Wouldn't it make life a whole lot easier if there was a magic meal plan that could guarantee we would live a long and happier life? Unfortunately, that's probably not going to happen. But there are nutritional and lifestyle choices that can help us to remain as healthy as possible as we get older.

It's also worth noting, too, that the foods we most need to eat change a little as we age, as new nutrition guidelines for older adults make clear.

“Our diet, physical activity levels, how much sleep we get and whether or not we use tobacco products all have influence,” Alice H. Lichtenstein, senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, said in a press release.

Prepare as much food as possible at home and avoid highly processed foods.

“While we can't control our genes,” Lichtenstein says, “the data clearly shows that those adhering to a healthy lifestyle do best within each genetic risk category.”

What doesn't work are fad diets that guarantee overnight weight loss or buying supplements to meet our nutritional needs.

A much better plan for older adults hoping to maximize their health and energy levels is to follow recent guidelines set down in MyPlate for Older Adults. They address the unique nutritional and physical activity requirements associated with aging and correspond to the USDA's MyPlate, the federal government's nutrition recommendations by food group, but have been adjusted to address the specific needs of seniors.

Compared to younger adults, those of us who are older:

  • Generally need fewer calories to maintain a constant body weight due to shifts in body composition from muscle to fat.
  • Need the same, or sometimes a bit more, of the essential nutrients.
  • Need to make sure we get drink enough fluids and not rely on feelings of thirst, which may be blunted as we get older.
  • Benefit by reducing their alcohol consumption. As we age our liver function slowly decreases and we don't process alcohol as efficiently as we once did. At any age, there's evidence that alcohol consumption contributes to increased risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and digestive problems.
  • Should eat a diet that emphasizes vegetables (specifically those that have dark fleshy leaves) and fruits, whole grain products, legumes, low-and fat-free dairy products, and fish, nuts and seeds in their diets.
  • Reduce consumption of fatty beef, and choose fish, poultry and lean cuts of meat.
  • Try to replace major sources of saturated fat with unsaturated fats from soybean and canola oils and limit salt, added sugar and products made with refined grains.

One of the best things seniors can do to ensure they are eating right is to “prepare as much food as possible at home and avoid highly processed foods which tend to be high in salt, sugar and/refined grains,” Lichtenstein advises.

“At any stage of life, it is important to achieve and maintain a healthy weight for the best health outcomes,” she added, making it possible to prepare for healthier senior years while we're still young. Indeed, research suggests that what a person eats in their 20's and 30's can influence diseases and conditions that may develop as they age.

What a person eats in their 20's and 30's can influence diseases and conditions that may develop as they age.

That means getting enough calcium and vitamin D in one's teens and 20's is key to avoiding osteoporosis later in life. It's important, especially for those who are vegan or vegetarians of any age, to keep this in mind.

Whether you're a young adult, in mid-life or a senior, it's never too early or too late to adjust your diet, exercise regularly (try to get at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week — along with exercises that make your muscles work harder) and try to keep your weight on target. Studies show you'll not only reduce your risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but you'll improve your overall sense of wellbeing.

You can view a video on MyPlate for Older Adults here.