Healthy diet tips for ageing well

By Jo Williams – Registered nutritionist

Discover how to enjoy a balanced and healthy diet if you’re in your later years, plus lifestyle tips to help you feel your best.

As you go through constant changes in life, it’s essential to adjust your diet to make sure you’re getting your nutritional needs. Whatever your age, it's important to eat a varied and balanced diet, full of vegetables and fruit, high quality protein, starchy carbs, fibre and healthy fats. After your mid sixties, it can be useful to pay a little more attention to how, as well as what you eat – read on to discover more.

How do my dietary needs change as I age?

Age-related lifestyle changes can make it common for older people to fall short of meeting their nutritional needs. Practical issues like finding it difficult to lift shopping bags or open cartons and jars may make cooking more difficult. While issues with swallowing or chewing, if you have them, can influence food choices.

Some simple changes like modifying your diet and making the eating experience more enjoyable may improve our health status and quality of life as we age.

How to make meals enjoyable

The social aspect of eating is important, whatever your age.

  • If you’re eating alone, a nicely laid table can make a difference and if you prefer company, why not invite a friend or neighbour to eat with you or join a lunch club?
  • If you care for an elderly relative, try to stimulate food memories by reminiscing about food, this can be a useful way to reveal forgotten favourites and provide new meal ideas.
  • Aim to stick to regular mealtimes to create a healthy routine.

How to deal with a small appetite

As we get older our appetite may become less – if this is the case try eating smaller meals throughout the day, rather than the traditional three sizeable ones. Spreading out your meals with regular snacks is useful if you find it uncomfortable to eat large amounts in one sitting. Preparing food in small, easy to manage portions may also be helpful. For example, sandwiches cut into small squares or triangles means the most nutritious part (the filling) is more likely to be eaten.

Batch-cooking and making the most of your freezer means you’ll have homemade meals, ready to eat when you least feel like preparing and cooking food. Portion these into a range of sizes to accommodate different appetite preferences on the day.

Why is it important to eat a varied daily diet?

Various changes occur as we age, which affects our nutritional requirements. In addition to this, our body becomes less efficient at absorbing and using vitamins and minerals. What’s more, long-term use of prescription drugs may also reduce nutrient absorption and our appetite may decrease. As the need for vitamins and minerals stays the same, or in some cases increases, it becomes even more important that the food we eat is healthy, varied and nutritious.

When appetites are small, every mouthful counts so opt for nutrient dense options, choosing high-calorie foods where possible. Use full fat dairy products and include eggs regularly, as well as fortified cereals (such as high-iron or fibre) and spreads.

What are the specific nutritional needs of older people?

Eat enough protein

Protein is important to build and maintain bone and muscle, as well as to make hormones and produce antibodies. Studies suggest that as we age our need for protein actually increases because it helps minimise the muscle loss associated with ageing. At the same time, we may be experiencing a reduced appetite for these types of foods and our digestive system may become less efficient.

Examples of high-quality, ‘complete’ protein include meat, poultry, fish such as salmon and cod, and seafood including prawns. Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt are suitable sources for vegetarians, while vegan sources include beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa, soya and tofu.

Read more about the best sources of protein, including vegetarian and vegan sources.

Get more omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats are essential for health and may help protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cognitive decline. However, these fats are limited in the diet, with the main food sources being oily fish like salmon and mackerel, flax seeds and walnuts. Although taking supplements may help, it is less clear whether omega-3 supplements provide the same benefits as that achieved by including the fat-rich foods in our diet.

Check out the best sources of omega-3 fats.

Choose foods with vitamin D

Vitamin D is made by the action of sunlight on skin; where possible, it’s important to get out in the sun for at least 20 minutes a day without sunscreen (although if you are out for longer than this, do take the appropriate steps to protect your skin).

During the autumn and winter months, the sun is not strong enough for the body to make vitamin D, making diet even more important. Foods like eggs and oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, along with fortified foods such as some spreads and breakfast cereals, are useful choices.

Older people may have a reduced capacity to make vitamin D in the skin as well as convert it to its active form, a process that takes place in the kidneys. For this reason, those over 65 are advised to take a daily supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D – this is also relevant for adults for whom access to safe sunlight is limited, including those who live in residential care.

Speak to your GP for more information and discover more about vitamin D with our expert guide.

Include vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important for many processes in the body, including producing red blood cells, maintaining the nervous system and releasing energy from food. As we age, our ability to absorb this vitamin becomes less efficient, so maintaining an adequate intake and potentially supplementing may be key. Foods that are rich sources include liver, mackerel, fortified soya milk, yogurt, most meats, salmon, cod, milk, cheese, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals.

Check with your GP if you are concerned about your vitamin B12 levels and learn more about vitamin B12.

Eat enough fibre

Fibre is an important component of a balanced diet because it helps to keep our digestive system healthy and promotes regular bowel movements. Fibre is also critical for gut health and maintaining a balanced community of gut bacteria – also known as our ‘gut microbiome’. Aim to include a wide variety of fibre-rich foods such as wholegrains, oats, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. A small glass of prune juice in the morning may also help alleviate constipation.

If you're taking medication, talk to your GP before significantly increasing your fibre or taking fibre supplements. This is because fibre slows down digestion and may decrease the rate at which your medication is absorbed. Similarly, if your intake of fibre in your diet has always been on the low side – increase it gradually, giving your digestive system plenty of time to adapt – refer to a dietician for guidance if needed.

Discover the best fibre-boosting recipes and check out more information about fibre.

Drink plenty of water

Hydration is key but it is all too easy to forget to drink enough water, guidelines suggest we aim for around six to eight glasses or cups a day. The good news is this doesn't all have to be plain water – milk, sugar-free drinks and tea and coffee all count, but do bear in mind that caffeinated drinks can make the body produce urine more quickly.

Fruit juice and smoothies also count, but because they contain ‘free’ sugars (the type we are encouraged to cut back on), you should limit these to a combined total of 150ml per day.

Many of the foods we eat contribute to our fluid intake – examples include soup, ice cream and jelly, as well as certain fruit and vegetables like melon, courgette and cucumber.

Discover how much water you should drink each day and the health benefits of drinking water.

Which foods should I limit in my diet?

Including some salt is important for health, but eating too many pre-packaged foods may mean you consume too much which may elevate blood pressure. Sense of smell and taste may become less acute as we get older, and it can be tempting to add extra salt to our food to compensate. Instead, flavour food with herbs, spices and other strongly flavoured ingredients like garlic, lemon juice, vinegar or mustard.

Read more about low-salt diets.

It can be tempting to eat more sweet, refined foods like pastries, cakes and biscuits – these are appealing and often eaten in smaller, more appetising portions. However, satisfying your hunger with these foods not only reduces the likelihood of eating more nourishing options but also increases your risk of a number of health conditions including cognitive decline, heart disease and a weakened immune system. In addition to this, excess sugar may heighten your chance of experiencing a fall this is because eating sugar may lead to a number of health issues.

Healthy lifestyle tips for older people

Maintaining weight

The number of calories your body needs is likely to change as you get older, and depends on a wide range of factors, including your activity levels, muscle mass and metabolism. Eating too many calories may lead to weight gain, while eating too few may lead to weight loss. The NHS have a useful online BMI healthy weight calculator – this guide may help you assess whether your weight is within the healthy range.

Illness or a general loss of appetite can make maintaining weight a challenge for older people. However, it's very important to maintain a healthy body weight so as to keep bones healthy, support the immune system and reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies. If you're underweight or have unintentionally lost weight, speak to your GP to ensure there is no underlying medical reason for your weight loss.

If you need to boost your calorie intake to keep your weight up, try including healthy, high-energy meals and snacks. Make the most of ingredients like avocadopeanut butter, dried fruit, nuts, cheese and full-fat milk.

Staying active

Exercise has a huge range of benefits whatever your age – and the good news is that any physical activity counts. If you're over 65, the NHS recommends some form of physical activity every day – this might include strengthening and flexibility exercises on two days each week (such as carrying heavy shopping bags or doing yoga); 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity (such as brisk walking or riding a bike) each week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (such as jogging, running or playing tennis) each week.

Wheelchair users or those with limited mobility may benefit from sitting exercises, swimming and strengthening exercises using equipment such as resistance bands.

If you are unable to leave the home, housework and light gardening are great for maintaining the mobility of joints and muscles. Chair yoga may have a positive effect on mind and body, and requires little space or equipment.

The reason exercise is so important for older adults, is because muscles and bones naturally lose strength as we age. Staying active can help to maintain strength, reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and improve balance, whilst reducing the risk of hip fractures and falls. If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, the NHS advice is to remain active.

If you have experienced a recent fracture, have blood pressure issues or any other medical condition, please check with your GP or health practitioner to ensure exercise is appropriate for you.

Like this? Now read:

Eat for your age

What is osteoporosis and what affects bone density?

Top 5 diet tips to ease arthritis

How much fibre should I eat every day?

What is the DASH diet?

This page was reviewed on 11 April 2024 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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2024-06-06T11:52:55Z dg43tfdfdgfd