Nourishing your body with proper nutrition can help you stay healthy and active for longer. As we celebrate National Nutrition Month throughout March, there is no better time to reflect on our current health habits and identify areas for improvement. Many factors can influence the nutrition status of older adults including changes to how well we absorb and break down foods. But the good news is, there are action steps you can take now to improve your nutrition and set yourself up for success as you journey through late adulthood.
Calcium & Vitamin D
Bone health is often a topic of conversation as we age due to increased risk of osteoporosis. Adequate calcium and vitamin D intake play a critical role in maintaining healthy, strong bones. About 99% of calcium in the body is stored in bones and teeth. When calcium is severely lacking in the diet it will pull from those storage areas, creating weak and brittle bones or teeth. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, so deficiencies in either can be troublesome for bone health. For those 70 years and older, aim for 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D every day.
A few ideas to help you reach these targets:
- Aim for 3 servings of vitamin D fortified dairy products every day
- Include fatty fish such as tuna and salmon twice per week
- Add calcium-fortified cereals into your breakfast routine
- Egg yolks provide vitamin D, don’t skip them in your morning scramble
- Boost your bean intake by snacking on dry roasted chickpeas
- Enjoy time in the sunshine
Protein & Vitamin B12
Protein is a key nutrient for older adults as it impacts energy balance, immune health, and acts as a building block for muscles and bones. While muscle loss, called sarcopenia, is a natural part of aging, research has found that seniors may benefit from increased protein intake, as it can help slow loss and preserve muscle mass.
As you consider increasing protein in your diet, keep in mind that absorption of vitamin B12, which is primarily found in animal foods, decreases with age. Due to that, it becomes even more important to include adequate protein from animal foods such as meat, seafood, and dairy products. B12 is essential for a healthy nervous system, cognitive function, and preventing anemia which can cause low energy and tiredness. However, consuming protein from a variety of sources, including plant-based, is important for overall health and enjoyment. While salmon and walnuts are known for their omega-3 content, beans and legumes are a good source of fiber, all of which can be heart protective. The National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging recommends that older adults consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. For example, a 170-pound person would need 77 to 93 grams of protein every day.
Here are simple ways to boost protein:
- Enjoy Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, or hardboiled eggs as a snack
- Stir peanut butter into your morning oatmeal
- Keep canned beans and tuna on-hand as an easy salad addition
- Have a glass of milk with dinner
- Try batch cooking protein for the week to ensure it’s ready to go when you are
Fiber & Fluid
Digestion changes with age and can lead to issues such as constipation. Focusing on fiber and fluid intake can be a great way to get ahead of any problems. Foods that are rich in fiber provide beneficial nutrients such as important vitamins and minerals, and are helpful for maintaining balanced blood sugars. Furthermore, fiber can help lower cholesterol and provide beneficial bacteria to our digestive tract. Seek fiber from nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Recommendations suggest 28 grams daily fiber for men and 22 grams for women 51 years and older.
It’s important to note that as you add more fiber to your day, you will also need to increase fluids. Together, fiber and fluid can help maintain regular bowel movements. As we age our thirst signals decrease leading to a higher chance of experiencing dehydration. So, don’t wait to drink until you’re thirsty, instead be sure to sip throughout the day.
Focus on fiber by trying these ideas:
- Use hummus as a sandwich spread on whole wheat bread
- Snack on berries, nuts, or roasted edamame
- Sprinkle flaxseed meal or chia seeds over yogurt
- Add canned beans to savory dishes like tacos
- Swap in whole grains: whole wheat pasta, quinoa, oats, and brown rice
Think about your drink:
- Choose a smoothie for breakfast with milk, water, or juice as your base
- On the go? Bring your water bottle
- Enjoy beverages with meal and snack times
- Food can be hydrating too! Snack on cucumbers, watermelon, or strawberries
Good nutrition is important no matter your age, but as we enter late adulthood certain nutrients become increasingly important and should take center stage in the diet. Keep in mind that many of the foods discussed above serve up a variety of benefits. For example, dairy products provide calcium, vitamin D, and protein; paired with berries for fiber and you have the perfect snack that packs a punch of nutrition. Simply put, being mindful to balance your plate with a variety of nutrient-dense foods can play a key role in keeping the body strong and thriving, so you can enjoy doing the things you love most! Lastly, a bit of wisdom from the iconic actress, Betty White, who said it well, “The older you get, the better you get. Unless you’re a banana.”
For free nutrition programs available through The GIANT company, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/o/the-giant-company-nutritionists-18689796139
Holly Doan, RD, LDN, The GIANT Company Dietitian
Sunshine Campen, PSU Graduate Student