It’s always important to eat well and take care of yourself, but it’s increasingly important as you age. Good nutrition plays an integral role in your mental and physical health, yet for many, aging is often associated with nutritional deficiencies.
While several factors impact nutrition as you age, perhaps the greatest challenge as the years pass is that your body needs less calories while also needing as many or more nutrients. As a result, it’s important to understand some of your body’s changing nutritional needs and the best way to meet them.
For many, aging leads to a decreased appetite and changes in taste buds, often leading to changes in eating habits and diet. Aging also leads to muscle loss, thinner skin and less stomach acid, all of which impact nutritional needs and the way that your body absorbs nutrients. Low stomach acid affects absorption of important nutrients like vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Similarly, thinning skin makes you less able to absorb vitamin D from the sun. The steady loss of muscle mass leads to heightened nutritional needs to combat loss of strength and mass.
Yet, as your body has these increased nutritional needs, it also needs less calories due to a decreased metabolic rate. The result is that you need to get more nutrients from less calories. This can be difficult to do and often leads to nutritional deficiencies that impact health and quality of life.
What nutrients are most important to meet the changing health needs of older adults?
Protein helps to maintain muscle and to protect against the loss of strength and muscle mass, which is known as sarcopenia. Decreased muscle loss can lead to weaknesses, decreased mobility and an increased likelihood of falls or injuries. While there are a few things you can do to combat this, eating plenty of protein is one important component of maintaining muscle mass.
Vitamin D and calcium work together to build and maintain healthy bones. Calcium is responsible for bone health, and vitamin D enables your body to absorb calcium. Calcium is important to prevent osteoporosis and to keep bones healthy to ensure ongoing mobility and an active life.
You don’t hear much about vitamin B12, but it plays a number of important roles, including helping to keep nerve and blood cells healthy and helping to maintain healthy brain function. While most people get plenty of B12 from a normal diet, decreased stomach acid in older adults makes this nutrient difficult to absorb. As a result, it’s important that older adults find ways to ensure that they get plenty of B12.
Water might not seem like a nutrient, but it’s actually an essential component of your diet, especially as you age. Your thirst sensation decreases with age, increasing the risk of dehydration. You need around 1.5 to 2 liters of water a day for your body to function at its best. When considering nutrition, it’s important to not forget about water and to prioritize this in your diet. It’s a simple thing that is too often overlooked, yet it can have a big impact on your overall health.
In addition to these primary nutrients, fiber, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, iron and antioxidants are also important components of your diet as you age. Each of these helps to protect against common causes for declining health and helps to maintain your quality of life as you age.
To get more nutrients from less calories, it’s important to eat plenty of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and nuts. While some supplements might be necessary, remember that it’s most effective to get nutrients from your food. Both the USDA and AARP have created resources to specifically help aging adults plan meals to meet changing nutritional needs. Additionally, here are some foods that you’ll want to regularly include in your diet:
|Protein||Lean meat, fish, legumes, eggs, non-fat or low-fat dairy, lentils|
||Fatty fish, non-fat or low-fat dairy, egg, cod liver oil|
|Calcium||Non-fat or low-fat dairy, green leafy vegetables|
|Vitamin B12||Eggs, fish, lean meat, non-fat or low-fat dairy|
As your caloric needs decrease and your appetite changes, it can be tempting to pay less attention to your diet. However, proper nutrition is one of the best things you can do maintain mental and physical health as well as quality of life. Given the importance of nutrition, work to ensure that you’re consistently eating a nutrient-rich diet that meets your body’s changing nutritional needs. This is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to stay healthy and strong as you age.
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