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Healthy Eating As You Age: Know Your Food Groups

Making smart food choices is an important part of healthy aging. Understanding the different food groups — and how much of each should make up your diet — can help you form a healthy eating pattern over time.

This article describes the main food groups and other important nutrients recommended for older adults in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (PDF, 30.6M). We also provide suggestions for how to fit occasional treats into your healthy eating pattern.

It is important to get the recommended amount of each food group without going over your daily recommended calories. Keep in mind that the amount you should eat to maintain your weight depends on your age, sex, and level of physical activity.

Main food groups
Vegetables
Vegetables come in a wide variety of colors, flavors, and textures. They contain vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, and are an important source of fiber. The vegetable food group includes dark green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, starchy vegetables, and legumes (beans and peas).

Dark green vegetables include broccoli, collard greens, spinach, and kale. Red and orange vegetables include acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, tomato, and sweet potato. Starchy vegetables include corn, green peas, and white potatoes.

Other vegetables include eggplant, beets, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, artichokes, green beans, and onions. Legumes include black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, soybeans, and tofu. Legumes can also be counted in the protein foods group.

Fruits
Fruits bring color, flavor, and important nutrients to your diet. There are so many choices — citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits; different kinds of berries; fruits that grow on trees, such as apricots, cherries, peaches, and mangoes; and others like figs, grapes, and pineapples.

According to the Dietary Guidelines (PDF, 30.6M), older Americans generally do not eat enough fruit. Adding more fruit to your diet can have significant benefits for overall health. Fruits, like vegetables, contain carbohydrates and provide extra fiber that helps keep your digestive system moving.

For even more fiber, eat fruits with the skin on — just make sure you wash all fruits thoroughly before eating. Although 100% fruit juice also counts toward this category, at least half of the fruits you eat should be whole fruits. When purchasing frozen, canned, or dried fruit, choose options that are lowest in added sugars.

Grains
Any food made from wheat, rye, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other cereal grain is a grain product. This includes bread and pasta, breakfast cereal, grits, tortillas, and even popcorn. Grains — along with fruits, vegetables, and dairy — contain carbohydrates, the body’s main source of energy.

Read food labels to find grain choices that are low in saturated fat and added sugar. Be especially wary of options labeled “low-fat,” which can be high in added sugar.

At least half the grain foods you eat should be whole grains. Whole grains provide iron and many B vitamins, and they have fiber, too. Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, whole oats, whole bulgur (also known as cracked wheat), and whole cornmeal.

Some grain products are refined, which gives them a finer texture and a longer shelf life but removes fiber and nutrients. Most refined grains are enriched,

which means that some nutrients are added back after processing. Examples of refined grain products include white flour, degermed cornmeal, white bread, and white rice.

Protein foods

Proteins are often called the body’s building blocks. They are used to build and repair tissues, and also help your body fight infection. Your body uses extra protein for energy. Older adults should try to eat a variety of nutrient-dense proteins. Choose lean (low-fat) meats and poultry. Keep in mind that you can also get protein from seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, and soy products.

Protein from plant sources tends to be lower in saturated fat, contains no cholesterol, and provides fiber and other health-promoting nutrients. Plant sources of protein, such as nuts and seeds, have different nutritional value than plant-based meat alternatives, which can be heavily processed and high in sodium.

The Dietary Guidelines (PDF, 30.6M) recommend that you eat 8 to 10 ounces per week of a variety of seafood, not only for the protein but also because seafood contains omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, which are good for your heart.

Seafoods that are higher in EPA and DHA include salmon, anchovies, and trout. These seafoods are also lower in mercury, which can be harmful, than other types of seafood.