Healthy Ageing & Diet

British Nutrition Foundation

Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and this applies to what we eat too! We should try and eat a varied diet to ensure we get enough of all the essential vitamins and minerals we need.  Try to avoid eating the same things every day.

Eating an enjoyable and varied diet

Our sense of taste and smell can change as we age, which can affect our appetite and how much we like food. Make foods as tempting and tasty as possible so that eating stays enjoyable. Keep meals from becoming bland and uninteresting by varying colours and textures as much as possible. Try adding herbs and spices such as mint, rosemary, cinnamon or paprika.

As we age, it is also common to become less interested in food. You may find that you are less hungry than you used to be, so it can be harder to get all the nutrients needed for good health.

Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals essential for good health, as well as phytochemicals (substances made by the plants such as polyphenols) that may have health benefits. They are also generally low in fat and high in fibre. Many studies have shown that people who consume diets high in fruit and vegetables have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

We should all be aiming for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day. This includes fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables, as well as smoothies and 100% fruit juices. One portion is generally 80g, for example:

Fruit

  • a medium piece of fruit such as an apple, orange or banana
  • half a large grapefruit
  • a slice of melon
  • two satsumas

For dried fruit, a portion is 30g, for example three dried apricots or 1 tablespoon of raisins. These should be eaten at mealtimes rather than as a snack to reduce the risk of tooth decay. 

A glass of 150ml of fruit juice counts as a maximum of one portion per day. Choose as wide a variety as possible and if you are opting for fresh produce go for those in season as they are often cheaper and may be more sustainable.

Choose healthier fats

There are two basic kinds of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Eating a diet rich in saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol level and increase your risk of heart disease. So eating less is important for heart health.

Butter, lard, ghee, palm oil and coconut oil contain a high proportion of saturated fat. Other foods with a relatively high saturated fat content include cakes, chocolate, biscuits, pies and pastries. The white fat you see on red meat and underneath poultry skin is also high in saturated fat.

Reducing saturated fat and replacing some of it with unsaturated fat may be good for your heart. Vegetable oils (such as rapeseed, olive, sunflower, soya, sesame oils) and fat spreads made from these oils are a healthier alternative to saturated fats. These are high in unsaturated fatty acids. Oily fish, including mackerel, sardines, pilchards and salmon, contain unsaturated fats called omega-3 fats, which can also help heart health.

Where possible, cut back on saturated fat and opt for small amounts of foods containing unsaturated fats instead.

Include oily fish in your diet

All fish and shellfish provide us with a range of vitamins and minerals, but oily fish, such as herring, salmon and mackerel, are rich in omega-3 fats which may help protect against heart disease. For this reason, we are advised to eat at least two portions (140g cooked weight) of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish.

Oily fish include:

  • salmon
  • trout
  • mackerel
  • herring
  • sardines
  • pilchards
  • kipper
  • whitebait
  • anchovies

There is currently a lot of interest in the role of these fats on many other age-related conditions. For example, some research suggests they may help to alleviate some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. But because oily fish can contain contaminants you should not eat more than four portions per week (or one portion of swordfish as this may be high in mercury).

Get enough fibre

Eating plenty of fibre-rich foods, such as wholegrains (like wholegrain breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals, brown rice, wholemeal pasta), fruit and vegetables and pulses (like lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas), will improve digestive health and can help to protect against heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

High-fibre foods may help you to stay fuller for longer so can be useful if you are watching your weight. It is also important to drink enough fluids or water when eating a diet high in fibre. 

Keep well hydrated

For a number of reasons, older people are at greater risk of dehydration than younger people. Ageing produces a decrease in our thirst sensation so it is easy for dehydration to go unnoticed. So as we age, it is especially important to drink plenty of water and other non-alcoholic beverages.

Early signs of dehydration include dizziness, tiredness and headaches. Long-term mild dehydration increases the risk of kidney stones, constipation and cholesterol problems, as well as diminished physical and mental performance.

Eight to ten drinks are recommended each day to replace fluid that is lost from the body. Water is a great choice but tea, coffee and fruit juice all count. You will need to drink more if the weather is hot or humid or if you are physically active.

It is really important not to restrict your fluid intake. If getting up during the night is an issue, you may like to consume more of your fluid earlier in the day.

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