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the long view

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Vintage cars tend to be gas guzzlers, but human oldies are the opposite.

We need less fuel as we age – and healthier foods when we do tank up, Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, said.

With this in mind, Lichtenstein and colleagues created a new guide called MyPlate for Older Adults, at It includes age-appropriate shopping tips, recipes and advice on exercise and salt alternatives.

The tool is more detailed than Canada's Food Guide, which offers little information for adults over age 51 other than slight adjustments in the number of recommended daily servings of each food group.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Lichtenstein explained why older adults need to keep their fluids up and calories down.

How do our nutritional needs change as we age?

As we get older, even if we stay at the same body weight and remain active, we develop more fat and less lean muscle mass.

Our basic metabolic need for energy declines but our nutrient requirements remain the same, or increase – we may need a bit more protein, for example. So it's important that we get a nutrient-dense diet.

MyPlate for Older Adults is divided into familiar food groups: proteins, grains etc. What's new about it?

We moved the dairy into the protein quadrant because dairy is a good source of high-quality protein for older adults. In the middle of the plate we put in a sector for healthy fats because there's been this fat phobia and healthy fats are important in the diet.

On the fruits and vegetables side of the plate, we've shown a wide range of forms: frozen berries, frozen vegetables, little bags of carrots, fresh fruits and vegetables, canned low-sodium tomato sauce, canned fruit. This is important for older adults, particularly if they're living alone and find that large packages of fresh produce tend to go bad.

With frozen fruits and vegetables, you can open a bag and pour out just what you need, and it's already cut up for anyone who has arthritis.

Why does this guide include sources of fluids?

In many older adults, there seems to be a disassociation between the sensation of thirst and hydration. That's why during heat waves there is always this concern about older adults, that they consume adequate fluids.

And sometimes there is confusion. At one point we thought that coffee didn't count, but it does count, as does milk and juice, tea and certain vegetables with high water content, such as celery and cucumbers.

What else should older adults keep in mind?

It may be time to develop some new shopping habits, especially if you are used to shopping for a large family. Look around the grocery store. If you're having problems with your teeth, for example, there are many forms of protein that are softer and easier to chew, such as nut butters, canned beans, eggs and Greek yogurt. Also, it's important to get exercise on a daily basis, regardless of what it is. Walking is fine.

At what age should we start rethinking our diet?

We know that most chronic diseases start early in life. However, it's never too late to start thinking about eating healthier, even if you're 70 or up. It's also never too early.