Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging

If you and your healthcare provider are worried about weight gain, you should choose nutrient-dense foods. These foods give you lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories.

On the other hand, foods that are high in calories for the amount of food are called calorie dense. They may or may not have nutrients. High-calorie foods with little nutritional value, like potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, baked goods, and alcoholic beverages, are sometimes called "empty calories."

Can choosing a nutrient-dense food instead of a calorie-dense food really make a difference? Here are some examples of nutrient-dense choices side by side with similar foods that are not nutrient-dense, have more calories, or both.


  1. Lean Beef
Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, extra lean ground beef 167 calories
Or Regular Beef
Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, regular ground beef 235 calories
  1. Apple
Large apple, 8 oz. 110 calories
Or Apple Pie
Apple pie, eighth of a 2-crust 9" pie 356 calories
  1. Wheat Bread
Two slices of 100% whole-wheat bread, 1 oz. each 138 calories
Or Croissant
Medium croissant, 2 oz. 231 calories
  1. Chicken Breast
Roasted chicken breast, skinless (3 oz.) 141 calories
Or Fried Chicken
Fried chicken wings with skin and batter, (3 oz.) 479 calories

Another way to think about the idea of nutrient-dense and calorie-dense foods is to look at a variety of foods that all provide the same calories. Let’s say that you wanted to have a snack that contained about 100 calories. You might choose one of these:
  • 7- or 8-inch banana
  • two ounces baked chicken breast with no skin
  • three cups low-fat popcorn
  • two regular chocolate-sandwich cookies
  • half cup low-fat ice cream
  • one scrambled large egg cooked with fat
  • 20 peanuts
  • half of the average-size candy bar
Which would make a better snack for you? Although these examples all have about 100 calories, there are some big differences:
  • banana, chicken, peanuts, or egg are more nutrient dense
  • popcorn or chicken are likely to help you feel more satisfied
  • chicken, peanuts, or egg have more protein
  • cookies, candy, and ice cream have more added sugars
Check out this USDA/NIA tip sheet: Choosing Healthy Meals As You Get Older: 10 Healthy Eating Tips for People Age 65+.
How Many Calories Do You Need?
If you are over age 50 and you want to stay at the weight you are now—not lose and not gain, how many calories do you need to eat each day? The Dietary Guidelines suggest:

For a Woman
Not physically active 1,600 calories
Moderately active 1,800 calories
Active lifestyle 2,000-2,200 calories

For a Man
Not physically active 2,000-2,200 calories
Moderately active 2,200-2,400 calories
Active lifestyle 2,400-2800 calories

Physical activity refers to the voluntary movements you do those burn calories. Brisk walking, dancing, and swimming are examples of moderate activity. An active lifestyle might include jogging, singles tennis, or swimming laps. Learn how you can fit exercise and physical activity into your life with the NIA exercise and physical activity campaign, Go4life.

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