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Nutritional needs change with age

Tammy McCormick
Tammy McCormick Photo provided

Men and women are now living longer and enjoying more active lifestyles later in life. Research confirms that eating well can make a big impact on the quality of life for older adults, but it’s important to realize that as we age, our nutritional needs change.

For adults older than 50, eating healthy has many benefits, including increased mental acuteness, resistance to illness, more energy and faster recovery time from health ailments. Healthy eating also assists in managing or reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, bone loss, Type 2 diabetes, and can help in staying emotionally healthy. 

As we age, we need less calories but more of certain nutrients. To ensure an adequate intake of what your body needs, make sure the foods you choose are packed with nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber) and do not contain a lot of empty calories (sugar, salt). By eating a variety of foods from all food groups, you can be sure you are getting the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and maintain a healthy weight.

Specifically, older adults need more calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.

Calcium is important to maintain bone health by preventing osteoporosis and bone fractures. Older adults need 1000-1200 milligrams of calcium each day. Good sources of calcium are low fat milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, tofu, almonds, canned sardines, salmon with the bones and kale.

Vitamin D is needed to absorb the calcium. We get most of our vitamin D from the sun, but with age, our skin does not do as well of a job at synthesizing vitamin D as it used to. Good food sources of vitamin D include low-fat dairy products, fatty fish (salmon, tuna and sardines), egg yolks and fortified foods. If you are between 50 and 70 years old, you need at least 600 IU’s of vitamin D each day. If you are older than 70 years, you need at least 800 IU’s per day. Because the majority of us are deficient in vitamin D, it is usually recommended to take 1000 IU’s in the summer and 2000 IU’s in the winter.

After age 50, our stomach produces less gastric acid, which is needed to absorb vitamin B12. Meat, fish, poultry, fortified foods or a vitamin supplement can provide the B12 your body needs. Before starting to take a vitamin supplement, talk with your health care provider.

An example of a balanced, healthy diet would include:

▪ At least 1 to 2 cups or more of vegetables and one to two pieces of fruit each day. Be sure to eat all your colors to get all the antioxidants these foods provide. 

▪ More fiber: choose whole grain breads and pastas, oats, beans/legumes, barley, black rice, nuts and seeds.

▪ Two to three servings of fish each week

▪ Healthier fats from oils, nuts, seeds, nut butters and less saturated fat

▪ Adequate protein: try to eat a source of protein at all meals. Vary your sources of protein by eating more fish, beans/legumes, eggs, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products, poultry, tofu or soy products and less red meat.

▪ Decrease your salt intake by choosing other spices to season your food; there are many lower sodium alternatives at the grocery store.

▪ Aging can decrease thirst mechanism — aim for eight glasses of water a day or urine that is pale yellow, a sign of getting enough water.

Tammy McCormick, RD, CDE, LDN, is a dietician and nutritionist with Mount Nittany Physician Group Endocrinology.