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Older people

woman older Eating a varied and balanced diet is important for anyone. It helps to make eating more enjoyable and will help you to stay healthy and active.

What to eat

Make sure you're eating plenty of:

Foods rich in starch and fibre
Bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes are good examples. As well as being low in fat they are good sources of other essential nutrients: protein, vitamins and minerals.

The fibre from these helps to prevent constipation which reduces the risk of some common disorders in the intestine.

Don't be tempted to buy raw bran and sprinkle it on your food to increase fibre as this may prevent you absorbing some important minerals.

Oats, beans, peas, lentils, fruit and vegetables are also sources of fibre.

Iron-rich foods
Eating plenty of iron-rich foods will help keep up your body's store of iron. The best source of iron is red meat. It can also be found in pulses (such as peas, beans and lentils), oily fish such as sardines, eggs, bread, green vegetables and breakfast cereals with added vitamins.

Liver is a good source of iron. However, it is also a rich source of vitamin A and having too much vitamin A can be harmful. See vitamin A below.

It's a good idea to avoid drinking tea or coffee with iron-rich meals because this might affect how much iron the body absorbs from food.

Foods and drinks rich in vitamin C
These might help the body absorb iron, so you could have some fruit or vegetables or a glass of fruit juice with an iron-rich meal. Fruit, especially citrus fruit, green vegetables, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are all good sources of vitamin C.

Foods containing folic acid
These help maintain good health in older age. Good sources are green vegetables and brown rice, as well as bread and breakfast cereals that have vitamins added.

Calcium-rich foods
Osteoporosis is a major health issue for older people, particularly women. This is where bone density reduces and so the risk of fractures increases. Good sources of calcium are dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Remember to choose lower-fat varieties when you can or eat higher fat varieties in smaller amounts. Calcium is also found in canned fish with bones, such as sardines. Other sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and cabbage, but not spinach), soya beans and tofu.

Keeping healthy

Healthy weight

Try to keep your weight at a healthy level. As you grow older, if you're overweight this will affect your mobility, which can affect your health and your quality of life. Being overweight increases your risk of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Equally, sudden weight loss is not healthy and may be an indication either that you are not eating enough food or that you are not well.

If you are concerned then ask your doctor to check. He or she may refer you to a dietitian, who can give you advice about changing what you eat to meet your current needs.

Eating less

As you age it's natural to start eating less because you will become less physically active and so your body will adapt and adjust your overall food intake accordingly.

You may find it difficult to tolerate the meals you used to eat. Try having smaller meals more frequently and with nutritious snacks in between. Also make sure you drink plenty of liquids. See Drinking enough below.

It's important to eat regularly, at least three times a day. You might not always feel like cooking so you could increase your intake of tinned, chilled and frozen ready-prepared meals.

Always make sure you heat chilled and frozen food until it's steaming hot all the way through.

Have a store of foods in the freezer and cupboard in case you are unable to go out.

You might be eating less because you're finding it more difficult to buy or prepare food or you're finding it harder to get around if you have conditions such as arthritis.

You may be able to get help with these sorts of problems via your GP.

Dental health can affect nutritional health. Make sure you visit your dentist regularly to keep your teeth in good condition. If you are having problems chewing then you may want to try eating tinned or stewed fresh fruit and vegetables, which are still good sources of nutrients.

Keeping food safe

As you get older it can be harder for your body to fight infections, especially if you're already ill. So take extra care to avoid food poisoning by making sure you've washed your hands and cleaned any work surfaces, utensils and chopping boards. For chilled food that is ready-to-eat it's important to follow the storage instructions on the label and to always use food by its 'use by' date.

Some germs, such as listeria can cause food poisoning in people with reduced immunity, particularly those over 60. People with reduced immunity include those who've had transplants, are taking drugs that weaken the immune system or with cancers affecting the immune system, such as leukaemia or lymphoma.

These people should avoid eating pasteurised and unpasteurised soft cheese, such as Camembert and Brie (and others that have a similar rind), soft blue cheese, and all types of pâté, including vegetable, because these types of food can contain listeria.

Drinking enough

Don’t forget to drink enough water

It's very important to make sure you’re drinking enough. Our bodies need water (or other fluids) so they can work properly.

We also need to drink enough fluids to help stop us getting constipation. This is particularly important if you’re eating more foods rich in fibre (see What to eat).

Aim to drink about 6 to 8 glasses (1.2 litres or just over 2 pints) of water, or other fluids, every day to stop you getting dehydrated. When the weather is warm or when you get active, your body is likely to need more than this.

Tea and coffee

Drinks that contain a lot of caffeine, such as strong tea and coffee, might act as mild diuretics, which means they make the body produce more urine. (The same is true for energy drinks that contain high levels of caffeine.)

The caffeine in drinks affects some people more than others, but it also depends on how much caffeine you drink, how strong the drinks are and how often you have them.

It's fine to drink these sorts of drinks, but if most of your drinks are strong tea and/or coffee (or other drinks that contain a lot of caffeine), you should make sure you drink some water or other fluids each day that don't contain caffeine.

How to tell if you're drinking enough

As we get older, our sense of thirst reduces, which means we don’t always feel thirsty when our bodies are already dehydrated.

So keep a look out for the following symptoms of dehydration:
  • urine has a dark colour and you don’t pass much when you go to the toilet
  • headaches
  • confusion and irritability
  • lack of concentration
As we get older, these signs of dehydration could also be signs of other issues, so make sure they’re not related to dehydration by drinking enough fluid throughout the day. Check with your GP if you’re concerned about any symptoms.


Vitamin A
Having too much vitamin A (more than 1.5mg of vitamin A a day, from food and/or supplements) might increase the risk of bone fracture.

Liver is a rich source of vitamin A, so you should avoid eating liver or liver products such as pâté more than once a week, or you could eat smaller portions. If you do eat liver once a week you should avoid taking any supplements containing vitamin A or fish liver oils (which contain high levels of vitamin A).

Vitamin D
Like calcium, vitamin D is important for good bone health.

We get most of our vitamin D from the effect of summer sunlight on our skin, but vitamin D is also found in oily fish, eggs and foods with added vitamins such as some breakfast cereals and margarines.

If you aren't getting enough vitamin D, you might be more at risk of the harmful effects of too much vitamin A. If you're 65 or over, you should consider taking 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D supplements a day.

Some other groups of people are at a higher risk of being short of vitamin D and so should consider taking 10mcg of vitamin D a day. These include people who:

  • are of Asian origin
  • rarely get outdoors
  • always cover up their skin when they're outside
  • eat no meat or oily fish

Ask your GP for more information.

You should avoid taking potassium supplements unless on medical advice. This is because, as we get older, our kidneys become less able to remove potassium from our blood.

Cutting down on salt

On average, you should aim to keep your salt intake to less than 6g per day (about 2.4g of sodium).

Most of the salt we eat is already in foods, and so it is important to be aware of the salt content of ready-prepared foods, which can be a major source. Also avoid adding salt to your food when cooking and at the table.

Potassium on the other hand has a beneficial effect on blood pressure, and fruit and vegetables such as bananas, tomatoes and avocados are a good source of potassium.

More information

If you have any concerns, contact your GP. Or you could call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47.