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'Choose My Plate' Shapes a Healthier Senior Diet

What do bananas on your cereal, onions in your chili, and pears for your dessert have in common? They're great ways to get the fruits and vegetables you need to help you live a healthy, active life.

Choose My Plate, the federal government's food guidelines, encourages you to eat only the calories you need for your activity level. The calories should come from nutrient-rich foods, those with plenty of vitamins and minerals and relatively few calories. For example, if your activity level allows you to eat 2,000 calories a day, you should eat four to five cups of fruits and vegetables; more if you're very active and less if you're less active.

A woman in good health and 50 years old or older should get 2,000 to 2,200 calories a day if she is active, according to the USDA. Active is walking more than three miles per day at 3 to 4 mph in addition to daily activities. A woman who is moderately active—walking 1.5 to three miles a day at 3 to 4 mph in addition to daily activities—should have 1,800 calories a day; a woman who gets little daily activity should have 1,600 calories a day.

A man in good health and 50 years old or older should get 2,400 to 2,800 calories a day if he is active; 2,200 to 2,400 calories a day if he is moderately active; and 2,000 calories a day if he is mostly sedentary.

Variety is best

ChooseMyPlate.gov guidelines, revised in 2011 by the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stresses a variety of foods. In addition to fruits and vegetables, it includes healthy shares of grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. It matches age, gender, and activity level to calorie need.

It is important to control the portion size of even nutrient-rich foods to avoid consuming too many calories. Most people need fewer calories as they grow older and their activity level decreases.

Getting the right amount of nutrient-rich foods can help you stave off chronic diseases and weight gain as you age. Poor diets can contribute to the development of some cancers, high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, and other serious illnesses.

Produce is packed with disease-fighting substances that work together to protect good health. The USDA underscores the need for fresh fruits and vegetables rather than pills or supplements. One exception might be vitamin B12. The USDA recommends that all people older than 50 get 2.4 micrograms per day of this vitamin. B12 is added to certain foods such as cereals. You can also take a B12 supplement.

The My Plate guidelines focus on a rich variety of produce. Include dark green, red, orange, and starchy vegetables. Go easy on high-calorie fruit juices.

Although fresh fruits and vegetables are the preferred choice, they may be cost prohibitive or unavailable. Fresh frozen foods are the closest alternative to fresh in nutritional value and are a good alternative. They are reasonably priced, can be kept on hand longer than fresh foods, and offer out-of-season availability. Buy low-sodium canned vegetables or wash them off prior to cooking to reduce the sodium content. Look for canned fruit packed in its own juice rather than in heavy syrup to reduce the calories and sugar content.

Aging and your diet

Changes that come with age should influence your diet. To maintain their muscle mass, older adults need be sure to consume the recommended servings from the meat and milk food groups. This can be achieved by adding an egg or two or two slices of low-fat cheese of a cup of low-fat yogurt. You should also make sure you get enough vitamin D. You can do this by getting some sun exposure several times a week or by eating vitamin D-fortified foods and/or dietary supplements.

Nutritionists offer these recommendations for older Americans:

  • Enjoy calcium-rich foods, including low-fat or skim milk, salmon, and sardines.

  • Go low-fat or fat-free when choosing yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products.

  • Consume healthy portions of whole grains several times a week.

  • Snack, when you must, on moderate portions of healthy foods, including raw vegetables.

  • Avoid excessive salt, sugar, and artificial sweeteners.

  • Keep total fat intake between 20 to 35 percent of your calories.

Add regular physical activity, and you're on your way to a healthy lifestyle.