Family Living Focus: Limit some foods as you get older

Avoid “Empty Calories”

Choosing foods and beverages that give you the most nutrients for the calories consumed is one way to eat well. At the same time, it’s important to avoid “empty calories” — foods and drinks that are high in calories but low in nutrients.

Limit your intake of saturated fats and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, added sugar and refined grains.

How Fats Can Affect You

We often think of fats as unhealthy, but your body needs a limited amount of certain kinds of fats. Fats in your diet give you energy and also help your body absorb vitamins. On the other hand, fat contains more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates, and eating too many high-fat foods will likely add excess calories and lead to weight gain. Excess weight increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or other health problems. Excess weight can also make it harder to control these diseases if you already have them.

Limit Fats, Consume Oils

Aim to limit fats to 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories. For instance, if you consume 2,000 calories daily, only 400 to 700 of the calories should be from fats. The number of calories from fat is listed on the Nutrition Facts label on packaged food labels.

Most of the fats you consume should be polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. These healthy fats come from liquid vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseed, and fish such as salmon, trout, and herring.

Why Limit Solid Fats?

Limit the amount of saturated fats and trans fats you consume. Saturated fats are found in foods like beef, cheese, milk, butter, and ice cream and other frozen desserts.  Trans fats are found in foods like margarine, crackers, icings, and French fries, as well as in many sweets such as cake, cookies, and doughnuts.

No more than 10 percent of your total daily calories should come from saturated fats. Keep intake of trans fats as low as possible. Read the Nutrition Facts label to choose products that contain “0”trans fats.

Tips to Limit Fat

Here are steps you can take to lower the fat in your diet.

• Choose seafood, lean poultry (with the skin removed), or lean cuts of meat.

• Trim off any extra fat before cooking.

• Limit whole milk and whole dairy products. Use low-fat or fat-free dairy products and salad dressings.

• Use non-stick pots and pans and cook without added fat.

• If you currently use butter or other saturated fats, switch to unsaturated vegetable oil or a nonfat cooking spray instead.

• Broil, roast, bake, stir-fry, steam, microwave, or boil foods. Avoid frying them.

• Season your foods with lemon juice, herbs, or spices instead of butter.

Limit Cholesterol

Look for ways to limit the amount of cholesterol you consume, too. People who have a high amount of “bad,” or LDL cholesterol in their blood have a high risk for heart disease. They should consume less than 200 mg of cholesterol daily. Read the Nutrition Facts label to see how much cholesterol is in a product serving. Cholesterol is only found in animal products so you don’t need to worry about it being in fruits or vegetables unless butter, cheese, cream, or sauces and gravies made from meat or meat broths are added.

Why Limit Sodium (Salt)?

Sodium is consumed in the diet as part of salt. Older adults should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams daily (about 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt). This helps to keep your blood pressure under control. Keeping your blood pressure under control can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.

Sodium is natural in some foods, but most of the sodium we eat is added to foods by manufacturers. Restaurant foods also may be high in sodium. Many people add salt to foods at the table or while cooking, too.

Tips to Limit Sodium

Ways to cut back on sodium include reading the Nutrition Facts labels to select products with low salt content, keeping the salt shaker off the table, replacing salt with herbs, spices, and low-sodium seasonings when you cook, asking for low-sodium dishes and for sauces on the side when eating out.

When you shop, look for foods labeled “low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” “sodium free,” or “unsalted.” Read the Nutrition Facts label to find out how much sodium a product contains. Different brands of foods that look the same can contain very different amounts of sodium.

How Potassium Can Help

A diet rich in potassium can counter the effects of salt on blood pressure. Older adults should consume 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily from food sources. Sources of potassium include vegetables and fruits such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, greens, beans and peas, and tomato products. Potassium is also found in all yogurt and milk, including low-fat and fat-free versions, and in fish such as halibut, Pacific cod, yellow fin tuna, and rainbow trout.

Limit Added Sugars

To help control your calorie intake, limit foods and beverages like soft drinks and fruit drinks that are high in added sugars. Replace sweets and soft drinks with lower-calorie, nutrient-dense alternatives like fruits, vegetables, and smaller portions of 100 % juices. Unsweetened tea, low-fat or fat-free milk, or plain water also are good choices. Be aware that some products are low in fat but high in added sugars.

The Nutrition Facts label tells you the total amount of sugars in one serving of a product. However, added sugars are not listed separately on this label. To find out if a product contains added sugars, read the ingredient list on the food package.

Added sugars include: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose and sucrose.

If You Drink Alcohol

Also, if you drink alcohol, limit the amount to 1 drink daily for women and 2 drinks daily for men. Alcoholic beverages give you calories but few nutrients. A drink is 12 fluid ounces of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1½ fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

For safety reasons, avoid alcohol when you plan to drive a vehicle or use machinery. Also avoid alcohol when doing activities that require attention, skill, or coordination. People taking certain medicines and those with some medical conditions should not drink alcohol at all. Ask your doctor whether you can have an occasional drink if you want to.


Information adapted from NIH Senior Health Info Page article from the National Institute on Aging at National Institute on Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If you would like more information on “Limit Some Foods – Eating Well as You Get Older” contact Gail Gilman, Family Life Consultant, M.Ed., C.F.C.S. and Professor Emeritus – University of Minnesota at Be sure to watch for more Family Living Focus™ information in next week’s paper.

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