If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you are part of the Baby Boomer generation.

If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you are part of the Baby Boomer generation.

Boomers currently make up 28 percent of the total population, and that population is aging. Starting in Jan. 1, 2011, and for the next 19 years, there are 10,000 people turning 65 years old every day. Boomers are part of the largest, best educated and most influential generation America has ever known. But, they are not the healthiest generation. Boomers, in general, are fatter and sicker than their predecessors at the same age. According to JAMA Internal Medicine, 39 percent of baby boomers are obese. This is more than any other age group. Obesity may be the reason 16 percent of this generation has diabetes, 11 percent has cancer, 43 percent has high blood pressure and 74 percent has high cholesterol.

Elderly Americans are living longer than ever before, so the boomers may have many years to enjoy in retirement. Nutrition needs change as we age, therefore diet can play an important role in just how healthy those retirement years may be.

Our metabolism and activity levels tend to decrease as we age, resulting in the need for fewer calories. Obesity is a leading risk factor for many chronic diseases, like diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. By achieving a healthy weight, you can help put these diseases at bay. Choose nutrient-rich, calorie-smart foods, like whole grains, lean meats and fish, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Limit sugars, fats, and sodium. Excess alcohol also can lead to extra unwanted pounds.

We gradually lose muscle mass as we age, in part because of decreased activity. Loss of muscle mass makes it more difficult to perform activities of daily living; increases the risk of falls and fractures; and makes recovery from illness more difficult. To maintain as much muscle mass as possible and keep bones strong, it is important to get adequate protein, calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products and try to incorporate some kind of protein in every meal. Add some weight bearing and resistance exercises to help build muscle and bone. Strength training can increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. Flexibility exercises can help with balance. Aim for 30 minutes to 60 minutes of exercise daily.

Digestive issues are a common complaint among seniors. If constipation is a problem, try adding more fiber to your diet. Fiber comes from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. A high-fiber diet can help prevent constipation, diverticulitis, colon cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Adequate fluids are important, as well. Aging can cause our thirst sensation to decrease, our kidneys to become less efficient, and some common medications may cause fluid loss. Sometimes, fluids are intentionally limited because of fear of incontinence or desire not to have to go to the bathroom so often. Make a conscious effort to drink six to eight glasses of water a day.

You may experience more indigestion than you used to. Or, maybe foods you have always enjoyed now bother your stomach. This may be caused by less stomach acid production as we age. Sometimes we just can’t tolerate fatty foods or dairy any longer. Try eating smaller, more frequent meals, avoiding high-fat foods and limiting dairy, or switching to lactose-free milk or non-dairy milks. You may have to do a food elimination trial to determine which foods are causing problems.

Health issues, such as taste or smell changes, medication side effects, poor dental status causing chewing or swallowing problems, appetite changes, limited mobility, vision changes, confusion or forgetfulness, and loneliness or depression all can affect nutritional status and overall health. It’s important to report any changes or difficulties you have to your health care provider. Retirement also means a fixed income and it’s estimated that at least 10 percent of seniors do not have money to buy enough food or for transportation to obtain food. Senior meal centers, co-op share programs, food banks and food stamps all can help by providing low-cost or free food to individuals who need it.

Although obtaining a healthy weight is desired, don’t over-restrict food to lose weight. This is a common problem with seniors who may be afraid to eat certain foods because of health concerns. The benefit of a restricted diet becomes less and less as we age. In fact, being underweight is more of a risk for disease and premature death than being overweight. Being underweight makes it harder to fight off illnesses, to heal properly and to defend against disease. Focus on eating a heart healthy diet, filling half of your plate with vegetables, one quarter with meat or protein, and one quarter with starch, like a potato, rice or pasta. Add a serving of fruit and a glass of low-fat milk or water to round out the meal.

No one wants to get old, but it’s going to happen. Making changes now can help you maintain your health into your retirement years.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.