The formula for healthy weight becomes more complex as we get older, thanks to changes in our metabolism, nutritional needs and overall physical state. However, with the right approach to eating and exercise, you can reach your weight loss or weight maintenance goals without sacrificing your health.

Senior woman washing fruits and vegetables in kitchen

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When a panel of health and nutrition experts rank U.S. News Best Diets, they consider a variety of factors including – but not limited to – weight loss. Here, six experts, including four panel members, unpack everything you need to know about losing weight after 60 while staying healthy for the long term.

Weight Loss Goals After 60

It’s an unfortunate fact of life: We can’t push pause on our life clocks. But we can help slow down the process of aging by taking a closer look at what we put in our bodies. As with most important things in life, balance is key, so don’t skip meals and don’t avoid entire food groups.

Registered dietitian and nutritionist Maye Musk can stand as an example for what this strategy looks like. At 75 years old, Musk is a supermodel in high demand on runways and magazine covers. She attributes her youthful-looking skin and high energy to what’s often hailed as the best diet for seniors: a sensible plant-based eating plan similar to the Mediterranean diet.

“My healthy diet has served me well over the years,” she says.

The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fresh produce, healthy proteins, whole grains and other nutrient-dense foods, is a good option, confirms Siera Holley, an outpatient dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. The Mediterranean diet has also ranked first on the U.S. New & World Report list of Best Diets for the past seven years.

A generally healthy diet for seniors is also “well-balanced while being mindful of individual considerations, such as medical history, taste and texture preferences, any chewing or swallowing concerns, mobility and living environment,” she adds.

If you’re exploring new eating plans or looking for the best way to lose weight after 60, consider these strategies:

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet for any age group, dietary reference intakes (DRI) calculators can help you estimate your daily goals for many nutrients. (Keep in mind that these calculators do not take into account your health history.)

Your activity level also contributes to your nutritional needs. Many older adults are active and working well into their 70s or beyond, while others may be grappling with more health issues.

“As a geriatric dietitian, I tend to work with older adults who are less well,” notes Katie Dodd, a board-certified specialist in gerontological nutrition and owner of The Geriatric Dietitian, based in Medford, Oregon. “A lot of what I’m helping them with is getting enough food to stop unintended weight loss, prevent malnutrition and muscle loss and all the things that go with that.”

Diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure are common health issues in the older population, though malnutrition remains Dodd’s overarching concern. After all, malnutrition can accelerate muscle and bone loss, leading to:

In addition to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH and Mayo Clinic diets stand out as smart choices for older adults, points out Amy Campbell, a registered dietitian, diabetes educator and senior program manager for Good Measures in Boston. All of these diets are good for weight loss and managing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, she notes.

Any healthy diet is going to exclude certain foods, regardless of how old you are.

“The recommendation to limit heavily processed foods does not change with age,” Holley notes.

You should also steer clear of added sugars.

“Except on special occasions, desserts should be avoided as they only offer empty calories, no fiber and can be dangerous for diabetics,” says Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, a geriatrician based in the San Francisco area.

Eliminating excess sugars also means that “alcohol should be avoided as it hastens dementia and along with caffeine can lead to insomnia,” she adds.

Still, if you’ve always been a devotee of cocktail hour, there are some workarounds Landsverk recommends, such as watered-down drinks, mocktails or the occasional non-alcoholic beer. All of those items add calories without adding much or any nutrition, so again, the key word is moderation, even for the low- or no-alcohol versions of drinks.

Incorporating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds into your diet ensures you’ll also benefit from healthy nutrients and antioxidants. U.S. News ranks the Mediterranean and flexitarian diets in the top spots among the Best Plant-Based Diets.

Campbell praises lentils, beans and chickpeas as great sources of inexpensive plant-based protein. She also notes that seniors often need more fruits and vegetables than they eat and that, actually, purchasing healthy produce on a limited budget is possible.

“Frozen fruits and vegetables can be cheaper and sometimes even healthier than fresh, depending on where they’re shipped from,” she notes.

Canned produce can also be OK, she adds, if it is low in added salt.

Campbell says older women generally need anywhere from 1,600 to 2,200 calories per day, depending on how active they are. For older men, the range is 2,000 to 2,800 calories per day.

Finding this balance in calorie intake is critical. Unintended weight loss can pose health risks, while a lack of activity and calorie-laden meals can lead to excessive weight gain.

Obesity, for instance, is one issue for seniors, Campbell says.

“People are living longer, so we’re seeing more of it in older adults,” she explains. “As we get older, our calorie needs go down. People don’t need to eat as much as they did when they were 20 or 30.”

A balanced diet with moderate portions of protein, carbs and healthy fats will reduce empty calories and encourage weight loss more safely than extreme eating plans, like low-carb or keto diets. Similarly, Campbell says, a very low-fat plan like the Ornish diet might be less appropriate for seniors’ needs and more challenging for them to follow.

Being realistic about your weight loss goals will help you stay on track when the going gets tough. Certain diets, especially those that promote fast weight loss, might not be best for older adults – even for an active older adult.

One imperfect but widely used indicator of health is the body mass index, or BMI, which considers your weight in relation to your height. Your BMI falls into one of four categories:

  • Underweight, when your BMI is less than 18.5.
  • Normal, or 18.5 to 24.9.
  • Overweight, or between 25 and 29.9.
  • Obese, when your BMI is more than 30.

BMI is not the only measure of healthy weight. Muscle conservation is also more important at this stage of life because of sarcopenia, a condition characterized by the loss of muscle mass with age.

“It starts, typically, around our 30s, and our muscle mass continues to decline with age,” Dodds says. “(With seniors), I’m more concerned about their body composition and their muscle mass because we know that older adults have less muscle mass than younger adults.”

Most people lose muscle when they lose weight, particularly if they’re not under medical supervision. As a result, weight loss can be detrimental for seniors, Dodd adds.

“While their weight might be down, they’ve now caused themselves to have less muscle, which increases their risk of falls, going to the hospital, early death, early disability,” she explains. “In the older adult population, I don’t typically recommend weight loss. It’s more about weight stability.”

Other dietitians feel weight loss is a fine goal for robust and active older adults as long as they set reasonable goals and keep nutrition in mind when planning meals.

Dodd and other experts recommend prioritizing these aspects of wellness as you age:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Choosing whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Following a healthy and consistent eating pattern.
  • Choosing physical activities that you enjoy and doing them often.

Several nutrients are essential for older adults.

“No. 1 is protein,” Dodd says. “We need protein to maintain muscle mass. Along with resistance exercise, protein helps to prevent muscle loss.”

Holley adds that among its many benefits, lean muscle mass helps to protect the skeleton, improve longevity and decrease chronic disease symptoms.

But it’s a fight against nature because most people naturally lose lean muscle mass as they age. Compounding the problem: Many seniors aren’t getting enough protein from healthy sources.

“According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, seniors 71 years of age and older tend to eat less protein than seniors who fall between 60 and 70 years old,” Holley says.

High-quality sources of protein include:

  • Lean meats.
  • Poultry.
  • Fish and seafood.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy.
  • Nuts.
  • Legumes.
  • Chickpeas.
  • Tofu.

Frail, older adults also face heightened health concerns, Campbell notes, and a lack of protein puts people at risk for lower immune function and osteoporosis.

An adult who weighs 150 pounds needs about 55 grams of daily protein, or 0.8 grams per kilogram, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary reference intake.

However, some experts suggest that older adults need more protein: up to 1.6 grams per kilogram or 110 grams daily for a person around 150 pounds. It’s best to split protein throughout the day, and many dietitians advise their clients to shoot for approximately 30 grams at each meal. Regardless of whether you choose animal or plant-based proteins, it’s important to choose lean or low-fat options.

Many people don’t realize that nutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin C, iron and vitamin D, also play essential roles in building and maintaining muscle.

While older adults need fewer calories than younger individuals, nutrient needs either remain constant or increase over our lifetime. In particular, critical nutrients for older adults include the following:

  • Protein to preserve muscle mass.
  • Calcium to help counteract bone loss and osteoporosis.
  • Vitamin D for overall mental and physical health.
  • Fiber to reduce disease risk and promote regular bowel movements.

Although the paleo diet was lower-ranking among the Best Diets, he says that “it could be a good diet.”

“It’s had a little bit of a hype to it, but the principles are not far off, such as people eating more complex carbohydrates and more lean meats,” he adds.

He also points out that constipation can be an issue for seniors on a low-carb, low-fiber diet, making fiber-rich complex carbohydrates especially important. Drinking an adequate amount of fluid when focusing on high-fiber foods is also essential.

Calcium and vitamin D, as well as a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, can help to reduce the risk of fractured bones. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be drinking cow’s milk, either – soy foods, including tofu and soy milk, as well as nuts, beans, lentils and whole grains are also good sources of calcium. Fruits and vegetables are important for bone health. According to one study, eating just one serving of fruits and vegetables every day can reduce the risk of bone fractures.

Meanwhile, the risk of osteoporosis and fractures is increased by:

  • Alcohol abuse.
  • Excess vitamin A from vitamin supplements or some fortified foods.
  • A high-sodium diet.
  • Being underweight.
  • Smoking.
  • A sedentary lifestyle.

Davidson says WW/WeightWatchers and diets with similar structures score well in the Best Diet rankings because of their simplicity.

With WW, for instance, foods are assigned different points, and you aim to stay at your daily target based on gender, weight, height and age. This approach takes a lot of guesswork out of menu plans or ensuring you have a balance of foods, which may benefit seniors who struggle with meal planning.

Long-term compliance is also an important factor in ranking diets.

“It’s really more about variety and food choices, as opposed to portion sizes, that are applicable to an elderly individual,” Davidson notes.

Cost can be an issue for seniors on fixed incomes, so free weight-loss programs, such as the flexitarian and DASH diets, might be better options.

“For diets in general, it’s best to try and make it fit comfortably into a person’s life – ones that promote good health but are as easy to follow as possible,” Campbell explains.

The MIND diet combines the science-backed Mediterranean and DASH diets, both known for their cardiovascular benefits, to help prevent dementia. The MIND diet is customizable for various lifestyles and dietary needs, including individuals with diabetes.

“There’s been a lot of research behind the MIND diet, and it’s been found that (it) can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dodd says. “It’s a good healthy eating pattern, but it could also help with brain health, which is always important as we age.”

The MIND diet includes eating these foods weekly:

  • 21 servings of whole grains.
  • 2 servings of berries.
  • 3 servings of beans.
  • 6 servings of leafy greens.
  • 7 servings of other vegetables.
  • 2 servings of poultry.
  • 5 servings of nuts.
  • 1 serving of fish.

Preventing or managing cardiovascular disease is important, especially as we age, which is why U.S. News ranks diets for heart health. Popular heart-healthy eating plans include the flexitarian and volumetric diets.

One diet that can work for shedding weight but may have drawbacks is the keto diet, which focuses on a high-fat, high-protein and low-carb approach to eating. One of the pitfalls with this diet for people over 60 is inadequate protein, which, as mentioned, can lead to a loss of muscle mass. The keto diet may also negatively impact your cholesterol.

“Although the keto diet is gaining in popularity and can be a highly effective approach to weight loss, some patients may experience a marked increase in LDL cholesterol – especially with the carnivore keto plan,” Davidson says. “If the patient wants to maintain a keto diet, I recommend checking a lipid profile and then adjust the diet to reduce the amount of saturated fats – butter especially.”

A lipid profile or panel is a simple blood test measuring cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. If a patient’s “bad” LDL cholesterol is elevated, Davidson advises replacing saturated fats with healthier fats. Easy ways to work in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats is by choosing fish or flaxseed, while monounsaturated fats are in avocado and olive oil.

Among the ranked diets, both the DASH and the Mediterranean diets can help people with diabetes prevention and management, Campbell says. These diets work because they encourage a variety of foods and make people aware of the amount and types of carbs they consume. Both diets are also mentioned in the latest nutrition guidelines from the American Diabetes Association. 

Other highly ranked diets, such as Jenny Craig and WW, also address diabetes. Jenny Craig offers a diabetes weight loss plan designed for people with Type 2 diabetes. WW’s Points program can be tailored to meet the needs of those with diabetes.

Some community programs, such as local YMCA offerings for diabetes prevention, can help people lose weight as part of diabetes risk reduction, even when participants are in their 70s.

“Older adults should be especially aware of their fluid intake as they are susceptible to dehydration,” Holley notes. “Water is the obvious source for hydrating, but liquids from foods and other beverages are beneficial, too.”

Some good food sources of fluids include:

  • Melons.
  • Oranges.
  • Grapes.
  • Pineapple.
  • Cucumbers.
  • Bell peppers.
  • Squash.
  • Tomatoes.

“Broths, milk and 100%, unsweetened juices can also help with meeting fluid needs,” Holley says.

Fluids such as soda or fruit juice add a lot of calories, Campbell notes, and are unsuitable for people with diabetes. Instead, she suggests sugar-free flavored water or water with a slice of lemon.

She also has good news for coffee and tea lovers: Caffeine is less dehydrating than once thought.

“Plus, coffee and tea have potential health benefits, including a lower risk of some cancers, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes,” she adds. “But, check with your doctor as to how much caffeine is safe for you to consume.”

Although a reduction in appetite is a health risk for many older adults, those trying to lose weight may benefit from this change.

“Many clients I work with who are 70 and older just report not being as hungry,” says Elisabetta Politi, a certified diabetes educator, dietitian clinician and health and wellness coach with the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center in Durham, North Carolina. “In a way, that helps because it’s so hard to help someone lose weight when they’re always complaining they’re ravenously hungry – which is more of an issue with the younger population.”

Politi takes clients’ ages into account when tailoring weight loss approaches. She considers areas of vulnerability, which continue to include a higher risk of contagious illnesses, such as the flu and COVID-19, among older adults.

“You really want to advise them to lose weight cautiously because you don’t want to compromise their immune system,” Politi says.

Very restrictive diets can cause fatigue, which may further decrease the likelihood that an older adult will be active – a factor that may already be a challenge because of issues with mobility or pain, often originating in the knees and back.

An individualized approach is also important, Politi says. That includes honoring personal preferences and looking realistically at the food preparation and cooking effort involved with any particular diet. For some, she says, home meal delivery kits specialized for seniors can be a useful shortcut.

Older adults want effective eating plans – otherwise, what’s the point?

“I try to find something sustainable, which takes into account their lifestyle and preferences but that will yield results,” Politi says.

She understands the frustration of changing your eating habits and following popular exercise tips but not seeing that effort reflected on the scale. Unfortunately, this is a more common scenario among older adults. Metabolism slows as we age, making it more difficult to burn calories and lose weight.

Politi says that balanced diets that encourage weight loss without negatively impacting energy, health or immune systems, such as the MIND diet, are good options. And make sure to mix in exercise to remain motivated.

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