Healthy eating and drinking for older people

As you get older, it’s important you continue to eat well. There are certain foods you should try to eat and others you should limit or avoid. You should also watch your weight, cut down on salt and make sure you prepare and store food safely.

What to eat

It's important that you try to eat the types of food in the groups below.

Foods rich in starch and fibre

You should eat plenty of food rich in starch and fibre. Bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes are good examples. As well as being low in fat they are good sources of other essential nutrients - protein, vitamins and minerals.

The fibre from these helps to prevent constipation which reduces the risk of some common disorders in the intestine.

Don't buy raw bran and sprinkle it on your food to increase fibre as this may prevent you absorbing some important minerals.

Iron-rich foods

You should eat plenty of iron-rich foods to help keep up your body's store of iron. The best source of iron is red meat. It can also be found in pulses (such as peas, beans and lentils), oily fish such as sardines, eggs, bread, green vegetables and breakfast cereals with added vitamins.

Foods and drinks rich in vitamin C

These might help the body absorb iron, so you could have some fruit or vegetables or a glass of fruit juice with an iron-rich meal. Fruit, especially citrus fruit, green vegetables, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are all good sources of vitamin C.

Foods containing folic acid

These help maintain good health in older age. Good sources are green vegetables and brown rice, as well as bread and breakfast cereals that have vitamins added.

Calcium-rich foods

Osteoporosis is a major health issue for older people, particularly women. This is where bone density reduces and so the risk of fractures increases. Good sources of calcium are dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Remember to choose lower-fat varieties when you can or eat higher fat varieties in smaller amounts.

Calcium is also found in canned fish with bones, such as sardines. Other sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and cabbage, but not spinach), soya beans and tofu.

What to drink

It's very important to make sure you’re drinking enough. Your body needs plenty of fluid to work properly and to help stop you getting constipation.

Aim to drink about six to eight glasses (1.2 litres or just over two pints) of water, or other fluids, every day to stop you getting dehydrated. When the weather is warm or when you get active, your body is likely to need more than this.

Tea and coffee

Drinks that contain a lot of caffeine, such as strong tea and coffee, might act as mild diuretics, which means they make the body produce more urine.

It's fine to drink these sorts of drinks, but if most of your drinks are strong tea or coffee or other drinks that contain a lot of caffeine, you should make sure you drink some water or other fluids each day that don't contain caffeine

How to tell if you're drinking enough

As you get older, your sense of thirst reduces which means we might not always feel thirsty when your body is already dehydrated.

Keep a look out for the following symptoms of dehydration:

  • urine has a dark colour and you don’t pass much when you go to the toilet
  • headaches
  • confusion and irritability
  • lack of concentration

As you get older, these signs of dehydration could also be signs of other issues so check with your GP if you’re concerned about any symptoms.

Vitamins

You should try to make sure you are getting the right amount of certain vitamins.

Vitamin A

Having too much vitamin A (more than 1.5mg of vitamin A a day, from food or supplements) might increase the risk of bone fracture.

Liver is a rich source of vitamin A, so you should avoid eating liver or liver products such as pâté more than once a week, or you could eat smaller portions.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for good bone health.

We get most of our vitamin D from the effect of summer sunlight on our skin, but vitamin D is also found in oily fish, eggs and foods with added vitamins such as some breakfast cereals and margarines.

If you aren't getting enough vitamin D, you might be more at risk of the harmful effects of too much vitamin A. If you're 65 or over, you should consider taking 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D supplements a day.

Potassium

As you get older, your kidneys become less able to remove potassium from your blood. You should avoid taking potassium supplements unless on medical advice.

Healthy weight

Try to keep your weight at a healthy level. As you grow older, if you're overweight this will affect your mobility, which can affect your health and your quality of life. Being overweight increases your risk of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Equally, sudden weight loss is not healthy and may be an indication either that you are not eating enough food or that you are not well. 

If you are concerned about your weight you should speak to your GP.

Eating less

As you get older it's natural to start eating less because you will become less physically active and so your body will adapt and adjust your overall food intake accordingly. 

You may find it difficult to tolerate the meals you used to eat. Try having smaller meals more frequently and with nutritious snacks in between. 

It's important to eat regularly, at least three times a day. You might not always feel like cooking so you could increase your intake of tinned, chilled and frozen ready-prepared meals. Always make sure you heat chilled and frozen food until it's steaming hot all the way through.

You might eat less because you're finding it more difficult to buy or prepare food or you're finding it harder to get around if you have conditions such as arthritis. You may be able to get help with these sorts of problems through your GP.

Look after your teeth

Dental health can affect nutritional health. Make sure you visit your dentist regularly to keep your teeth in good condition. If you are having problems chewing then you may want to try eating tinned or stewed fresh fruit and vegetables, which are still good sources of nutrients.

Keeping food safe

As you get older it can be harder for your body to fight infections, especially if you're already ill. So take extra care to avoid food poisoning by making sure you've washed your hands and cleaned any work surfaces, utensils and chopping boards. For chilled food that is ready-to-eat it's important to follow the storage instructions on the label and to always use food by its 'use by' date.

Cut down on salt

On average, you should aim to keep your salt intake to less than 6g per day (about 2.4g of sodium).

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