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What Does Getting Older Have To Do With the Food We Eat?

An extended family having a picnic at a park on a summer day.
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Written with contributions by Megan Erickson, former SDSU Extension Nutrition Field Specialist.

Food plays many roles in our lives. It is a tool for connecting to culture, building relationships, expressing ourselves, and finding enjoyment. While all of these are good, the primary reason we have food in our lives is because it provides nutrients we need to live. As we get older, some of our nutritional needs change. Understanding how our nutrition needs change over time can help us stay healthy and prevent disease as we get older.

Aging impacts the food we eat.


Did you know the number of calories we need is influenced by several different factors, such as our age, gender, and level of activity? As we age, we generally need fewer calories. This is due to less physical activity, changes in metabolism, and/or loss of bone and muscle mass. Table 1 demonstrates the decrease of calories needed over time. Please note that the table is only meant as a guide to demonstrate this decrease. If you are interested in knowing how many calories you need each day, visit MyPlate’s Daily Food Plan Calculator.

Table 1. Recommended calories by gender and age (moderate activity level)

Estimated calories per day for:
2,000 to 2,200
2,600 to 2,800
2,400 to 2,600
66 and up


The risk of malnutrition increases with age. While older adults generally have less calorie needs, nutrient needs are similar, or, in some cases, higher than younger adults. This makes it important to consume nutrient-rich foods (high in vitamins and minerals and low in calories). Three nutrients for us to focus on as older adults are B12, protein, and water.

  • B12
    B12 requires stomach acid to be absorbed and used by the body. As we age, stomach acid production is reduced, thus decreasing how much B12 we can take up from food. Protein foods (for example, animal liver, beef, sardines, tuna) are a common source of B12, as are breakfast cereals fortified with B12.
  • Protein
    Protein is important to prevent the loss of lean muscle mass that occurs naturally with age. About 50% of women and 30% of men 71 and older consume too little protein. To achieve optimal nutrition, aim for a variety of protein foods, such as seafood, meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, and soy products.
  • Water
    Water is the most-essential nutrient for life. The sensation of thirst tends to decline with age, resulting in suboptimal fluid intake in older adults. Men need about 13 cups, and women need about 9 cups of total beverages each day. Drinking water is the best source, but other fluids, such as milk and 100% juice, count towards this total, too.

While these nutrients are of unique focus for older adults, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and dietary fiber are nutrients of concern for all ages. Eating a variety of foods helps to ensure that we are getting all the important nutrients our bodies need.

Much of the food we eat stays the same as we get older.

Older adult man prepares a sandwich.
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are written to apply to all ages. They include the following.

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
    1. Vegetables: Dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables.
    2. Fruits: Especially whole fruit (as opposed to juice).
    3. Grains: At least half of grains eaten as whole grains.
    4. Dairy: Fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese (or lactose-free or fortified soy versions)
    5. Protein: Lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
    6. Oils: Vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts.
  4. Limit food and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages. Read our article, Let’s Break Down the Nutrition Facts Label, to learn how to identify these nutrients.

Nutrition Programs

Group of older adults sharing a meal at a senior dining center.
Courtesy: Canva

Several nutrition programs are available for older adults to take advantage of. These include (but are not limited to) the following.

South Dakota Adult Nutrition Program

Adults aged 60 and older who struggle to afford nutritious foods are eligible for the South Dakota Adult Nutrition Program. There are 20 nonprofit nutrition providers in South Dakota. Not only do these providers serve hot, nutritious foods, they provide an opportunity for older adults to come together to share a meal. To find a nutrition provider in your community, visit the adult nutrition web page.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Older adults with limited income may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (abbreviated as SNAP), a federal program that provides temporary benefits to help individuals purchase foods and beverages to support a healthy dietary pattern. To learn more, visit the Department of Social Services website.

SNAP Education is offered in select locations across the state to help people make SNAP dollars stretch, learn to cook healthy meals, and lead physically active lifestyles consistent with the most-recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels America is a leadership organization dedicated to addressing senior isolation and hunger. Powered by a dedicated volunteer workforce, this network delivers the nutritious meals, friendly visits, and safety checks that enable America’s seniors to live nourished lives with independence and dignity. Visit the Meals on Wheels America website to find a provider near you.

In Conclusion

The golden years should not be a time for extreme fad diets or drastic weight loss. In fact, some weight is protective if we develop disease in older adulthood, because the body will use fat stores for energy, sparing our muscles and organs. Aim for a goal of eating nutritious foods, drinking adequate water, and enjoying mealtimes. Consider sharing meals with friends and family, creating and following a routine for meal and snack times, preparing foods in easy-to-chew and swallow textures, utilizing appropriate nutrition programs, and having fun with meal preparation and recipes.


Related Topics

Aging Well, Nutrition