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The Role of Food in 'Aging Well'

Author: Svetlana Thaler MS, RD, LDN

Older adults make up a rapidly growing segment in the world population1. From 2010 to 2050, the 50 and over population is estimated to grow by 63%1. Food and nutrition can play a key role in healthy aging and helping to prevent certain diseases. In this article, we will discuss what consumers are saying about how food and nutrition play a role in the journey of aging well and review current nutrition recommendations for this stage of life.

The role of food and nutrition in aging well: The consumer perspective

General Mills recently interviewed consumers to better understand the role of food in the lives of consumers, ages 45-65+. When it came to aging, a common sentiment shared among the group was that aging is inevitable and you can't control it, but you can choose to maintain a positive attitude. Most consumers in this research study were optimistic and excited about this new stage in their life. As consumers age, they become more purposeful about what they eat, with a desire to turn to food instead of medicine to maintain health. Overall, they want to put the right food in their body for vitality.

Nutrition recommendations for older adults

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) provide general nutrition recommendations for all populations. However, there are some unique recommendations for older adults and areas where they are falling short of meeting nutrient or food group recommendations.

Calorie needs of adults decrease with age and depend on activity level. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the calories consumed are nutrient-dense. However, the DGAs show that more than half of individuals ages 51 and older fall short in consuming calcium, magnesium, vitamins D and E, dietary fiber and potassium. Older adults are also falling short on several food groups including vegetables and fruit, whole grain and dairy. While most adults get enough protein in their diet, people of all ages are not getting the recommended amount of seafood, especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids2.

How can we help older consumers close these gaps and meet nutrition recommendations?

Fruits & Vegetables. The recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per day is 2 cups and 2½ cups, respectively2. This food group provides important nutrients, such as fiber which is important for digestive health, potassium which is important for regulating blood pressure and vitamins A, C and E. Making small shifts in the day can help fill in these important gaps in fruit and vegetable intake. For example, including fruits and vegetables as snacks, hiding them in recipes and incorporating all forms (fresh, frozen and canned).

Seafood. The recommendation for seafood is 8 oz. per week for a 2,000-calorie diet2. Substituting seafood for other meats twice weekly will help meet this recommendation. It is important to select some seafood that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, Atlantic and Pacific mackerel3. While seafood may be an expensive option for older adults on fixed budgets, including canned or pouched seafood could be a convenient way to incorporate this into the diet.

Dairy. According to the DGAs, the lowest intake of dairy among all age groups is in adults 51 years and older. Dairy products are an important source of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Thus, dairy can help prevent the loss of bone mass resulting in osteoporosis, which is especially common among elderly women2. The recommendation for adults 51 and over is to consume 3 cups of dairy each day2. There are plenty of appealing ways to add dairy foods to the diet. Yogurt is a great option for breakfast and snacking throughout the day. Yogurt is also a versatile ingredient and can be used in smoothies, parfaits, dips, sauces and salad dressings. While it is important to remember that choosing products with less added sugar is recommended by the DGAs, there is room for nutrient dense foods with some added sugar, provided they still fit into daily recommendations for calories, saturated fat and added sugar. For those who are lactose intolerant, smaller portions (such as ½ cup of milk) may be well tolerated4. Lactose-free and lower-lactose products are also available, such as lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk, soymilk, yogurt and cheese.

Whole Grain. Based on the DGAs, total grain intake in older adults is within recommendations, but whole grain intake is below recommendations. The recommendation is to make half your grains whole and, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, one should consume 48 grams of whole grain daily. Key nutrients whole grains provide are fiber, B-vitamins and magnesium. One can identify whole grains on a package by looking for the words "whole grain" on the ingredient list and/or the Whole Grain Council stamp. A rule of thumb is to seek at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving2. According to NHANES 2013-2014, adults ages 50 and over reported ready-to-eat cereal as one of their top five foods they ate for breakfast. Ready-to-eat cereal is a top source of whole grain at breakfast and people who eat ready-to-eat cereal are also more likely to meet nutrient recommendations5.

Making healthy food choices is a smart thing to do regardless of how old you are. Following dietary recommendations and getting adequate nutrition can help in preventing certain chronic diseases and aging well.


1. UN's World Population Ageing 1950-2050 report, page 12, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/worldageing19502050/pdf/80chapterii.pdf
2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. All about the protein foods group. November 2017. Available at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods
4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. All about the dairy group. November 2017. Available at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/dairy
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Data. Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, [2013-2014] [https://wwwn.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes/continuousnhanes/overview.aspx?BeginYear=2013]