You are what you eat.
The adage is true: to stay healthy you need to eat right. But that advice becomes especially important over time. Seniors in particular need to eat a variety of healthy foods to maintain strength, bone mass and cognitive function. The good news is that there are lots of tasty superfoods that can help you do just that.
What’s a superfood?
Alison Liggett Neov, a registered dietitian with Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads, a senior living community in Falls Church, Virginia, says “the word ‘superfood‘ isn’t scientifically based or regulated; however, there are many nutrient dense foods that are great to include regularly in your diet.”
Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California, adds that superfoods are also sometimes called “functional foods” because they “provide an extra boost of nutrients.”
You don’t have to reach for some exotic ingredient to be eating a superfood, either. Superfoods, Kanda says, “are everyday foods. The field of functional foods has evolved and includes diversity.”
Why superfoods are important for older adults
Kanda notes that aging brings a declining need for energy (calories) due to several factors, including:
— A slower metabolism.
— Digestive issues like constipation.
— Age-related muscle mass loss, a condition called sarcopenia.
— Osteopenia and osteoporosis, two conditions where the bones become brittle and more likely to fracture.
Being able to get all the various nutrients you need from foods that don’t provide excess calories, sugar, fat and preservatives can help you manage your weight and live a healthier life.
The following 10 superfoods should be part of every senior’s diet as much as possible.
Kanda says blueberries are a great inclusion because they have high levels of phytochemicals and an antioxidant profile that promotes bone health in addition to brain health. “Several animal and human studies have demonstrated a diet rich in blueberries has positive neurocognitive effects,” meaning that these tiny berries may help you stave off age-related memory decline.
Blueberries are also good for bone health because “some causes of bone loss can be attributed to increased oxidative stress through the aging process,” Kanda explains. Potentially, antioxidant-rich foods may represent one strategy for slowing down age-related bone loss and improving your bones’ ability to heal. “Several studies have identified greater fruit intake with decreased fracture risk, greater bone mineral density, and decreased bone turnover,” she says.
Kailey Proctor, a board-certified oncology dietitian at Leonard Cancer Institute at Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, agrees that blueberries “pack a nutritional punch. One cup contains only about 85 calories and four grams of fiber.”
They’re also high in anthocyanins, which are blue, red or purple pigments found in certain plants. These signify that the food is really high in antioxidants. “Anthocyanins, particularly blueberries, contain the highest amount of antioxidants, which keep our cells healthy. They’re also a good source of Vitamin C, another antioxidant,” Proctor says. She recommends eating a half to a full cup of blueberries per day.
2. Dark green leafy vegetables
“Foods high in antioxidants, such as dark green leafy vegetables and berries, assist in removing free radicals from the body,” Liggett Neov says. This can lower your risk for many different diseases associated with aging, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
In addition, “leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, are also high in vitamin K, which helps blood clot and protects bones from osteoporosis.”
Lori Chong, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center says “these nutritional powerhouses provide carotenoids,” which are a type of antioxidant that are particularly protective against oxidative damage in the eyes.
Leafy greens are also rich in:
— Folate, which can help protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer and cognitive impairment.
— Magnesium, which is involved in a wide array of metabolic processes throughout the body and helps prevent Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and sarcopenia.
— Potassium, which can reduce high blood pressure.
— Vitamin K, which is “critical for getting calcium out of our arteries and into our bones, so it’s helpful for preventing cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis,” Chong says.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends that seniors consume 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day.
3. Brussels sprouts
“Brussels sprouts are part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer by protecting DNA from becoming damaged,” Proctor explains.
Brussels sprouts are also high in fiber, “which helps promote regular bowel movements and maintain a healthy weight by increasing the feeling of fullness after a meal on relatively few calories.”
Four to six sprouts per day is all it takes to get that powerful nutrient punch. Proctor recommends cutting the Brussels sprouts in half and tossing them in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. “Roast at 375 to 385 for 20 to 25 minutes, flipping half way through. For the last minute or two drizzle with maple syrup.”
And if you just don’t like Brussels sprouts, other cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, are also a good choices, Chong says. “Cruciferous vegetables provide a phytonutrient called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane is a potent antioxidant — found only in cruciferous vegetables — that helps our detoxification processes work smoothly.”
She recommends “a daily salad with one or more of the cruciferous greens (kale, swiss chard, watercress, arugula) with beans and any other vegetables you like, plus walnuts or hemp seeds sprinkled on top.”
Liggett Neov says fatty fish like salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, “which help decrease your risk for heart disease. It’s also a great source of protein, a macronutrient that’s essential to maintaining muscle mass and strength.”
This is important at any age, but especially later in life. “Our bodies tend to process protein less efficiently as we age, which is why it’s important to have a protein-rich food source with each meal.”
For a simple dinner or lunch option, she recommends baking salmon on a sheet pan with asparagus and potatoes. “Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat sliced potatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Bake for 10 minutes on a sheet pan. Add marinated salmon filets and asparagus to the sheet pan and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Serve immediately with sliced lemon wedges.”
Kathryn Parker, a registered dietitian with Aviv Clinics in The Villages, Florida, says seniors should aim to eat 4 to 6 ounces of seafood per day.
Eggs have been alternatively reviled and praised over the years, and many people have settled on just eating the white to get a good protein boost without the cholesterol found in the yolks. But Liggett Neov says “most of the nutritional benefits in eggs can be found in the egg yolk, so please eat the whole egg, not just the egg whites.”
Egg yolks are rich in:
— Vitamin D.
— Vitamin B6.
— Vitamin B12.
Choline is an essential nutrient and neurotransmitter that’s important for older adults “because it plays a role in regulating memory and mood,” Liggett Neov says. Each egg yolk contains 140 milligrams of choline, which is about 28% of your daily needs. She adds that eating up to three eggs per day is considered healthy.
And getting them in early can help you feel energized all day. “Fill up on protein first thing in the morning to start your day off right,” Liggett Neov says. She recommends scrambled eggs with vegetables. “Saute vegetables like bell peppers, onions and spinach over medium heat in a lightly greased skillet until they have softened. Add two eggs that have been beaten with a tablespoon of milk and a touch of salt and pepper. Cook until set. Serve with a bowl of fresh berries and yogurt for additional protein, probiotics and antioxidants.”
6. Plain Greek yogurt
“Greek yogurt is a functional food because it’s so versatile,” Kanda says. “It has more protein compared to regular yogurt and a 6-ounce serving is almost equivalent to a 3-ounce serving of meat. Therefore, its high protein content can support prevention of sarcopenia.”
One cup of Greek yogurt contains 17 grams of protein and about 20% of the recommend daily intake of calcium, which is important for older adults looking to strengthen bones to prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Greek yogurt also contains probiotics that keep the digestive tract healthy. “The more we learn about probiotics, the more benefits we’re seeing as our gut health can impact other health conditions,” Proctor says.
Yogurt tends to have lesser amounts of the milk sugar lactose, so if you’re lactose intolerant, Kanda says you may find yogurt to be easier to digest than cows’ milk.
Liggett Neov cautions you to seek out plain varieties made with reduced fat milk or whole milk without added sugar. “Fat can help increase satiety, control blood sugar levels and assist your body in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D. Top your yogurt with berries if you need to naturally sweeten it. If you cannot tolerate dairy, another food group high in probiotics are fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut.”
Aim to eat 6 to 8 ounces of yogurt each day. It makes a great breakfast with the addition of some granola and berries. You can also substitute it for sour cream in various recipes, such as tacos.
7. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are excellent plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts, ground flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are all good options.
“The average American diet is too high in omega-6 fats from deep fryer oil, snack foods and convenience foods,” Chong says. “This high ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats can promote inflammation, whereas improving this ratio by eating more omega-3 rich foods will help to decrease inflammation.”
But she adds, it isn’t always enough just to eat more omega-3s; “most people also need to actively work on decreasing those foods that are high in omega 6.”
With nuts and seeds, just be careful with portion size. These foods are high in calories and fat. While they’re good fats, you can still overindulge, so keep consumption levels limited. Parker recommends consuming a small handful each day.
Another great plant-based source of nutrients is beans, Chong says. “Beans — including edamame — and lentils are our highest fiber foods. Fiber protects against cancer, weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Most Americans need more fiber from whole plant foods, not supplements.”
Chong recommends making a simple bean salad by opening any can of beans, rinsing well, and adding:
— 1/2 to 1 cup of any mixture of vegetables.
— 1 tablespoon olive oil.
— 1 tablespoon vinegar or lime juice.
— Any fresh or dried herb.
“For example, you might try great northern beans, kale, tomatoes, red onion, olive oil, white wine vinegar and cilantro. You can eat this as a side dish to your main protein, eat it for quick snack or add it to salad greens for a really quick salad.”
9. Whole grains
Whole grains are also something of a superfood, especially when compared with their refined counterparts. “We miss so many nutrients when a grain is refined to make the white, refined product,” Chong says.
Substituting whole grains for refined grains will boost your intake of several important nutrients including:
— Vitamin B1 (thiamin).
— Vitamin B2 (riboflavin).
— Vitamin B3 (niacin).
— Vitamin B6.
— Vitamin E.
Chong recommends trying “a new-to-you whole grain in place of pasta or white rice, such as quinoa, barley, bulgur, farro or millet. Don’t be afraid to experiment!”
And be sure to reach for that breakfast staple of oats regularly. “Eat oatmeal routinely for breakfast or an afternoon snack. Buy it plain, either rolled oats or steel-cut. Sweeten it naturally with berries or other fruit.”
While not technically a food, drinking plenty of plain water each day is critical to maintaining health and wellness over the long term. “Aim to drink half of your body weight in fluid ounces per day,” Liggett Neov says. “For example, a 150-pound woman would want to have a goal of drinking 75 fluid ounces of water per day. Try to avoid drinking water two hours prior to bedtime to prevent waking up in the middle of the night.”
Eat a varied, balanced diet.
“Instead of focusing on fad diets that cut out major food groups, it’s important to try to have a balanced plate,” Liggett Neov says. “A balanced plate would contain 1/4 protein, 1/4 whole grain and 1/2 fruits or vegetables. This diet plan is easy to follow and will help ensure that you have adequate fiber, protein and a variety of fruits and vegetables each day.”
Eat the rainbow. “The more color and the more texture from fruits and vegetables you have on your plate the better. This ensures you are getting a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients for overall health,” Proctor says.
Parker recommends trying recipes from the Mediterranean or DASH diet approaches and of course “avoid high sugar drinks, fat-laden snacks and high-sodium foods.” Aim to keep your total sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day, with a goal of lowering your intake to 1,500 milligrams per day. And “limit alcohol to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.”
Proctor agrees that it’s “about finding a way to enjoy these foods, so experiment with different spices, seasonings and low-fat cooking techniques like baking, roasting, sauteing and grilling.”
Go for good combinations.
It’s also important to note that when you eat a food, you’re not just eating one nutrient, but rather a whole range of compounds. And combining certain foods can help you augment the benefits of each.
“Blueberries and Greek yogurt are easy and healthful ingredients that can enhance a simple meal or snack” and don’t require slicing or peeling. Kanda recommends the following recipe “to prepare a superfood packed brunch for four guests.”
Blueberry Greek Yogurt Parfait
— 2 cups blueberries.
— 1/4 cup sugar.
— 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.
— 2 cups low-fat yogurt or low-fat Greek yogurt.
— 1 tablespoon unshelled pistachios, finely chopped.
1. Combine the blueberries, sugar, lime juice and balsamic vinegar in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook for five to 10 minutes, until the liquid is reduced, and the blueberries have cooked down to a jamlike consistency. Allow to cool. You should have about 1 cup of thick sauce.
2. Spoon 1/4 cup thick yogurt into the bottom of each of four tumblers or parfait glasses. Top with 2 tablespoons of the blueberry sauce. Make another 1/4 cup layer of yogurt on top of the blueberry sauce, and finish with another 2 tablespoon-layer of blueberry sauce. Cover tightly and chill for at least one hour. Just before serving, sprinkle finely chopped pistachios over the top.
Get expert advice tailored to your situation.
The best way to make sure your diet includes the right superfoods to keep you healthy long-term is by working with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can guide you about what and how much to eat, Kanda says. “Dietitians can help clients make wise decisions about food by judging the value of individual foods within the total dietary framework. No single food, no matter how super it claims to be can take the place of the importance of a combination of nutrients from all major food groups.”
Lastly, Chong urges you to look at food as more than just calories and nutrients. “It’s information for your genes and your cells. The information — food — you give your body turns up or turns down inflammation.” Lowering inflammation can reduce your risk of many diseases associated with aging including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia.
10 superfoods for older adults
2. Dark, leafy greens.
3. Brussels sprouts.
6. Plain Greek yogurt.
7. Nuts and seeds.
9. Whole grains.
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