Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Nutrition for Seniors: Ask the Nutritionist

Question:
Do seniors need to eat fewer calories than middle-aged people? If so, how much less?
Answer:

Generally, the older we get the fewer calories we need to stay the same weight. But age itself isn't really the issue. We tend to be less active as we get older, which means we burn fewer calories. With less activity we also lose muscle. Muscle burns a lot of calories throughout the day. So as we lose muscle, our metabolism starts to plummet. This also subtracts from the number of calories burned during the day. So, if you keep eating as much as you did before you became less active and started losing muscle mass, you're most likely going to gain weight.

The good news is that you can combat that weight gain by staying active as you age. I highly recommend exercise at any age. Exercise is one of the most important things we can do -- especially as we get older -- to stay healthy, happy, and active.

Question:
Now that I'm in my 60s, is it OK to eat just one healthy meal a day?
Answer:

Eating only one meal a day is not enough for several reasons. It's highly likely that you're not going to get the nutrients you need to stay strong and healthy. You need protein to keep your muscles strong. You need fruits and vegetables to get important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And you need a steady stream of carbohydrates to keep your energy up.

By eating only one solid meal a day, your metabolism is going to take a nosedive. When you go many hours without eating, your body goes into starvation mode, which contributes to the loss of muscle mass. We already tend to lose muscle as we get older. So not eating at least three solid meals a day could make that happen faster.

If you find that you're not hungry throughout the day, take a walk. Physical activity can often help stimulate the appetite. You want to make sure you're giving your muscles the fuel they need and consuming the right amount of nutrients to stay healthy.

Question:
I'm a 74-year-old woman and need to lose 10 pounds. I can't seem to stick with a diet. What can I do to get started?
Answer:

I would say stop dieting. Trying to stick to "a diet" is one of the best ways to set yourself up for failure.

Instead, try eating 5 or 6 times a day, meaning 3 healthy meals -- preferably slimmer portions -- with 2 or 3 healthy snacks. When you eat more frequently, you'll find you don't have as many cravings. You'll also burn more calories throughout the day.

When you eat, include a small portion of lean protein (lean meat, egg whites, beans, or low-fat dairy) and a healthy carb (fruits and vegetables, or whole wheat bread or pasta) in every meal or snack. Protein helps keep you full and carbs provide you energy.

Don't underestimate the importance of exercise for weight loss. Trying to lose weight is a lot easier when you combine eating healthy with exercising. You'll be amazed at how good it makes you feel. Also, don't let age stop you. If you don't exercise right now, check with your doctor first before starting a new routine.

Question:
What kind of diet would you say is best for a 62-year-old man with gallbladder cancer?
Answer:

Generally, you should eat the same healthy diet that most people should eat, meaning plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein (lean meat, beans, low-fat dairy), and complex carbs (whole-wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes). If appetite is a problem, try to eat smaller meals and snacks more frequently throughout the day. Keep your snacks simple, such as yogurt with fruit, low-fat cheese, or nuts. One of the most important things is to make sure you're getting the calories and nutrients you need. Meal replacement drinks can be a good option, too.

For some people who have had their gallbladders removed, diarrhea can be an issue. Eating more fiber can help with that. Pay attention to whether or not dairy foods make your diarrhea worse. If so, switch to lactose-free dairy products.

Question:
I am a 72-year-old woman with diabetes and ulcerative colitis. I normally eat a diet appropriate for a diabetic. But the research I've done makes me think that a diabetic diet is completely opposite of the diet recommended for someone with ulcerative colitis. So what should I do?
Answer:

Actually, a diet well-suited for diabetes is typically good for people with ulcerative colitis (UC), meaning a well-balanced diet that's high in complex carbohydrates, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein.

It may be hard believe, but diet is not typically a major factor for people with UC. However, some people find that specific foods do lead to digestive problems. If this is true for you, pay attention to what you're eating and zoom in on foods you may need to avoid. But don't be too restrictive. Speak with your doctor before cutting foods of a certain type completely out of your diet.

Question:
I am a 60-year-old woman. I've been a vegetarian for the past year, since I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. But I've gained at least 20 lbs. since then and I am now overweight. My family eats at fast food places a lot. Since I don't eat meat, I often order French fries. Is there a way to maintain a healthy diet on fast food?
Answer:

While vegetarian diets can be much healthier, as you've found, this isn't always so. I'd like to steer you and your family away from eating so much fast food, as it's not good for anyone to eat too frequently. That said, there are often some healthy options even at fast food restaurants. For instance, substitute French fries with a baked potato with little to no butter or sour cream. Most fast food places have salad options, too. Just watch what's in the salads (e.g. high-fat dressings).

Check out restaurant web sites for places that you frequent. Many places have nutrition information online, which and can steer you toward any healthier options they offer.

As a vegetarian, if you're eating at fast food places all the time, you may not be getting enough protein. Lean protein sources help keep you full. And there are many good vegetarian protein options, such as beans, nuts, seitan, and eggs and dairy products if you eat them.

Question:
I'm worried about my husband. Is it OK for a 77-year-old man with heart disease to become a vegan?
Answer:

Vegetarian diets are usually healthier, as they tend to be higher in fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fat -- great for someone with heart disease. The issue with becoming a vegan is you have to take extra steps to get certain vitamins and minerals that your body needs.

Vitamin B12 occurs naturally in animal products only. If your husband is avoiding all animal products -- including eggs and cheese -- he needs to eat B12-fortified foods, such as cereals or veggie burgers. Or he needs to take a vitamin B12 supplement.

Calcium can also be tough to get as a vegan. Although it's found in dark green vegetables, he might benefit from taking calcium supplements, as well.

Getting enough zinc can also be a challenge for vegans. So taking a supplement or a multivitamin can help fill in that gap, as well.

Question:
What kinds of healthy foods should I eat to gain weight? My doctor says I'm currently underweight.
Answer:

I like that you still want to eat healthy even though you need to gain weight. I would say you should eat the same foods I would normally tell people to eat -- just more of them. Stick to healthy foods like lean meats and beans, whole grains, healthy carbs like sweet potatoes, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Since you need to gain weight, you can include some of the higher-calorie foods in your diet, like potatoes and pastas. It's easier to rack up the calories with carbs, so eat up and enjoy. You could even splurge occasionally on sweets or other foods you crave. It's honestly fine for anyone to do that, but you have a bit more freedom in your case. Also, if it's hard for you to eat a lot at one time, eat more small meals throughout the day.

Question:
What is the right kind of diet for a senior man with diverticulosis?
Answer:

Fiber, fiber, fiber and water, water, water.

One of the main diet issues for people with diverticulosis is not getting enough fiber. You want to aim for at least 30 grams of fiber a day. (Most people get only half as much as they need.) Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Whole-grain products and beans are also great sources of fiber. If you can't get enough fiber in your diet -- which is really the best means of getting fiber -- fiber supplements are a good way to fill in the gap. Incorporate more fiber into your diet slowly to give your body time to get used to it.

Along with more fiber, you need to drink a lot of water. Eating more fiber without drinking more water may cause constipation, which can make diverticulosis worse.

Also, nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber. If you've heard that seeds and nuts are bad for people with diverticulosis, don’t believe it. That's a myth.

Question:
How much vitamin B12 should a 76-year-old woman get a day?
Answer:

Adults need at least 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. You can also find it in fortified cereals.

Younger people tend to get plenty of B12 in their diets. But as we get older we run the risk of developing B12 deficiency. Since the vitamin B12 found in supplements and fortified foods is better absorbed in older people, these are often a better source in people over the age of 50.

Question:
Can you take too much vitamin D? If so, what could be the consequences?
Answer:

Yes. You can definitely get too much vitamin D. It's a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it can build up in the body if you take too much, which can be dangerous. While not all experts agree (some think we need more), most adults should get 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D daily.

Adults over 70 need at least 800 IUs of vitamin D a day. Older adults are more at risk of a vitamin D deficiency because their skin is not as able to produce vitamin D from the sun (a major source of vitamin D) and because they tend to spend more time indoors. Also, vitamin D intake tends to be lower in older adults. So they need to take extra steps to make sure they're getting plenty vitamin D to keep their bones strong. Vitamin D is needed to help our bodies absorb calcium, a critical mineral for our bones.

The NIH has set the safe upper limit for vitamin D at 4,000 IU/day for adults. Too much vitamin D can cause high calcium levels. High calcium levels cause weakness and mental confusion, but can also cause dangerous and potentially deadly heart rhythm problems.

Question:
I am 70 years old. I've had open-heart surgery and cancer of the throat before. Could putting Splenda in my drinks or food be harmful to me?
Answer:

Artificial sweeteners, including Splenda (sucralose), are considered safe and are a good option for limiting caloric intake. There is actually no evidence in humans that any artificial sweetener is dangerous to our health. Other sweeteners include Equal (aspartame) and Sweet'N Low (saccharin). There are also many generic alternatives. Stevia (Truvia) is an herbal sugar substitute. While early studies suggested a possible link between aspartame and cancer, other research has refuted that and it is also considered safe.

Question:
My brother is a senior with high blood sugar. But he has not yet been diagnosed with diabetes. Can this condition be reversed with diet and exercise?
Answer:

It sounds like your brother may have prediabetes, which means his blood sugar is high but not high enough to be called diabetes. When you have prediabetes, it is very likely that you will go on to develop diabetes if you do not make the necessary changes to stop it.

Prediabetes can certainly be reversed with diet and exercise, and more specifically with weight loss. In addition, there are medications that can help people with prediabetes. But your brother's best bet is absolutely to make the necessary lifestyle changes to get his weight and/or blood sugar under control.

Question:
How should a senior who has had a stroke (cerebral infarction) alter his or her diet?
Answer:

Most strokes are due to a blood clot in the brain, which is essentially the same thing that causes a heart attack. For this type of stroke, we would recommend the same changes in the diet as those recommended to people with heart disease. If your cholesterol is high, you need to take the necessary steps to lower it. That means decreasing your saturated fat intake (found mostly in meat and high-fat animal products, like whole milk). You also want to decrease fat intake overall by cutting back on desserts, butter, creamy sauces, etc. And losing weight, when needed, can play a large role in bringing your cholesterol down.

Many people who've suffered from a stroke need medication to get their cholesterol down and to prevent future strokes. But diet changes are still very important, even for people taking medication. Exercise can also help prevent another stroke, but make sure to check with your doctor to find the right type of exercise for you.

Question:
I've read a few articles that link the risk of bone loss in women to high protein diets. Could this be true?
Answer:

There is some research to suggest that this may be true. But there is no conclusive evidence at this point. If you choose a high-protein diet, you can help ease any possible effects on your bones by making sure you get plenty of calcium and vitamin D.

Dairy is your best bet for getting enough calcium, especially vitamin D-fortified milk -- skim or low-fat. If you're not a big fan of dairy, calcium and vitamin D supplements can be taken to help keep your bones strong.

Although high-protein diets are generally OK, I hate to see people miss out on the fruits and vegetables that are so important for a healthy body. Plus, they're a great source of healthy carbs, which your body needs for energy.

Question:
I was told by a physician's assistant that taking 100 mg of riboflavin (vitamin b2) a day can decrease migraine intensity and frequency in some people. Is this true? Also, could taking more than 200 mg of riboflavin per day be toxic for an older woman?
Answer:

One study did show that taking 400 mg of riboflavin per day may help prevent migraines. However, the participants in the study showed relief only after taking riboflavin for 3 months. This is far more riboflavin than you'd get from your diet, but it's perfectly safe. There are no known toxic effects to taking 400 mg per day as the study used suggests.

Question:
For a 63-year-old man with iron-deficiency anemia, what kinds of foods are good to eat or to get rid of it?
Answer:

First, be sure to work with your doctor to determine why you have iron deficiency anemia, which is unusual in a man without an underlying cause. Iron in foods comes in two forms. The first type of iron -- called heme iron -- is found mostly in red meat (lean forms of red meat), fish, and poultry. The second type of iron -- called non-heme iron -- is found in plants foods, such as lentils, beans, and iron-fortified cereal products.

Question:
Could maintaining a gluten-free diet help my husband and I get rid of our fat tummies? We're both in our mid-60s.
Answer:

A gluten-free diet calls for avoiding foods with gluten in them, which is a protein found in wheat-, rye-, and barley-based foods. That means avoiding most bread (including bagels, muffins, buns, etc.), cereals, pasta, crackers, breaded foods (which are often fried), cookies, cakes, and beers. Gluten-free products and diets are very popular these days and are often touted for weight loss. Although you can lose weight while eating gluten-free products, it's not a result of their lack of gluten. It's avoiding these high-calorie foods that help with the weight loss. So, your best bet is to limit simple carbs in your diet and you'll probably see those tummies start melting away.

Question:
I have been drinking a colon health powder drink for months. But the brand I like was discontinued. It really helped keep me regular and feeling good. Are there any reasons why I shouldn't drink such powders? I don't know why the brand was discontinued.
Answer:

Colon health powder drinks contained a number of ingredients. But the one that's going to be the best for your digestive system and your overall health is fiber. It's recommended that women under 50 get at least 25 grams, and men under 50 get 38 grams of fiber a day. Women over 50 should get 21 grams. And men over 50 should get at least 30 grams. Most of us only get about half the amount we need. You can get fiber from fruits and vegetables and beans, beans being a good source of lean protein, as well.

If you can't get the recommended amount of fiber from your diet, fiber supplements are a good option. Fiber supplements come in several forms, including powders.

Question:
Is counting calories the way to lose weight? I am a 65-year-old woman and I've been eating 1,000 calories per day for 2 weeks.
Answer:

If you can keep it up, counting calories is a pretty good way to lose weight. It can be tough for some people to stick to over time. However, one of the things I like about counting calories is it makes you more aware of portion sizes. Then, even if you stop counting calories, you have a better idea of what a "normal" portion size is. Portion size is one of our biggest enemies today when it comes to weight control.

A thousand calories a day may be a bit on the low side. Generally, we don't recommend people go below 1,200 calories per day because that may not give you the energy you need to get throughout the day. Exercise is such an important part of any weight loss plan. And it could be tough getting through a normal day AND exercising when you're consuming so few calories. You also run the risk of not getting enough of the daily vitamins and minerals you need. Make sure you're eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and lean proteins (lean meat, chicken, low-fat dairy, or beans) to get the nutrients you need each day.

Thank you for joining us for WebMD Ask the Nutritionist. Be sure to check in on Wednesday, June 13, at 1 p.m. ET, when we will discuss “Nutrition Tips for Women.” Sign up if you'd like an email reminder the day before the event.

WebMD Ask the Specialist Transcript

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 03, 2012

The opinions expressed in this section are of the Specialist and the Specialist alone. They do not reflect the opinions of WebMD and they have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance or objectivity. WebMD is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on WebMD. 

WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.