Getting older doesn’t only change your body. It changes how your body processes the food you eat. Here are the key nutrients to know.
By Editors of Emcara Health
When we’re young, meeting our body’s daily nutrition needs is often as simple as putting a variety of whole foods on our plates each day. That includes fruits, vegetables, grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
Getting the nutrients we need becomes harder as we get older, because our body begins to absorb and process nutrients in a different way. Even if we eat the same way, important vitamins and minerals may pass right through our digestive systems.
What’s more, our calorie needs decline as we get older, so we often eat less in general. That means we have to get all our nutrients in a smaller amount of food.
How can you ensure you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs? We asked registered dieticians which nutrients are most important for older adults to watch. They identified the seven below.
And remember: Your Emcara Health provider can help you review your diet and make changes to ensure you’re getting the biggest nutritional bang in every bite.
Protein forms the foundation of healthy muscles, particularly in older adults. “A major threat as we age is the loss of muscle mass, function, and strength,” explains Kristen Simonds, MScFN, RD. “The process is known as sarcopenia. Several studies have identified protein as a key nutrient for muscle health in older adults.”
Protein helps your muscles grow and stay healthy by building new muscle and stopping old muscle from breaking down. This means your muscles will be stronger and last longer, Simonds says.
Though our calorie needs decline with age, we still need about the same amount of protein to maintain muscle. That’s why protein should cover an increasing share of an older adult’s daily calorie intake, says Nancy Mazarin, MS, RDN, CDN, CNS. She recommends about two to three servings of 3 to 4 ounces of protein per day.
Fiber is among the most versatile nutrients. It helps our bodies maintain intestinal health and regular bowel activity by reducing constipation and diarrhea. It can protect against heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels. And because it helps slow sugar absorption, it can regulate blood glucose levels and fight diabetes, Simonds explains.
Yet, most adults get less than half of the recommended daily amount of fiber, which is 30 grams (g) per day for men over age 50 and 22 g for women over age 50.
A fiber supplement can help. One serving of Metamucil, for example, contains about 2.5 g of fiber. But remember to always talk to your Emcara Health provider or primary care physician before starting any supplement.
Taking care of your bones means getting enough calcium, plain and simple.
“Everyone needs calcium for a healthy body, bones, and teeth,” Simonds says. “As we age, we lose bone density and strength. Often in older adults, our bones breakdown at a faster rate than they’re being built.”
Not getting enough calcium can contribute to osteoporosis, a condition that puts you at greater risk of a bone fracture. Women over age 50 and men over age 70 should get at least 1,200 milligrams (mg) of calcium daily, Simonds says. Men ages 51 to 70 can cover their needs with 1,000 mg.
Vitamin B12 has a few key jobs in the body that only get more important with age. It’s crucial to red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis, and healthy nerve function. A shortage of B12 may increase your risk of cognitive decline or a blood condition like anemia.
Our bodies begin to struggle to absorb vitamin B12 as we age, explains Elizabeth Friedrich, MPH, RD. So talk to your Emcara Health provider about boosting your intake through vitamin supplements or animal-based foods.
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in calcium absorption. Therefore, like calcium, a shortage of vitamin D in your diet could raise your risk of osteoporosis, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
Older adults are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D because of less exposure to sunlight. And a related challenge: The body’s ability to convert the sun’s rays into vitamin D gets less effective as we age, Simonds says.
Thankfully, you can get your daily recommended value of 600 IUs for people 70 and under (or 800 IU for people over 70) through fatty fish like salmon or fortified foods such as dairy products and orange juice.
You may not think of water as a nutrient, but it’s as critical as any item on this list. Problem is, hydrating as an older adult isn’t as simple as drinking when you’re thirsty.
“As we age, our sense of thirst may decline, but we definitely need to drink regularly whether we feel thirsty or not,” Simonds says. She recommends 1 ounce of fluid per 2 pounds of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 128 pounds, aim to drink 64 ounces of fluids throughout the day.
You don’t have to stick with plain water, Simonds says. Low-sugar or sugar-free drinks, tea, or even coffee can hydrate you just as well. Just limit diuretics (like coffee) to only two cups per day.
This mineral plays a crucial role in regulating blood pressure and maintaining healthy muscle function. It’s why some athletes eat bananas before competing to prevent cramps. One banana has around 400 mg of potassium. The average adult needs about five times that, and older adults usually require more.
If you have a potassium deficiency, you may also feel weak or that your heart is beating irregularly. However, similar symptoms may occur due to an excess of potassium, particularly in people with kidney disease.
Daily intake of potassium varies by individual, so talk to your Emcara Health provider to ensure you’re not above or below your ideal daily intake.
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