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Nutritional Needs as We Age

Nutritional needs for older adults change for many reasons, here are a few,

Reduced caloric needs
As people age they can become less active, muscle mass is reduced which logically leads to a reduced need for calories. However, the need for nutrients is pretty much the same with the exception that some nutrient needs increase (calcium, for example). According to the Penn State Nutrition and Extension Partnership Project, “An older woman would need to consume approximately four servings of dairy products a day which would account for one-third of her daily caloric intake.” Focusing on nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, deeply colored fruits and vegetables, lean meats and beans is the best way of continuing adequate nutritional intake, but it can be difficult to consume enough food to get the nutritional benefit if appetite is reduced.

Oral health
Gum disease or ill fitting dentures make chewing difficult. Fresh vegetables and fruits like carrots and apples may not be on the daily menu as they once were.

Digestive intolerance
This can show up as common abdominal discomforts like nausea, gastritis, and diarrhea. Reduction of digestive enzymes, at any age, makes it unlikely that food is being properly digested. In this case nutrients will not be adequately absorbed and sufficient nutritional intake is unlikely.

General health
Because older adults are more vulnerable to illnesses, they may take one or more prescription medications. The side effects of some medications are many and can include nausea, changes to taste sensations, bloating, and more. Prescription drugs can also have adverse interactions with vitamins, supplements and herbs which includes blocking the absorption of some nutrients.

Socioeconomic factors
Older folks might also be less likely to prepare meals if they are living alone or suffering bereavement or depression. After retirement they might also have less income and might be inclined to save money by purchasing less nutritious foods.

Tips and ideas
Even though there are many challenges to maintaining good health in the golden years it’s never too late to start by focusing on a diet based on nutrient-rich foods and paying close attention to personal nutritional needs. In addition to consulting with a health care provider or nutritionist/ dietitian, keeping a daily food journal can be an easy way to get in touch with your body’s changing requirements. If you are aware of how the food you eat affects the way you feel, you’ll be more likely to head off any problems as they occur.

While headlines will continue to tell us all about the latest and greatest “fountains of youth” and anti-aging therapies, it is imperative that close attention is paid to individual needs. For example, taking too much folate, either as a supplement or through foods highly fortified with that vitamin, may mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. Other nutrients that can cause more harm than good if taken in high dosages are iron, zinc and vitamin A. (Briefly: Older adults may not process preformed vitamin A leading to a weakening of the bones. Too much iron is thought to create free radicals in the body, speeding aging and raising risk of heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. More that 75 mg per day of zinc could inhibit your immunity instead of enhancing it.)

One statement by Penn State says, “Multivitamin and mineral supplementation has been shown to improve B-vitamin status and homocysteine levels which may reduce risks of cerebrovascular disease and hypertension” is stated with conviction but another says that while “antioxidant vitamins indicated that antioxidant defense in older adults can be improved, further research is needed.” Experts can vacillate and seem to contradict themselves and this can make research difficult. Everything in moderation has never been more important, but it is equally important to stay informed.

Vitamins and minerals
Dosages of the following vitamins and mineral have been recently discussed by many experts as being most important for aging adults.

  • Vitamin B6: Up to 100 mgs needed for forming red blood cells and to keep you healthy. Get it in lean meats, beans, nuts, bananas.
  • Vitamin B12: Somewhere between 25 micrograms (mcg) and 1000mcg daily needed to maintain a healthy central nervous system, which includes memory and cognitive function. Food sources are lean meats, low fat milk and eggs, but supplementation is advised for older adults.
  • Vitamin C: 200 mg: 2,000 mg—Maintains healthy gums, assists in healing wounds, and helps the body use iron. Found in papaya, red peppers, oranges, broccoli, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
  • Vitamin D: Experts still state that 400 international units (iu) is enough but researchers have been discussing amounts at 1000 iu and higher to promote health and immunity, not just maintain health. Get it in liver, fish and fish oils and dairy products as well as sunshine. In the winter months supplementation is advised. (The Vitamin D Fact Sheet from the Nation Institute of Health will be revised later in the fall of 2007 based on the results of the NIH/ODS conference)
  • Vitamin E: Controversy still haunts this vitamin, but in all my research I find that 200iu–400 iu is still recommended daily. It protects cell membranes and other fat-soluble parts of the body and has immune-enhancing effects. Find it in vegetable oils, almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts and peanut butter.
  • Calcium: 1,200 mg—Essential to maintain strong bones and teeth. Foods containing calcium are low fat dairy, salmon, tofu, dark leafy greens and broccoli.