Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging
Chapter 6: Healthy Eating
Following a healthy eating plan and being physically active are keys to a healthy lifestyle. But just what does "healthy eating" mean?
The answer is found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the National Institute on Aging is part of this Department). According to the Guidelines, a healthy diet:
- Emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
- Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars
- Balances the calories from foods and beverages with calories burned through physical activities to maintain a healthy weight
ChooseMyPlate.gov, a website developed by the USDA, offers personalized eating plans, tools to help you plan and assess your food choices, and advice to help you make smart choices from every food group and get the most nutrition out of your calories.
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What's On Your Plate? Smart Choices for Healthy Aging, the National Institute on Aging's guide to healthy eating for older adults, describes what you need to know about food groups, serving sizes, food labels, and more.
Tips for Healthy Eating
Here are some recommendations for healthy eating:
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables of different colors gives your body a wide range of valuable nutrients, including fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C. Some examples are green spinach, orange sweet potatoes, black beans, yellow corn, purple plums, blueberries, red watermelon, and white onions. Have them with meals or for a snack. Leave skins on your fruits and vegetables, if possible. For example, eat the skin when you have a baked potato, and snack on unpeeled apples, pears, and peaches. Don’t forget to rinse fruits and vegetables before eating.
- Eat a diet rich in foods that contain fiber such as dry beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods. Breakfast is a good time to enjoy foods with fiber. For example, try unsweetened, whole wheat or bran cereals, and add fruit such as berries and bananas.
- Season your foods with lemon juice, herbs, or spices, instead of butter and salt.
- Look for foods that are low in cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat (mostly in foods that come from animals) and trans fats (found in many cakes, cookies, crackers, icings, margarines, and microwave popcorn). Saturated fats and trans fats can increase blood cholesterol levels.
- Choose and prepare foods with little salt.
- Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry. Trim away extra fat and remove the skin from chicken and turkey before cooking. Broil, roast, bake, steam, microwave, or boil foods instead of frying.
- Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight are important for your overall health and well-being. The secret is to balance your “energy in” and “energy out” over the long run. “Energy in” is the calories from foods and beverages you have each day, and “energy out” is the calories you burn for basic body functions and during physical activity. Your weight will stay the same when the calories you eat and drink equal the calories you burn. On the other hand, you will gain weight when the calories you eat and drink are greater than those you burn. Physical activity can help you reach and keep a healthier weight.
- Watch your portion size. Controlling portion size helps limit calorie intake, especially when eating foods that are high in calories.
It’s important to drink enough liquids to keep your body working properly. This is particularly true for older adults because they often don’t feel thirsty even if their bodies need fluids. Drinking enough fluids every day is essential for those who exercise regularly, eat large amounts of protein, use laxatives, or live in areas with high temperatures. Check with your doctor, however, if you’ve been told to limit how much you drink.
Drink plenty of liquids such as water and other drinks without added sugar. Fat-free or low-fat milk, 100% juice, coffee, and tea also are good sources of fluids, as are foods with high moisture content such as fruits, vegetables, and low-sodium broth-based soups. Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should do so sensibly and in moderation, which means up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Do you have a urinary control problem? If the answer is yes, don’t stop drinking liquids. Talk with your doctor about treatment.
Eating out is enjoyable, but restaurants often serve large meals, which can be high in calories, fat, and salt. Here are a few tips to help make your meal both delicious and nutritious:
- Order foods such as salads with lean meats, low-fat or fat-free cheeses, and other toppings. Choose low-fat or fat-free salad dressing, and ask for the dressing on the side to control how much you use.
- Choose foods that are baked, broiled, braised, grilled, steamed, sautéed, or boiled instead of fried. With these cooking methods, little or no fat is added to the food.
- Hold the "special sauces." Ask the kitchen not to top your dish with butter or whipped cream.
- Choose foods with a tomato-based or red sauce instead of a cream-based or white sauce. Cream-based and white sauces usually are made with butter, milk, and cream, and are high in calories and saturated fat. Tomato-based sauces usually contain more vitamins, less fat, and fewer calories.
- Use portion control: Skip the "super sizes," ask for "small," or share a portion.
- Ask for food to be prepared without added salt, and don’t add salt at the table.
- Drink water, fat-free or low-fat milk, or other drinks without added sugars.
- Instead of french fries, try a small baked potato, side salad with low-fat or fat-free dressing, or fruit.
- Order an item from the menu instead of heading for the "all-you-can-eat" buffet.
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To learn more about portion sizes and have some fun at the same time, take the Portion Distortion Quiz from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Beware of diets that make big promises about losing weight, regaining youth, or achieving high energy.
- If it sounds too quick, too easy, or too good to be true, it probably is.
- To maintain and improve your health, follow the Dietary Guidelines and be physically active every day.
What Are Dietary Supplements?
Dietary supplements are substances you might use to add nutrients to your diet or to lower your risk of health problems such as osteoporosis or arthritis. Dietary supplements come in the form of pills, capsules, powders, gel tabs, extracts, or liquids. They might contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other plants, or enzymes. Sometimes, the ingredients in dietary supplements are added to foods, including drinks. You do not need a prescription to buy most dietary supplements.
Some ads for dietary supplements seem to promise that they will make you feel better, keep you from getting sick, or even help you live longer. Sometimes, there is little, if any, good scientific research to support these claims.
Are Dietary Supplements Safe?
Although certain dietary supplements may help some people, sometimes supplements can be harmful. For example:
- Taking a combination of supplements, using supplements together with prescription or over-the-counter medications, or using them in place of medicines prescribed by your doctor could lead to harmful, even life-threatening side effects. Be alert to any warnings about these products.
- Some supplements can have unwanted or harmful effects before, during, or after surgery. For example, vitamin E and the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba can each thin the blood and increase the potential for bleeding. It’s important to let your doctor know about the vitamins, minerals, herbals, and any other supplements you are taking, especially before surgery.
Do I Need a Supplement?
Eating healthy foods is the best way to get the nutrients you need. For example, fruits and vegetables provide a variety of important nutrients, including fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C.
People who eat the recommended amount of a nutrient in food and who do not have problems absorbing that nutrient will not gain any additional health benefit by taking the nutrient as a supplement. For example, people who eat enough fruits and vegetables don’t need extra vitamin C.
Certain dietary supplements, however, can help some older adults with specific nutrient needs that cannot be met by their daily diet. For example, some older adults may not get enough calcium, vitamin D, or vitamin B12. Supplements containing these nutrients help them stay healthy.
The best way to find out if you need to take a supplement is to talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian. Together, you can review your diet, prescription medicines, and health needs, and decide whether a supplement is right for you.
Publication Date: May 2011
Page Last Updated: October 8, 2015