5 Ways Nutritional Needs Change as We Age
As our bodies age, our nutritional needs start to shift. Whether it’s nutrient absorption, muscle strength, or bone and organ health, there are many important changes to be aware of when getting older. Here’s how to support them with nutrition to feel your best.
We all know calcium is important for strong bones—and it’s becoming more known that vitamin D is as well.
Vitamin D is produced by the body and supports calcium absorption and muscle strength. Unfortunately though, that production lowers as our skin thins with age. Since we also lose calcium absorption as we age, those changes doubly impact loss of bone density, risk of osteoporosis, and risk of fractures from falls and unsteadiness. To keep your bones as healthy as possible, a higher intake of calcium- and vitamin D-rich foods becomes more critical.
Many dairy products have calcium, of course. Dark, leafy greens like collard greens and kale and fish like sardines and salmon also contain calcium.
Vitamin D isn’t as common in nature, but it does occur in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. In most other sources of vitamin D, like dairy products, it’s been added through a fortifying process. It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone, especially in areas or time periods of reduced sunlight, so you may want to talk with your doctor about if a supplement would help you.
Older bodies are more prone to constipation or bowel blockage, often because of medication side effects. This is where fiber is a hero: it’s known to form stool and stimulate bowel movements in patients with constipation. It’s also important for colon health. Fiber protects against diverticular disease, a condition caused when small pouches along the colon wall start to form and inflame. It is also recommended for older adults to schedule a colon cancer screening regularly.
High-fiber foods are plentiful and quick to prepare. You can find easily add fiber to your diet with fruits like raspberries and pears and vegetables such as peas and broccoli. Legumes like split peas, lentils, and beans are also a high source of fiber.
Muscle weakness and anemia
As we age, our bodies are more likely to develop stomach and digestive tract conditions that make it more difficult to absorb vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is essential for producing red blood cells and DNA in new cells. It also helps maintain healthy brain and nerve function.
B12 is naturally abundant in animal protein like eggs, fish, meat, and dairy. Vegetarians and vegans can eat more foods fortified with B12, which can range from non-dairy milk to nutritional yeast. Because an untreated B12 deficiency can lead to health complications like anemia and muscle weakness, you also might consider getting your vitamin levels tested and talking with your doctor about whether a supplement could help.
Staying hydrated is important at every age, but it gets harder to do as we get older. Our thirst receptors start losing sensitivity, which means we don’t quickly recognize when we need water. This change in sensitivity can be compounded by certain medications and chronic illnesses, like diabetes. Kidney complications that arise in older bodies also impact the ability to conserve water as efficiently, amounting to more water loss. And all these factors become a higher dehydration risk in extreme high temperatures and warmer, dry, or elevated climates.
Mild dehydration can increase fatigue, cause headaches, reduce the fluid in your cells (and thus ability to absorb medicine), and worsen existing medical conditions. When it becomes severe, dehydration can pose a dangerous health risk for seniors. Symptoms of severe dehydration include heatstroke, seizures, kidney stones, and low blood pressure.
Thankfully, the solution to dehydration is simple: just drink more water! It’s also recommended to regularly eat fruits and vegetables high in water content, like cucumbers, watermelon, and celery. How much water you need depends on your diet, activity intensity, and surrounding climate. The minimum recommended amount is to drink half your body weight in ounces (a 140 pound-person would drink 70 ounces per day). If you live in dry or elevated areas, such as the desert or mountains, you will have to drink more.
Whether it’s having an extra glass at every meal, adding herbal tea to your diet, or filling up an economy-sized water bottle for all day, you can start with a small, practical goal and build on that.
Loss of lean muscle mass
Starting at age 30, the average adult loses 3% to 8% muscle mass and strength each decade. Weakening muscles threaten our balance, our ability to move safely and prevent injury, and our overall health and well-being.
While resistance training is a proven way to combat this, studies have shown that increasing intake of lean protein, like skinless, white-meat chicken and turkey, egg whites, fish, and low-fat dairy will also help slow the loss of muscle mass. Your recommended intake amount will depend on your weight and physical activity. Eating too much protein can tax the kidneys, so it may help to consult your doctor about the best amount for you.
Keeping up with changing nutritional needs as you age
As you’re staying aware of your changing needs and on top of your nutrition, you could help yourself stay motivated by asking friends and family to join in. Plan group dinners, make hydration a friendly competition, and strengthen your support network by checking in with each other about how you’re feeling. Feeding yourself what your body needs helps you stay healthy, active, and vibrant.
Era Living makes it easy for our residents to make healthy choices, providing access to on-staff dietitians and nourishing meals from our in-house chefs. If you’re considering a move to senior living, the staff at Era Living is happy to talk with you about how we help our residents stay in good health. Give us a call at (206) 470-8000, or email us to schedule a tour.