September is National Healthy Aging Month, a designation to raise awareness of our changing health needs as we age as well as giving attention to the positive aspects of growing older. This month, we’ll look at the roles nutrition can play in helping us age healthfully.
Changing nutrition needs as we age
You may have been a healthy eater in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, but as you hit middle age, your nutritional needs will change, and you may need to modify your diet to ensure that you are getting all of the nutrients your body needs.
Aging causes a variety of changes in the body, including muscle loss, thinning skin, digestive changes, and bone mass loss. Some of these changes can lead to nutrient deficiencies or affect your quality of life. One major challenge in meeting your nutritional needs is that as you age, you need fewer calories. This creates a dilemma: you may need just as much, or more, of certain nutrients, but you’ll need to get them eating fewer calories. One way to deal with this dilemma is by eating a diet rich in whole foods and also by taking a nutritional supplement.
Fewer calories, more nutrients
Older adults may need fewer calories to maintain their weight since they tend to exercise and move less and have less muscle tone. One reason older adults tend to gain belly fat is because they continue to eat the same amount of calories as when they were younger, but they are less active. This is especially true for women post-menopause, as a drop in estrogen levels has been directly linked to fat storage in the midsection.
What can be difficult is that as you age, you need higher levels of certain nutrients than you did when you were younger. These nutrients include vitamin D, calcium, protein, and fiber. That is the reason it is important to eat a varied diet that contains lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and fish.
Calcium and vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D are two of the most important nutrients for bone health. Calcium helps maintain bone health, while vitamin D is essential in helping the body absorb the calcium. Eating enough dairy products and leafy, green vegetables can help you get enough calcium in your diet, but if you are deficient in Vitamin D, your body will not process the calcium correctly and could result in bone loss.
Many older adults are deficient in Vitamin D as skin becomes less efficient at synthesizing the vitamin from foods and sunlight, so they may need additional Vitamin D supplementation. Talk with your doctor about your specific needs for these two important nutrients.
Even though you need fewer calories as you age, it’s important to still get enough protein. Protein is vital for tissue growth, repair, and maintenance. Most adults need between 45-60 mg of protein per day. Good choices for protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, eggs, and legumes.
Eating enough fiber is even more important as you age. Not only can it help keep you regular, it can also lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is also good for your skin and can aid in weight loss. Women over 50 should get at least 21 grams of fiber each day, while men over 50 should aim for at least 30 grams per day.
Fiber is best when consumed naturally from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It can also be taken as a supplement, which can be helpful if you suffer from constipation, which is common as you age and your digestive system changes. Talk with your doctor about your specific fiber needs.
A word about water
Older adults can become more prone to dehydration because their sense of thirst is not as acute. Drinking enough water every day is also important to reduce your risks of urinary tract infections (which can be more common as you age) as well as reducing risks for constipation and confusion.
To stay hydrated, you don’t have to stick to plain water. Beverages like seltzers, non-caffeinated herbal teas, and juices can count toward your daily water intake; just be careful of extra calories, especially in fruit juices. You can also get water from fruits and vegetables especially watermelon, berries, cucumbers, and lettuce.
Eating a healthy diet that focuses on getting these important nutrients, as well as drinking enough water, can help you stay healthy as you get older.