by Jeannie Versagli, RD
How do our nutritional needs change with age?
As the body ages, physiological changes take place that can impact nutrition and health. They are:
- A decline in thirst. The body becomes unable to recognize the thirst sensation, and hydration problems occur.
- A decline in smell and taste that may affect appetite since eating becomes less “enjoyable.”
- A decline in kidney function which compromises the body’s ability to maintain its water balance, increasing chances of developing dehydration.
- Loss in lean muscle mass. The average adult loses three to eight percent of their lean muscle mass each decade over age 30.
- A decrease in the absorption of vitamin D. Aging skin is less able to convert sunlight into vitamin D.
- A decrease of stomach acid in the gut, resulting in poor absorption of vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Studies show that 10 to 30 percent of the population over age 50 are at risk for the malabsorption of these nutrients.
- A decrease in metabolism and a growing need to consume more nutrient-dense calories.
To understand the negative effects of aging, it is critical to know the proper nutritional approaches necessary to counteract the body’s aging process.
What role does nutrition play in promoting healthy aging?
As we age, it is important for individuals to consume a well-balanced diet to influence and minimize the aging process. Research shows that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and cold-water fish fights oxidative stress and reduces inflammation in the body, thus slowing the aging process. Consuming the following foods will provide an excellent source of nutrients necessary to reduce the body’s aging process.
- Blueberries, raspberries, and tomatoes are packed with phytochemicals and work to minimize inflammation and improve memory.
- Almonds are a good source of magnesium and protein.
- Flaxseed, chia seeds, avocados, nuts, and cold-water fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber that help reduce inflammation.
- Spinach, pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach, and parsley are good sources of fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
- Greek yogurt provides an excellent source of probiotics, calcium, protein, and vitamin D.
- Turmeric and garlic are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
- Cocoa is high in flavonoids, which provide a good source of antioxidants. It is recommended to consume cocoa products with 75 percent cocoa or more.
- Protein needs increase with aging. It is recommended to consume 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight of lean protein. Good sources of protein are poultry, fish, nuts, beans, and legumes.
The Mediterranean diet provides excellent sources of these nutrients. Following these dietary guidelines will decrease the chances of developing high blood pressure, heart and cardiac diseases, and cancer while improving cognition.
Why is protein important for the elderly?
As we age, muscle turns to fat; this is the natural progression of aging. We know that the average adult loses three to eight percent of their lean muscle mass each decade over age 30. Protein intake and strength training programs need to be adjusted to accommodate these changes as we age to ward off additional losses. Ensuring that the body receives adequate protein will allow you to maintain proper muscle function, prevent chronic disease, manage weight, improve cardiovascular function, and prevent muscle wasting. Research suggests that as you age, adjusting the percentage of macronutrients consumed is recommended. With aging, changing protein intake upwards of 30 to 35 percent per day is recommended for individuals 65 and older. Look to consume 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to reach this goal. Protein sources should include high-quality lean proteins such as poultry, fish, nuts, nut butters, beans, legumes, low-fat Greek yogurt, whey, and or pea proteins.
Are there certain foods that accelerate the aging process?
Yes, certain foods will cause inflammation in the body, which accelerates the aging processes. These foods are:
- Foods with simple sugars: cakes, cookies, pies, corn syrup, sugar, and ice cream.
- Hydrogenated fats and trans fats: french fries, fried foods, and margarine.
- Processed meats: bacon, luncheon meats, sausages, hot dogs, and scrapple.
- Alcohol consumption outside the recommended guidelines.
- Artificial sweeteners – these alter gut microbiomes and affect cognition. Natural sweeteners such as stevia, erythritol, xylitol, and yucan syrup are best for sweetening foods.
It is important to avoid these foods and focus on incorporating high-antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. Following the Mediterranean diet provides the necessary nutrients to fight off the aging process.
What is the impact of aging on eating behaviors and food choices?
Aging causes many physiological and sociological changes. Cooking for others often motivates one to engage in eating and cooking, but many older adults live by themselves and thus have no incentives to prepare meals or eat. Research shows that eating meals in the company of others improves meal consumption. A simple invitation to have dinner with a friend or family member can make a huge impact on proper diet consumption. Dropping off meals to neighbors or loved ones you know are alone can also improve their nutritional outcomes. Another way to help older adults to eat healthily is to encourage them to purchase prepared meals that can be heated up quickly and provide a nutritionally balanced meal.
Dental problems develop with age, often resulting in an inability to consume fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods. These foods are packed with powerful nutrients, and when it becomes difficult to chew, these foods are often avoided. Softer foods tend not to be as nutrient-dense and therefore do not supply adequate nutrients to these individuals. The focus needs to be on small, frequent, high-energy meals. Look to consuming Greek yogurt with soft fruits, cheese, and crackers, or hummus on English muffins or pita bread. Peanut butter sandwiches and custards are also good to have on hand, as they help improve nutritional status for adults that struggle with eating a meal.
Nutritional needs do change through the life cycle. The challenges that come with age are the physiological and sociological changes that occur. Knowing what specific nutrients to include daily can effectively slow down the aging process and provide a better quality of life to all.
Understanding how proper nutrition can positively influence aging is vital for good health. Nutrition is your path to wellness.