It’s a fact of life: As we grow older, shift happens. The normal process of aging changes us to the core. As the body ages—even when body weight stays the same—body fat increases and muscle and bone mass decrease. Metabolism slows. Appetite may diminish making it harder to get needed nutrients.
But don’t let getting older get you down! Healthy habits can help stall the clock by decreasing risk of chronic disease and disability and improving quality of life. At any age, even small changes to health habits can make a difference.
Optimal nutrition is one way to promote “active engagement in life, both mentally and physically,” which is the definition of healthy aging. Although health status has multiple contributing factors, nutrition is one of the major determinants of successful aging, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“With all the information we’re exposed to about nutrition and healthy aging, it can be difficult to figure out what to eat,” says Lynn Spalding, registered dietitian and board certified specialist in gerontological nutrition. “By focusing on eating a variety of whole foods, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and healthy fats, you’ll meet most of the nutrient recommendations for healthy aging.”
Here’s how to outsmart the inevitable nutrition shifts:
Calories with clout
Calorie needs decrease with age due to decreased physical activity, loss of muscle mass and hormonal changes. However, requirements for many vitamins and minerals either remain constant or increase. What to do: Focus on nutrient-rich foods and beverages at meals and snacks and cut back on nutrient poor/empty calorie foods and beverages such as soft drinks, chips, pastries and candy. ChooseMyPlate.gov is a good resource.
Dehydration is a major problem in older adults, especially those 85 and older. Many factors can increase dehydration risk such as a decreased sense of thirst and certain medical conditions. What to do: Plan fluids (such as milk and juice) as well as high water-containing foods (such as fruits and soups) into meals and snacks. Keep water on hand as a reminder to stay hydrated.
Fiber intake is important for normal bowel function and prevention of many chronic diseases but is often low in older adults. What to do: Choose a variety of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Decreased muscle mass contributes to frailty, impaired wound healing and decreased immune function. Protein needs may increase with age, and an adequate intake of high-quality protein is necessary for overall health, bone health, and to help maintain or increase muscle mass. What to do: Some experts recommend adults consume 25-30 grams (about 4 oz.) of high-quality protein at each meal such as eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, lean meat, and nuts and nut butters. Add exercise for maximum muscle-building benefit.
Calcium and vitamin D help prevent osteoporosis and may also improve immune function and decrease risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. What to do: Eat plenty of foods rich in calcium and vitamin D such as milk and milk products, eggs and fatty fish. Supplements may be necessary—check with your health care provider.
Better with B-12
An estimated 6-15% of older adults have vitamin B-12 deficiency which may affect sensory and motor function. What to do: Choose good sources of vitamin B-12 such as lean meats, fish, dairy products and eggs. A B-12 supplement is often recommended.
Make mealtime enjoyable. “Plan ahead, set a nice table and use good dishes, turn off the TV, and eat with family or friends,” suggests Spalding. “Often, it’s an adjustment to cook for fewer people as family size may change with an ‘empty nest’ but leftovers can be frozen for later use or reheated for a quick and easy meal. Try cutting your favorite recipes in half if you’re cooking for one or two.”
For more information, visit nihseniorhealth.gov/ and Tufts University’s MyPlate for Older Adults at http://nutrition.tufts.edu/research/myplate-older-adults
EDITOR’S NOTE: Aging is a complex and individualistic process, so nutrition recommendations may need to be customized. Consult a doctor or a registered dietitian to discuss your specific needs.