Elderly man picking flowers
A Guide from the National Institute on Aging
What Can Exercise Do for Me?
Is It Safe for Me to Exercise?
How to Keep Going
Sample Exercises
How Am I Doing?
» What Should I Eat?
National Institute on Aging > Health > Publications > Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging
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Chapter 6: What Should I Eat?

More Than One Way
“I want to walk young — I think exercise does that for you. You feel better. You feel younger.” That’s what Cecile Cress, 83, of Pueblo, Colorado, told us.

Ms. Cress used to ride her bicycle everywhere, up and down the hilly roads of her town, to get where she needed to go. She recently retired from her job as a librarian.

Ms. Cress stopped riding her bike when she found that it was hard for her to get started going up steep hills after traffic had stopped for red lights, making it unsafe for her.

“The thing I thought was so great about bike riding is that, going up a hill, you just feel like your heart is really pushing your blood through those veins and arteries,” she said.

She didn’t have to give up that feeling entirely when she stopped riding her bike. At least 3 days a week, Ms. Cress does exercises, including endurance and stretching, with the help of two videos for older adults. She began doing that years ago, during the winter, when it was too icy to ride her bike.

To make up for the activity she would miss when she stopped bike riding, Ms. Cress began going to a rehabilitation center to use strength-building equipment to improve her muscles and balance. She could have gone to a fitness club instead of a rehabilitation center, but there wasn’t one that suited her needs in her area. With a little creative thinking, she and her daughter came up with the idea of asking if she could use the weight room at a local rehab center, instead. “I knew I had to do something when I stopped riding my bike,” she said.

There are seniors’ aerobics groups in Ms. Cress’ area, but their hours don’t fit into her schedule. “I know seniors who are doing it, though, and they look great,” she said.

She has a secret she would like to share with other older adults who would like to stay in shape: Don’t stop buying new clothes. Ms. Cress said that occasionally buying something new is one of the things that keeps her inspired to stay fit. “It’s important to have more pride in your appearance as you get older. It’s good to keep your weight down,” she said.

“I never have to diet,” she added. “I watch what I eat, but I don’t diet.”

Your body needs fuel for exercises and physical activities, and that fuel comes from food. Eating the right nutrients from a balanced diet helps build muscle and energy. But just what does "balanced diet" mean? What should you eat, and exactly how much of it should you eat?

Did you know that your body uses vitamin D to absorb calcium, which makes your bones stronger and helps prevent fractures? Vitamin D is manufactured in the skin following direct exposure to sunlight. The amount of vitamin D produced in the skin varies depending on the time of day, season, latitude, and skin pigmentation.

While many people get enough vitamin D naturally, studies show that vitamin D production decreases in older people and in those who are housebound. These people may need to take vitamin D supplements to ensure a daily intake of between 400 and 800 IU (international units) of vitamin D.

Tips: Major food sources of vitamin D are vitamin D-fortified dairy products, eggs, saltwater fish, dark green vegetables, and liver. Some calcium supplements and most multivitamins contain vitamin D, so it's important to read the labels to find out how much each contains.

Caution: Massive doses of vitamin D may be harmful and are not recommended.

The diagram shown on this page is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid. If you use it as a guideline, you will be following a balanced diet. It tells you how many servings of each kind of food you should eat each day. We have also included a chart that shows you what, exactly, counts as one serving of each kind of food.

If you use the food pyramid as a guideline, you may also be helping to prevent or delay some of the diseases associated with growing older. For example, by cutting down on fats, you will be reducing your risk of getting cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure. By increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat, you will be lowering your risk of getting some types of cancer.

Looking at the guidelines, you will see that the biggest part of the calories you take in each day should come from grains, and the smallest amount should come from fats, oils, and sweets. The guidelines put heavy emphasis on vegetables and fruits, and less on meat and dairy products.

Some older adults are on restricted diets because of certain health conditions. Kidney disease is just one example of a condition that often requires restrictions of certain foods or fluids. If your doctor or nutritionist has asked you to follow a special diet, please follow his or her advice.

The Big Picture
Often, people decide to exercise and eat a balanced diet because they want to control their weight. For many people, these healthy habits do result in weight loss...but that's only part of the big picture. Exercise and a healthy diet can help make you healthier. But they are just one part of becoming physically fit. Think about other lifestyle changes you can make, too. For example, smoking contributes to a variety of serious diseases and can keep you from exercising. So does excessive alcohol. Together, habits like exercise, a balanced diet, and giving up smoking will help you achieve what we wish for you: the best of health.

Supplements: Costly and Not Necessarily Helpful
Supplements are helpful for some older adults who can't eat all the nutrients they need -- nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Recently, however, some new kinds of supplements have been appearing in stores even though they haven't been shown to improve health and their safety remains unproven.

A balanced diet is the best way for most older exercisers to get the nutrients they need. But some people in the marketing industry are doing a good job of convincing older people that they need expensive nutritional supplements, some of which haven't been shown to be helpful or safe and some of which most older people may not even need. Some of these claims give older adults the impression that certain supplements can restore youthful energy and strength.

For example, one persuasive clerk at a popular health-food store recently told an older shopper interested in exercise that she should buy certain supplements that cost about $70 a month to increase her energy and her ability to build muscles. The supplements included a protein powder and a vitamin-mineral pill containing the same ingredients as generic-brand vitamins, available at a fraction of the cost at drug stores, and some other substances not proven to build muscles or energy in older people.

  Food Pyramid Diagram

This 75-year-old shopper had eaten an excellent diet based on the USDA food pyramid for years, and really didn't need these supplements.

No one likes to spend money needlessly, but for older adults on a limited income -- Social Security, for example -- unnecessary expenditures can deprive them of things they really do need (the money to buy whole foods rich in nutrients, for example). What's more, too much protein puts extra demands on the kidneys and can lower calcium levels. Although protein, vitamin, and mineral supplements are helpful to older people who truly need them, excessive doses can have harmful side effects.

A clerk at another health-food store told the same shopper that, if she planned to start exercising, she should buy a powder made of protein, vitamins, and minerals that cost $19 for a 10-serving bottle. Taken once a day, that comes out to about $60 a month. One of the reasons she needed this supplement, the clerk told her, was that it contained the mineral potassium, and "older people require more of that."

Taken as directed on the label, the supplement wouldn't have harmed our intrepid shopper. But the clerk's scientific sounding advice might have. Overdoses of potassium can cause an irregular heart beat and even death.

For most older adults, standard FDA-approved multivitamin-mineral supplements that contain potassium are just fine if taken as directed. It would be virtually impossible for most people to overdose on potassium by eating foods that contain this essential mineral naturally. Some people really do need potassium supplements, as prescribed by a doctor, only, for very specific medical conditions and in very specific, carefully monitored amounts. The point we are making here is that anyone can make scientific-sounding claims, but it doesn't necessarily mean that those claims are true or safe. This caution is especially important for people who are on diets with special restrictions -- people with kidney disease, congestive heart failure, or diabetes, for example.

Buyer, beware -- and check with your doctor before spending your hard-earned money on supplements that promise to restore youthful energy and strength.

What is "a serving"?

1 slice of bread
1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta
1/2 cup of cooked cereal
1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal

1 piece of fruit
1 melon wedge
3/4 cup fruit juice
1/2 cup canned fruit
1/4 cup dried fruit

1/2 cup of chopped raw or cooked vegetables
1 cup of leafy raw vegetables

Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese
1 cup of milk or yogurt
1-1/2 to 2 ounces of cheese

Example: a 1-inch cube of hard cheese weighs about 1/2 ounce
Note: Buy low-fat or skim dairy products to avoid harmful fats.
Note: Some people have trouble digesting
lactose, the sugar in milk products. If you have this problem, try eating yogurt with active cultures, low-fat cheese, or lactose-reduced milk. Pills and drops that help digest lactose also are available.

Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts
1/2 cup of cooked beans, 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter make up 1/3 of a serving of this food group.
2-1/2 to 3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish make up one serving of this food group.

Examples: a slice of cooked, lean, meat or poultry that is about 1/4-inch thick and measures 3 inches by 4 inches weighs about 2 ounces; a cooked, lean hamburger patty that weighs 3 ounces is about 3 inches across and 1/2-inch thick - about the size of a large mayonnaise jar lid.
Note: Before cooking, a patty this size weighs about 4 ounces.
Note: Half of a skinless, cooked chicken breast weighs 3 ounces.
Note: Egg whites are a good source of protein, but egg yolks are high in fat and cholesterol. Consider discarding the egg yolk.
Note: Nuts are a good source of protein, but are high in fat.

Fats, Oils, and Sweets
The less fats, oils, and sweets you eat the better.

It's Not Really Hard to East a Balanced Diet
Do you look at the USDA food guidelines and think, "How in the world will I be able to follow them? I'd have a hard time just eating the 6 to 11 servings of grain I'm supposed to eat daily!" Take a look at the sample menu below, and you might change your mind. This menu provides the minimum amount recommended for each of the food groups. You might find that you are already eating a balanced diet and that you even have room to add more grains or fruits and vegetables.


  • Western-style omelet (use egg whites or egg replacers and low-fat cheese)
  • Oven-baked hash-brown potatoes
  • Whole-grain toast and jelly
  • Small glass of fruit juice


  • Broiled salmon patty on a toasted whole-grain bun
  • Spinach
  • Rice
  • Fruit salad with low-fat or nonfat yogurt dressing


  • Pasta with tomato-and-onion sauce, topped with low-fat parmesan cheese (lean meatballs optional)
  • Garlic bread
  • Salad with low-fat or nonfat dressing
  • Low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt

Chapter Summary
A balanced diet is important for everyone, including older exercisers. To find out what "balanced diet" means, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture food-pyramid guidelines shown in this chapter. The guidelines say that the largest part of your calorie intake should be from grain-based foods; the next largest from vegetables and fruits; then fish, poultry, meats, and dairy products. The less fats, oils, and sweets you eat the better.

The best way to get the nutrients you need is through a healthy diet, not through expensive supplements that you might not need. Whole foods provide many nutrients we know about, and probably contain others that haven't been discovered. You might read or hear many convincing, scientific-sounding claims about nutritional supplements, such as megadoses of vitamins and minerals, but not all of them are based on fact. Some supplements may be helpful in certain situations, but others may cause harmful side effects. Before taking supplements of any kind, check with your doctor.

If your doctor or nutritionist has asked you to eat or avoid certain foods or fluids because of a medical condition, please follow his or her advice.

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Page last updated Jan 31, 2008