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Healthy Eating

Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging

If you and your healthcare provider are worried about weight gain, you should choose nutrient-dense foods. These foods give you lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories.

On the other hand, foods that are high in calories for the amount of food are called calorie dense. They may or may not have nutrients. High-calorie foods with little nutritional value, like potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, baked goods, and alcoholic beverages, are sometimes called "empty calories."

Can choosing a nutrient-dense food instead of a calorie-dense food really make a difference? Here are some examples of nutrient-dense choices side by side with similar foods that are not nutrient-dense, have more calories, or both (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food-A-Pedia).

Choosing Nutrient-Dense Foods
Extra lean or regular ground beef

Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, extra lean ground beef
167 calories

Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, regular ground beef
235 calories

Apple or slice of pie

Large apple, 8 oz.
110 calories

Apple pie, eighth of a 2-crust 9" pie
356 calories

Two slices of bread or a croissant

Two slices of 100% whole-wheat bread, 1 oz. each
138 calories

Medium croissant, 2 oz.
231 calories

Chicken breast or wings

Roasted chicken breast, skinless (3 oz.)
141 calories

Fried chicken wings with skin and batter, (3 oz.)
479 calories

Another way to think about the idea of nutrient-dense and calorie-dense foods is to look at a variety of foods that all provide the same calories. Let’s say that you wanted to have a snack that contained about 100 calories. You might choose one of these:

  • 7- or 8-inch banana
  • two ounces baked chicken breast with no skin
  • three cups low-fat popcorn
  • two regular chocolate-sandwich cookies
  • half cup low-fat ice cream
  • one scrambled large egg cooked with fat
  • 20 peanuts
  • half of the average-size candy bar

Which would make a better snack for you? Although these examples all have about 100 calories, there are some big differences:

  • banana, chicken, peanuts, or egg are more nutrient dense
  • popcorn or chicken are likely to help you feel more satisfied
  • chicken, peanuts, or egg have more protein
  • cookies, candy, and ice cream have more added sugars

Check out this USDA/NIA tip sheet: Choosing Healthy Meals As You Get Older: 10 Healthy Eating Tips for People Age 65+.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

If you are over age 50 and you want to stay at the weight you are now—not lose and not gain, how many calories do you need to eat each day? The Dietary Guidelines suggest:

Not physically active Moderately active Active lifestyle
For a woman
1,600 calories 1,800 calories 2,000-2,200 calories
For a man
2,000-2,200 calories 2,200-2,400 calories 2,400-2800 calories
For examples, see Daily Calories Count Examples for the USDA Food Patterns

Physical activity refers to the voluntary movements you do that burn calories. Brisk walking, dancing, and swimming are examples of moderate activity. An active lifestyle might include jogging, singles tennis, or swimming laps. Learn how you can fit exercise and physical activity into your life with the NIA exercise and physical activity campaign, Go4life.

Read about this topic in Spanish. Lea sobre este tema en español.

For More Information on Healthy Eating

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
1-800-860-8747 (toll-free)
1-866-569-1162 (TTY/toll-free)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
1-888-463-6332 (toll-free)

USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center   
National Agricultural Library