by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
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None of us can avoid getting older but all of us hope to age gracefully, remaining healthy and vital well into our golden years. A healthy diet can go a long way towards making that dream a reality. But as you get into your 50s, your nutritional needs begin to change. Here are some tips on how to adjust your diet to meet your changing nutritional needs.
Why Nutritional Needs Change As You Age
It happens to all of us: The body experiences structural and functional changes as you get older and some of these changes increase your need for certain nutrients. At the same time, your ability to absorb and synthesize certain nutrients is declining. You may also be dealing with health conditions or taking medications that deplete your body of nutrients more quickly. For all of these reasons, the daily requirement for many nutrients increases as you age.
You Need More Calcium with Age
For example, the thickness and density of your bones typically decline with age, making you more susceptible to fractures. At the same time, you secrete less stomach acid, which makes it harder for your body to absorb calcium. Accordingly, the recommended calcium intake for seniors is about 20% higher than it is for younger adults.
Rather than rely entirely on supplements to meet your calcium needs, however, try to get as much as you can from calcium rich foods like dairy products, canned fish, tofu, and vegetables from the cabbage family. It’s entirely possible to meet your calcium needs from foods alone. If you’re concerned that you might be falling short, you can take a supplement. But only take enough to fill the gap between your dietary intake and your recommended intake.
You Need More Protein with Age
As you get older, you may also need a bit more protein in your diet in order to counter the loss of lean muscle tissue and age-related declines in immune function. You can bump up your protein intake by eating eggs, legumes, nuts and nut butters, fish, dairy products, or meat.
And, of course, diet isn’t the whole story here. Exercise is also critical to maintaining healthy bones and muscles as you age.
Older Adults Need Extra Vitamin D
As I mentioned in What are the Benefits of Vitamin D?, it can be challenging for anyone to get enough vitamin D from diet alone because food is not the primary natural source of vitamin D for humans—sunlight is. However, older skin is less efficient at producing vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Add the fact that many older people don’t spend as much time outdoors and you’ll understand why vitamin D deficiency is so common among seniors.
Of course it’s preferable to get as much of your nutrition as possible from food rather than supplements. But vitamin D is one case where it may be necessary to take a supplement to be sure you’re getting enough—and this is especially true for older adults.
Nutrient Deficiencies are More Common in Aging Adults
In addition to affecting your ability to absorb calcium, decreased stomach acid can also reduce your absorption of iron, folate, and vitamins B6 and B12—and the risk of these nutrient deficiencies increases somewhat with age. And although water is not technically a nutrient, water deficiency (otherwise known as dehydration), is also more of a concern as we age because our thirst reflex declines. Instead of only drinking when you feel thirsty, you may have to remind yourself to drink enough fluids every day.
Calorie Needs Go Down As We Age
Even though our need for certain nutrients increases with age, our calorie needs go down.
The best way I know to increase your intake of nutrients is to eat more nutritious foods. There’s just one small problem. Even though our need for certain nutrients increases with age, our calorie needs go down. If you continue to eat the same amount of food, you may end up gaining weight. On the other hand, if you cut back on food intake as your metabolism slows, it may make it even harder to meet those increased nutrient needs.
3 Strategies for Healthy Aging
#1. Get fresh with your diet
Make your calories count by making nutrient-dense foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains and other whole or minimally-processed foods, the mainstay of your diet. Not only do these foods provide more nutrition in fewer calories, but there is also evidence that the antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can help prevent or delay the development of cataracts and other age-related conditions.
#2. Consider taking a multivitamin
Although I don’t recommend taking handfuls of vitamin supplements as a hedge against aging, a basic multi-vitamin is not a bad idea for the over 50 set. Ironically, iron and folate are sometimes better absorbed from supplements than from foods.
#3. Limit sweets and salty snacks
As you get older, there is simply less room for empty calories—and that means cutting down on sweetened beverages, sweets, salty snacks, and other highly processed foods. Aside from adding calories you may not be able to afford, they can do harm in other ways. Kidney function declines with age, making you more sensitive to excess sodium. Changes in the endocrine system also mean that your body is less able to process sugar, increasing your risk of diabetes.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for an occasional treat. (And if you stay active as you get older, it will give you a bit more leeway.) But if you’re over 50, now is the time to double down on your commitment to a healthy diet. Eating well is more important—and the consequences of eating poorly are more profound—than ever before.
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