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Senior Nutrition: 5 Essential Nutrients & How to Get Them

As we age, the body’s digestion process slows and requires we understand what nutrients we need most. In this article, we take a look at senior nutrition and the essential nutrients you may be missing.

Why Do Our Nutritional Needs Change as We Age?

As the human body ages, many changes take place that may require people to alter their lifestyle, activity and diet. 

One reason that dietary needs change in seniors is that, as we age, we become less active. When physical activity decreases, metabolism slows and the body’s energy requirement can drop. This means that seniors typically need to eat less to satisfy the body’s energy requirement.

Older adults’ abilities to absorb and utilize nutrients also becomes less efficient, meaning that senior nutrition requirements actually increase. Unlike other age groups, weight loss can be dangerous in some older adults because it can signal decreases in muscle mass, which over time can lead to falls or weaker bones.

Additionally, chronic conditions and medications can impact senior nutrition requirements. Factors such as any changes in dental health and bowel habits; diseases requiring less salt or sugar intake; difficulty swallowing; as well as lack of mobility or transportation may all impact nutrition requirements, so it’s important to consult your doctor in considering appropriate nutritional requirements. 

How is Food Intake Affected?

A publication from the Institute of Medicine suggests that aging is often associated with a loss of appetite and changes in taste and smell. This alone may lead to more limited food choices and lower intake of healthful foods.

With these changes in mind, older adults need a nutrient-dense diet. Diet quality has an immense impact on physical condition, cognitive condition, bone health, eye health, heart health and the immune system.

What Nutrients Do Seniors Need Most?

When it comes to nutrition, it’s important to consider dietary changes first and foremost, as opposed to taking supplements. The goal of dietary recommendations is to guide a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle; whereas taking too many supplements may come with health risks. Before making any decision about whether to take supplements is a good practice, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider. Your doctor can help advise on tailoring a customized and well-balanced diet that can help you get the nutrients you need. 

Calcium

Starting off our list of nutrients for senior nutrition is an essential building block for bone and overall health. Calcium is a nutrient that seniors may be deficient in due to changes in taste or high-fat or cholesterol-related health complications.

Calcium is a well-known mineral that is necessary for life. Most commonly understood as a vital nutrient for bone health, calcium carries a wealth of other health benefits. Calcium also enables our blood to clot, our muscles to contract and our heart to beat. Fun fact, about 99% of the calcium in the body is in your bones and teeth!

Every day, calcium is lost through skin, nails, hair, sweat, urine and feces. As the body can not produce its own calcium, it is important to get enough of it. Without enough, your body draws calcium from your bones. This is ok once in a while, but, per the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), it can lead to weaker bones which makes them easier to break.

So how much calcium do seniors need? The amount of daily recommended calcium depends on both your age and sex.

  • For women older than 50, the NOF recommends roughy 1,200 milligrams per day.
  • For men between 50 and 70, the recommendation is 1,000 milligrams while increasing to 1,200 milligrams once they are 71 and older.

Foods rich in calcium are dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt – for example, 1,000mg of calcium is present in about three 8-ounce glasses of milk. However, calcium may also be found in many non-dairy sources as well, including: spinach, kale, okra, collards, soybeans, and white beans.

Vitamin D

Like calcium, vitamin D is a building block for bone health and strength. Seniors often lack vitamin D because of changing food taste or lack of sunlight exposure. However, there remains much debate around what constitutes the suggested vitamin D level, so it is important to consult your doctor.

While calcium contributes to strengthening bones, vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and protect your bones. Vitamin D also contributes to muscle health, immune health and protecting older adults from Osteoporosis.

Vitamin D deficiency can be a common problem among older adults, and it can lead to health complications. For one, a deficiency in vitamin D may leave older adults’ bones weaker and more susceptible to fractures and breaks, especially in the case of a fall. In addition to taking care of your bones, visit our blog to read tips on fall prevention for seniors.  

There are three primary sources of vitamin D–food, especially fish and dairy, supplements and sunlight. The body, when exposed to direct sunlight, produces vitamin D. The easiest (and cheapest) way to obtain vitamin D is through our neighborhood star. 

For daily intake, the NOF recommends that both men and women aged 50 and older should aim for 800-1,000 international units (IU) daily. But, they also note that some people need more vitamin D, and a safe upper limit is 4,000 IU per day for most. As mentioned before, there remains some controversy around what constitutes the suggested vitamin D level, so it is best to consult your doctor to help determine the best amount of vitamin D you need. 

Fiber

Dietary fiber is a plant-based nutrient that plays a major role in digestive health. Even though fiber is a carbohydrate, it cannot be broken down into digestible sugar molecules. Fiber deficiency is very common in the United States. Per WebMD, most Americans only get about half of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

Fiber yields a number of benefits that contribute to your overall health. Most notably, fiber aids in digestion. Per LiveScience.com, fiber “improves digestion by increasing stool bulk and regularity,” thus helping to maintain colorectal health. Fiber also helps your body by lowering cholesterol, regulating blood sugar and may even lead to a decreased risk in colorectal cancer.

Low-fiber diets often lead to constipation or irregularity in bowel movements, weight gain and reduced energy. When fiber is not sufficient it also leads to an imbalance in blood sugar levels and inefficiency in the colon.

For older adults, the RDA varies between men and women. In men older than 50, the Institute of Medicine states the RDA should be at least 30 grams per day. For women, the recommendation is at least 21 grams per day. 

Excellent sources of everyday fiber include:

Fruit

  • Raspberries (1 cup = 8.0g
  • Apple, with skin (1 medium =4.5 g)
  • Banana (1 medium = 3.0g)
  • Strawberries (1 cup=3.0g)

Vegetables

  • Green peas, boiled (1 cup=9.0g)
  • Broccoli, boiled (1 cup chopped = 5.0g)
  • Potato, with skin, baked (1 medium =4.0g)
  • Sweet corn, boiled (1 cup = 3.5g)

Whole Grains

  • Spaghetti, whole-wheat, cooked (1 cup = 6.0g)
  • Barley, pearled, cooked (1 cup = 6.0g)
  • Quinoa, cooked (1 cup = 5.0g)
  • Brown rice, cooked (1 cup = 3.5g)

Additionally, there are plenty of fiber supplements available too if you are worried about getting enough.

Potassium

Often underestimated, potassium is a mineral that hosts a number of benefits for your body. According to Healthline.com however, “surveys show that many older Americans don’t get the recommended 4,700 mg of potassium a day.”  

Note: As with calcium and vitamin D, supplements are not great sources of this mineral, and can actually lead to dangerous side effects. Dietary changes are strongly recommended over supplements to help balance appropriate nutrient intake.

So, what is potassium good for? Potassium is essential to senior nutrition for regulating fluid balance, boosting your nervous system, regulating heart contractions and maintaining proper kidney function. With fluid balance, potassium regulates the amount of intracellular fluid (ICF) or the amount of water inside your cells. Consuming potassium is essential for healthy cells and to maintain balance within the body. 

Potassium is also a wonderful way to naturally lower blood pressure for seniors with hypertension (high blood pressure). For people with this condition, it is recommended that you eat between 3,500 mg and 5,000 mg a day.

Too little potassium can lead to a number of complications in the body. Via the NIH, potassium deficiency can increase blood pressure, deplete calcium in bones and increase the risk of kidney stones. A deficiency in potassium may also lead to a condition known as hypokalemia, which, if unchecked, may lead to respiratory failure, paralysis and a breakdown of muscle tissue. 

With the potential dangers in mind, potassium plays a huge role in maintaining your overall health. As mentioned above, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for potassium in older adults is 4,700 milligrams. You can obtain potassium through fruits, certain vegetables, lentils, dairy, poultry and fish. Luckily, potassium is easily attainable through a lot of different foods.

Excellent food sources of potassium, as well as how much they contain in a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving include:

  • Beet greens, cooked: 909 mg
  • Yams, baked: 670 mg
  • White potatoes, baked: 544 mg
  • Soybeans, cooked: 539 mg
  • Avocado: 485 mg
  • Sweet potato, baked: 475 mg
  • Spinach, cooked: 466 mg
  • Edamame beans: 436 mg
  • Salmon, cooked: 414 mg
  • Bananas: 358 mg

Protein

Last on our list of essential senior nutrition needs is protein. For any balanced diet, protein is an especially important nutrient to regularly incorporate into your meals. Changing tastes and dietary restrictions often impact how much protein older adults consume.

Protein is most well known for contributing to muscle growth and repair, but has other benefits as well. Protein is a major building block for cell growth in your hair, skin, nails, bones and internal organs. Additionally, protein is essential for healing from injuries, keeping your fluid levels balanced and maintaining healthy vision.

As essential as protein is, a deficiency may lead to quite a few health complications. Protein deficiency can cause hair thinning, brittle nails and flaky skin. Additionally, protein deficiency leads to a loss of muscle mass, a higher risk of bone fractures and increased severity of illnesses and infections.

For older adults, protein has a significantly higher RDA than for younger people. The normal RDA is around 0.8 grams/kilograms of bodyweight (g/kg). However, older adults need almost double that, and their protein intake should increase to anywhere between 1.2 and 1.5 h/kg per day. To find your personalized RDA, multiply your weight by the number 0.36 to get your recommended intake (in grams) per day. 

There are a lot of great sources of protein. Foods high in protein include lean meat, fish, chicken and eggs, however there are also a lot of non-meat sources of protein as well.  For both meat-eaters and non-meat eaters alike, non-meat sources of protein are important. Not only are non-meat sources of protein less expensive, we actually don’t need to eat meat every day, nor should we. Foods like chickpeas, lentils and beans are great non-meat sources of protein, however, you’ll want to make sure that any canned foods are low-sodium (low-salt).

 

To learn more about protein and its importance in senior nutrition, check out the best protein-rich foods for seniors.
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