Is a Plant-Based Diet Best for Senior Health?

In stark contrast to much of the Western world, people living on the Greek island of Ikaria have a good chance of reaching their 90s in good health. Experts speculate that there are a few reasons for this. One is regular exercise. Ikaria is mountainous, so even going to the shops is physically demanding. Another is a strong sense of community, which keeps the risk of depression low. And another is diet.

Go to the food

Ikaria is one of the world’s five official Blue Zones. Like Okinawa in Japan and Nicoya in Costa Rica, its population follows a diet that’s 95 to 100 percent plant-based. And we’re not talking vegan meats and processed foods, but fresh fruits, leafy greens, grains, beans, and legumes. Is a plant-based, whole-foods diet best for senior health? If Blue Zones are anything to go by, it certainly seems that way. Here’s a closer look at why.

RELATED: What can you actually eat on a Paleo vegan diet?

Diet and aging

Research confirms that as people age, food becomes more important than ever. And that’s because bodies begin to change as we age; muscles, bones and organs need more support from essential nutrients.

For example, thinning skin is a common symptom of aging. But this makes it harder to absorb vitamin D from the sun. Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption, so this in turn can lead to calcium deficiency. Both nutrients can be supplemented through diet.

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Protein is also important because it helps maintain muscle mass. Without protein, older adults are at greater risk of muscle deterioration, which can lead to mobility problems and slower recovery from illness. A study published in The Journals of GerontologyA study of 2,900 seniors found that those who ate the most protein were 30 percent less likely to have functional limitations.

Potassium, omega-3, magnesium and iron are also common deficiencies in older people. According to the British Geriatrics Society, 30 percent of people over 85 in the UK are anemic.

Senior health

Nutrition can play a role in maintaining optimal health in old age, which in turn may reduce the risk of certain diseases.

The World Health Organization notes that the risk of dementia, for example, is reduced when people eat a nutritious diet and limit their alcohol intake, among other healthy habits. And the Alzheimer’s Society acknowledges evidence that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains, and low in red meat and sugar, can help reduce the risk of developing the disease.


Research also shows that a diet rich in plant foods can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, all of which are common causes of death in older adults.

“While some people may be inclined to believe that veganism is a diet for young people, the fact is that there are many benefits to eating vegan foods for seniors,” says registered dietitian Amber Dixon, MPH, who is also a geriatric nurse practitioner and founder of Elderly Guides, a platform that provides health resources to seniors and their families.

She reiterated that it can reduce the risk of dementia and help people maintain their weight. “Eating vegan means you’re getting a lot of fiber and complex carbohydrates,” she notes. “Which helps you feel fuller for longer and also helps regulate blood sugar.”

Vegan Diet for Senior Health

There are different types of vegan diets. For example, a diet consisting of only fries and plant-based donuts is not packed with nutrients, but is still vegan. For optimal health in seniors (and other ages too), one specific type of vegan diet is recommended: whole foods, plant-based. Just like the Ikarians.

However, like all people following a vegan diet, seniors may need to consider B12 supplements. Research suggests that the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency increases with age, affecting six percent of people over the age of 60. Vitamin B12 is found in nutritional yeast and fortified cereals, but it is not found in fruits and vegetables.

That said, a diet full of grains, leafy greens, beans, legumes, and other whole foods ensures that seniors get nearly all of the essential vitamins and minerals needed to maintain healthy bones, muscles, and organs.

The best nutrition for seniors, recommended by dietitians

According to dietitians, these are some of the best foods for seniors.


1 Protein-rich foods, such as tofu

“Tofu is one of the highest sources of protein among vegan foods,” says registered dietitian Patricia Kolesa, MS RDN. She attributes this to the higher protein needs of seniors. She notes that tofu, which contains about 8 grams of protein per 100 grams, “can be a useful source in preventing muscle wasting.”

“Protein-rich foods can also help you feel full and satisfied after a meal,” Kolesa adds. “In addition, tofu is high in calcium, which can help maintain strong bones in older populations who are at higher risk for fractures and arthritis.”

For more information on how to cook with tofu, check out our guide to the best preparation and cooking methods . Other vegan foods high in protein include tempeh, which contains 19 grams of protein per 100 grams, and seitan, which contains a whopping 75 grams of protein.


2 Beans and legumes

Kolesa also notes that beans are a good source of protein for older adults. “When combined with rice, they can be a complete protein source,” she explains. Kidney beans are a particularly good source, with 24 grams of protein per 100-gram serving. To find out which beans have the most protein, we created this handy bean guide , which covers everything from cannellini to edamame (plus protein-packed recipes).

But beyond the protein, beans have other benefits. “Beans also contain fiber,” says Kolesa. “Older people can have a harder time passing stool, and fiber can aid in the digestive process by forming stool and removing waste from the body. Another problem among seniors is anemia, which is a result of an iron deficiency. Beans are a great source of iron and should be paired with a vitamin C food like red bell peppers for the body to best absorb it.”

Dixon agrees that beans are a good source of nutrition for seniors, and also recommends other protein- and vitamin-rich legumes, such as lentils and peas. “Beans and legumes are high in protein, fiber, and other nutrients that are important for seniors,” she says. “They can be used in a variety of recipes and are easy to incorporate into everyday meals.”

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3 Leafy vegetables

Dixon also recommends seniors fill their diets with greens, such as spinach and kale. “They’re high in vitamins A and C, which are important for eye health and preventing age-related vision loss,” she says. “They also contain antioxidants that help fight free radicals, promote healthy skin and reduce inflammation.”

Other good examples include arugula, bok choy, cabbage, watercress and romaine lettuce.

To get your fair share of leafy greens (with a serving of beans and legumes, that’s important!), try this zesty vegan blackened chickpea salad, this vegan spinach, chickpea and lemon pilaf, or this vegan apple, chickpea and kale salad with mustard-dill dressing.


4 Whole grain

Whole grains are another essential part of a balanced plant-based diet. They include foods such as brown rice, wild rice, oats, barley, durum wheat, and rye.

“Whole grains contain many essential minerals and vitamins, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc (which helps prevent anemia), selenium (which helps protect the immune system), B vitamins (which support energy production), chromium (which helps balance blood sugar levels), and manganese (which supports bone health),” Dixon notes.

Examples of how to incorporate whole grains into your diet include this Vegan Garden Fried Rice, this Jamaican-inspired vegan banana oatmeal porridge, or these healthy vegan strawberry chia oatmeal cups.

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5 A rainbow of fruits and vegetables

Other foods that can be part of a healthy, plant-based diet include berries, such as bananas and strawberries, which are rich in vitamins like B6 and vitamin C, as well as colorful vegetables like bell peppers, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beets, carrots and many more.

All of these examples have unique properties. For example, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. To maintain good health at any age, but especially in old age, people should strive to, quite simply, eat the rainbow like Blue Zoners.

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