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USDA Food Pyramid Updated for Special Needs of Older Adults

Focus on better nutrition, fluid balance, and the importance of senior exercise


Senior couple eating breakfast together
Jamie Grill/The Image Bank/Getty Images
The USDA food pyramid, now known as MyPyramid, has been updated to meet the special nutritional needs of older adults.

The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults, developed by researchers at Tufts University, continues to emphasize nutrient-dense food choices and the importance of fluid balance, but adds additional guidance about forms of foods that could best meet the unique needs of older adults. The importance of regular physical activity is also stressed.

"Adults over the age of 70 have unique dietary needs," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, in a news release.

"Older adults tend to need fewer calories as they age because they are not as physically active as they once were and their metabolic rates slow down. Nevertheless, their bodies still require the same or higher levels of nutrients for optimal health outcomes.

"The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults is intended to be used for general guidance in print form or as a supplement to the MyPyramid computer-based program."

In 2005, the USDA introduced MyPyramid, an Internet-based program capable of proiding dietary guidance that could be personalized, based on sex, age, height, weight, and exercise habits.

When MyPyramid was presented, Tufts researchers wondered about potential problems for older adults, including limited computer use and the adaptability of MyPyramid to print form. As a result, the Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults is available as a graphic print-out with icons that highlight the importance of the age-specific dietary and exercise recommendations.

Recommendations from the Modified USDA Food Pyramid for Older Adults

  1. Whole, enriched, and fortified grains and cereals such as brown rice and 100% whole wheat bread
  2. Bright-colored vegetables such as carrots and broccoli
  3. Deep-colored fruit such as berries and melon
  4. Low- and non-fat dairy products such as yogurt and low-lactose milk
  5. Dry beans and nuts, fish, poultry, lean meat and eggs
  6. Liquid vegetable oils and soft spreads low in saturated and trans fat
  7. Fluid intake (water is best)
  8. Physical activity such as walking, house work and yard work

Good Nutrition + Exercise: A Winning Combination
Added to the new pyramid is a foundation depicting physical activities characteristic of older adults, such as walking, yard work and swimming.

"Regular physical activity is linked to reduced risk of chronic disease and lower body weights. Government statistics indicate that obesity in adults 70 years and older has been increasing. Physical activity is one way to avoid weight gain in later years and its adverse consequences," Lichtenstein said. "In addition, regular physical activity can improve quality of life for older adults."

Increased Convenience Makes Good Nutrition Easier
The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults includes icons depicting packaged fruits and vegetables in addition to fresh. Bags of frozen pre-cut vegetables that can be resealed or single-serve portions of canned fruit may be easier to prepare and more cost-effective for people living alone.

"These choices are easier to prepare and have a longer shelf life, minimizing waste. Such factors are important to consider when arthritis kicks in or dark, cold days mean it is less likely someone will go out to replenish their refrigerator stores," Lichtenstein said.

Don't Forget the Fiber
"We continue to emphasize the importance of consuming adequate amounts of fiber rich foods, which means choosing mainly whole grain products rather than highly refined forms, and whole fruits and vegetables rather than juices. The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults is replete in good examples," Lichtenstein said. "Fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fiber, as well as a whole host of other nutrients. The increased availability of whole grain products lowers the barrier on making those choices."

Drink Water Throughout the Day
A row of glasses is the foundation for the Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults, stressing the importance of consuming fluids, especially during hot weather. "As we age there can be a disassociation between how hydrated our bodies are and how thirsty we feel," Lichtenstein explained. Foods and beverages with high water content, such as lettuce, vegetable juice and soups, are important contributors of fluid in an older person's diet.

Add Important Vitamin Supplements
A flag at the top of the Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults suggests that older adults may need certain supplemental nutrients, and should discuss this with their health care providers. "The need for calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 can increase as we age and some people find it difficult to get adequate amounts from food alone, especially when calorie needs go down," Lichtenstein said. "However, we continue to emphasize that the majority, if not all, of nutrients an older adult consumes should come from food rather than supplements."

Note: While the Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults provides general diet and exercise guidelines for older adults, each person's health and dietary requirements are unique and depend on factors including illness and medications.

Please check with your health care provider to determine the best diet and exercise program for your special needs.

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