Eating right and staying fit are important no matter what your age, but as we get older our bodies develop special needs. As we age, many adults will become deficient in calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Each nutrient plays a key role in different systems, but it’s important that older adults are eating a balanced diet with some variety.
Furthermore, as people age, energy needs decrease. This makes it more challenging for them to achieve proper nutrition because they require fewer calories. Nutrient-dense foods are preferable to foods with empty calories since older people generally eat less. Here are some key areas to pay attention to:
Bones, Muscles and Joints
On average, adults lose 2% of muscle mass per year after the age of 50, which decreases basal metabolism, so the body burns fewer calories while at rest. This can lead to unwanted weight gain. For older adults to avoid weight gain, it’s important for them to reduce their caloric intake or engage in regular physical activity.
Older adults need more calcium and vitamin D due to gradual loss of bone density. It’s recommended to have three servings of calcium-rich foods and beverages each day. This includes fortified cereals and fruit juices, dark green leafy vegetables, canned fish with soft bones, milk and fortified plant beverages. If you take a calcium supplement or multivitamin, choose one that contains vitamin D.
A lot of older adults find calcium harder to get because many become lactose intolerant as they age. Older adults who avoid dairy need to look for vitamin D fortified sources of soymilk or fortified juices and spread their intake throughout the day. It’s best to get no more than 400 mg at once so that it’s fully absorbed. While the sun is the most potent source of vitamin D, nowadays more people are staying out of the sun. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important to get vitamin D from diet.
Why is it that minor joint and muscle injuries are common in older adults? A theory is that our inflammatory responses may be the reason behind slower healing. Inflammation is necessary for the healing process, as it signals that white blood cells are releasing chemicals to clean and heal the affected area. However, if there is not enough inflammation, as in overuse of NSAIDS (e.g. ibuprofen), it won’t be effective. If there is too much inflammation, it will result in excessive swelling and delay healing. Unfortunately as we age, when injured cells become inflamed, they take longer to heal. Collagen also plays an important role in tissue healing, but also declines as we age, making us more susceptible to cuts and wounds. Dietary antioxidants can help reduce the damage associated with inflammation. Older adults should eat a diet that provides a lot of vitamin A, C, and selenium. Fruits, vegetables, and some nuts and seeds are a good source of selenium, and vitamins A and C. Dietitians recommend yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables for their anti-inflammatory properties. Foods include carrots, grapefruit, oranges, papaya, and berries. Research has also shown that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids also can help reduce joint inflammation, Look for foods like walnuts, cold-water fish, ground flaxseed, and fish oil. Avoid taking excess amounts of NSAIDS.
Often older adults do not get enough vitamin B12. B12 is naturally found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. Vitamin B12 is generally not present in plant foods, except in fortified breakfast cereals. Some nutritional yeast products also contain vitamin B12. Ask your doctor or a registered dietitian if you need a vitamin B12 supplement.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Get to know your fats, avoid saturated and trans fats and to instead opt for omega-3 fatty foods like salmon, flaxseed, or walnuts. Avoid butter, lard, and shortening when cooking. Switch to olive or canola oil—or a margarine that’s at least free of trans fats. Also, switch to low- or fat-free foods and to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet.
The normal aging process can affect eyesight. Age related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Omega-3 fatty acids can help protect against the inflammation [associated with AMD] that can damage eyes, so people should incorporate fatty fish into their diet twice a week. Carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin can potentially reduce the risk of both cataracts and AMD and are found in spinach, kale, collards, broccoli, and orange juice.
Brain and Cognition
Maintaining mental health is of great concern for those aged 50 and older and nutrition can play a vital role. It’s common to become forgetful as we age.There’s evidence that dietary flavonoids can aid memory so it’s important to incorporate fruits and vegetables rich in flavonoids in the diet such as apples and berries. Flavonoids are believed to help prevent the breakdown of brain cells. To maximize nutritional benefits, aim to eat all types and colors of berries—red, blue, and purple.
Eat more fiber-rich foods to stay regular. Fiber also can help lower your risk for heart disease and prevent Type 2 diabetes. Eat whole-grain breads and cereals, and more beans and peas — along with fruits and vegetables which also provide fiber. Getting adequate amounts of fiber and staying hydrated are the two biggest combatants in fighting constipation and hard stools. Older adults are more at risk for dehydration because it’s common for the thirst mechanism to diminish with age. An easy way for patients to think about how much they should be drinking is taking in half of their body weight (lbs) in water each day (fluid ounces). It sometimes helps to have something visual like a refillable water pitcher or water bottles to keep track of daily water intake.
While each system of the body has its own importance, it all comes back to a diet that’s nutritionally balanced and full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Considering the whole health approach, it goes back to just eating a basic healthful diet and staying physically active as you get older. Supplements should be a last resort, and people should try to get all of their nutrition from whole foods. In the end, healthful eating is a win-win. People who eat a healthful diet feel better and have more energy, even as they grow older.
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