Why do your nutritional needs change as you get older?
As we age, most of us become less active. This means that we burn fewer calories and need to eat less daily. However, as we get older, our ability to absorb many nutrients decreases, which means that older adults actually need the same or more of certain vitamins and nutrients.
Older adults also often develop lower appetites and other barriers to eating food. So how should we approach thinking about food intake as we age? It’s more important than ever to focus on having a nutrient-dense diet.
Read below to find out how to choose healthy foods that will meet your body’s needs as you get older.
What nutrients do you need more of with age?
The quality of your diet can have a big effect on your health as you age. It’s important to target these key nutrients in the diet:
- Calcium: Older adults are at risk for osteoporosis, which can lead to bone fractures. Increased calcium intake can lower your risk for bone fractures. Dairy foods and drinks and some leafy greens are rich sources of calcium.
Vitamin D: As you get older, your skin has less ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure. For this reason, it’s important to include vitamin D-rich foods in your diets, such as fatty fish and fortified milk.
- Vitamin B12: B12 is very important for healthy nerve functioning. Acid-blocking drugs, which are commonly prescribed for older adults, can reduce B12 absorption. Meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and other foods of animal origin are good sources of vitamin B12.
- Fiber: A high-fiber diet can help decrease your odds of colon cancer, reduce cholesterol, and improve nutrient absorption from your gut. Fiber-rich foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: This is an important component for heart health. A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can lower your risk of heart disease and strokes. To get omega-3s, look for fatty fish such as mackerel and salmon.
Should older adults eat more protein?
Yes. As adults age, their muscle mass and strength decrease. This can have a large impact on the ability to function independently. Increased protein intake is important for muscle health. Therefore older adults benefit from a higher protein intake than younger adults.
So, what are the best foods for older adults to eat?
To fill your diet with nutrient-dense, healthy options, focus on including:
- Plenty of fruits and vegetables: This includes fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables. Dark green and orange vegetables are especially nutrient-filled.
- Lean protein. Try fish, beans, and peas.
- Three servings per day of low-fat, calcium-rich foods such as yogurts, cheeses, and milk. Make sure these are fortified with vitamin D to get the full benefit.
- Whole-grain foods: This includes grains such as quinoa, barley, brown rice, and buckwheat. Whenever possible, choose whole-grain breads, cereal, or pasta.
- Healthier fats: Switch from butter to olive oil. Try to get your fat intake from nuts, seeds, and fatty fish rather than fried or processed foods.
The importance of hydration as you get older
Thirst decreases as adults get older, so it’s easy to drink less. Because of this, older adults are especially at risk of dehydration, which is a serious health concern.
Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages have a diuretic effect, meaning they make you pee more. It’s best to consume these drinks only in moderation. Juices are not an ideal way to hydrate, since they have a lot of extra sugar. The best ways to hydrate are from water, non-caffeinated teas, and soups.
Here are some tips to help increase your water intake:
- Keep a water bottle around and take sips throughout the day
- Don’t wait to be thirsty to start drinking — make it part of your daily routine
- Add flavor to your water by adding slices of fruit
- Eat more soups, especially those with green veggies and lentils
- In addition to water, drink herbal teas, milk, or smoothies
Most of us are familiar with the “8 glasses of water a day” rule. But it turns out not everyone needs the same amount of water. A good rule of thumb is that if your urine is clear or pale yellow, you’re drinking enough.
Tips for eating healthy as you age
Older adults face certain barriers to eating healthy. Here are some possible challenges and how to overcome them:
- For loss of appetite, try adding different herbs and spices to food (without adding too much salt!) and adding light exercise to your daily routine.
- For difficulty chewing, try nutrient-rich soups and stews.
- If you can’t drive or cook, consider meal delivery programs such as Meals on Wheels.
- If you have a medical condition or take certain medications that can interfere with nutrient absorption, talk to your healthcare provider about supplementation.
- If you have financial difficulties, which is common for older adults, try buying in bulk and focusing on budget-friendly produce like bananas, apples, and cabbage. You can also ask your local grocery store about coupons or discounts.
- If you live alone, scheduling meals with others can help you eat more.
In the end
Whether you’re focused on keeping yourself healthy as you age or caring for an older loved one, it’s important to be aware of common barriers to a healthy diet and specific concerns for older people. Being mindful about maintaining a nutrient-dense diet can help ensure the best possible health and keep you thriving in later years.
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Written by Karen Hovav, MD, FAAP | Reviewed by Mandy Armitage, MD | Photo by Amina Filkins on pexels