per day
Protein is found in meats and fish, eggs, lentils, dried beans and dairy products. Milk is an easy way to get protein, and it comes with the added bonus of calcium. Soy is also a form of protein (soy milk is often fortified with calcium, as well).
How much fat, sugar and salt should I have?
You need fats in your diet to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, provide energy and more. There are 3 main types of dietary fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally healthier than saturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats are found in olive and canola oils, avocados and most nuts. They can help lower cholesterol when replacing unhealthy saturated fats in the diet.
Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats. These 2 types of unsaturated fat are ‘essential fats’. They can’t be made in the body and must come from food.
Omega-3 fats help protect against heart disease. Omega-3-rich foods include olive and vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseeds, avocados, fish and seafood — especially oily fish. The Heart Foundation recommends adults consume 2 to 3 serves of oily fish per week.
Omega-6 fats are found in margarine spreads, sunflower and soybean oils, some nuts and sunflower seeds. Most Australians get enough omega-6 fats from their diet.
Saturated fats in processed foods — such as snack foods, packaged cakes and biscuits, takeaway meals, pies and pastries — increase the risk of high blood cholesterol and heart disease.
All fats are high in energy (kilojoules) and can lead to weight gain if overconsumed.
Consuming too much sodium — most frequently, in salt — can raise blood pressure. Many convenience foods, such as frozen or packaged meals, are high in salt and therefore sodium, so check the labels on the packaging for lower-salt versions. Try to limit salty snack foods and cured meats, and avoid adding salt at the table or during cooking.
The recommended maximum amount of sodium for Australian adults is 2,000 milligrams per day.
A diet high in added sugars — found in many packaged, low-nutrient foods and drinks — can lead to obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and fatty liver disease.
You don’t need to consume any added sugars to meet your dietary needs. Healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats will give you energy. Fruit, vegetables and dairy foods contain naturally occurring sugars, along with useful nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Why is it important for older people to stay hydrated?
Good hydration is necessary to keep your bowels moving and brain functioning, and to prevent urinary tract infections and kidney stones.
Older people may be more at risk of dehydration due to reduced kidney function, not feeling thirsty, and medicines such as diuretics and laxatives. Reduced mobility can make toilet trips difficult, leading people to restrict fluids, which can then cause dehydration.
In summer, older people who are unfit and overweight and who become dehydrated are more susceptible to heatstroke, especially after strenuous exercise.
Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink; as people age, they don’t feel thirst as much. Generally, women should drink 8 cups of fluid per day and men 10 cups. Plain water is a healthy choice, but milk, soup, tea and coffee all contribute to your daily intake of fluids.
How much alcohol should older people consume?
It’s recommended that healthy men and women should have no more than 10 standard drinks per week.
Although many older people give up alcohol, those in their 60s who do drink alcohol are more likely to drink more than the Australian guidelines, and those in their 70s are more likely to drink every day.
Older people may be more susceptible to the effects of alcohol and have a higher blood alcohol concentration than younger adults for the same amount consumed. This is due to their having less water in the body and having a higher fat composition. Alcohol also takes longer to be processed in the liver, increasing the risk of damage.
If you’re an older person who is taking medicines, check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure there is no interaction between alcohol and your medicines.
Alcohol can also increase the risk of falls in older people and can affect your reactions and mental capacity. It is also high in kilojoules, so it can contribute to weight gain.
How do I care for my teeth as I get older?
Poor oral health is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. It can also affect your ability to chew and enjoy food, which may limit the types of food you eat.
Dry mouth syndrome (xerostomia) is common in older people. It can be a side effect of older age, some medicines or diabetes — among other things. Dry mouth increases the risk of tooth decay.
Keep your mouth moist by sipping water frequently. Limit sugary drinks, avoid adding sugar to tea and coffee, and brush your teeth morning and night with a fluoride toothpaste.
For more support and information
Visit these organisations and websites for more information on healthy eating:
- Read the Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary.
- Go to eatforhealth.gov.au.
- Find an accredited practising dietitian near you at Dietitians’ Australia or use the healthdirect Service Finder.
- Visit Diabetes Australia.
- Go to the Heart Foundation.
- The Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs has information on healthy eating for healthy ageing.
- Find out how much you should be eating using the food calculator at healthliving.nsw.gov.au.
- Aboriginal elders can also read about nutrition at the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation website.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
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