How Do Our Nutritional Needs Change As We Age?

by | Oct 2020

A collection of picthers containing fruit water.

Photo: Tate Carlson

An expert explains how nutritional needs alter over time.

Nutritional health isn’t a one-stop-shop proposition. While we alter diets for children and teens for proper growth and development, how many of us understand the importance of adjusting food intake as we age? For advice, we turned to Toni Swanson, RDN, CSG, LD, registered dietitian/nutritionist at Plymouth’s Trillium Woods, a senior living community.

Why do nutritional needs change?
TS: Our calorie needs decrease as people age due to a decrease in metabolism rate from a decrease in lean body mass. We experience a decrease in immune function, hearing function, stomach acid secretion and gastric emptying. This leads to a decrease in appetite and absorption of nutrients. Older adults also experience a decrease in pancreatic enzymes and liver function (the liver size actually decreases).

Furthermore, adults ages 55 and older often have a reduced number of taste cells from the salivary glands. This decrease, along with an accompanying increase in medications, can change flavor recognition and make foods unappetizing.

Additionally, a person’s level of physical activity typically decreases with age, which affects weight management, blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and even cognitive and emotional functioning.

What foods should be limited?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, everyone should limit intake of saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium.

Are frozen meals a good option?
On one hand, they can be a good source of protein and vegetables, but on the other hand, it’s important to watch the sodium content, to ensure you’re staying below the Dietary Guidelines’ recommended 2,300 milligrams or less of sodium per day.

I have found that Healthy Choice Café Steamers are the best options for lower sodium, yet balanced meals.

How many meals a day?
It may be tempting to skip a meal here and there, but older adults should stick to three to six meals per day to help maintain the metabolism rate, as well as meeting calorie and nutrient needs.

Let’s talk dining out.
Most restaurants have their menu posted online, so you can look at your options ahead of time … It is always great to split a meal at a restaurant since the portion sizes tend [larger than] what we actually need. Don’t have someone to share with? Ask to get half of your meal in a doggy bag.

How about water …
The goal for water intake at any age is 8-10 glasses of water per day … Drink water and other beverages on a schedule … Add flavor to your water, including low- or no-calorie sweetener; fruit (limes, lemons, oranges or strawberries); spices (rosemary, cinnamon or mint); and vegetables (cucumbers).

… and alcohol intake?
At any age, but particularly for older adults, moderation is key. This means two glasses of wine or beer for men per day and one glass of wine or beer for women per day.

What about malnutrition?
According to the National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging, half of older adults are at risk for malnutrition, which can lead to more falls, complications and hospital readmissions.

Toni Swanson, RDN, CSG, LD, registered dietitian/nutritionist at Trillium Woods highlights additional dietary information pertinent to people ages 55 and older.

She explains that this age group often experiences decreased absorption of the following nutrients due to reduced stomach acid secretion and intrinsic factors. (Nutrient-rich food are also included for each nutrient listed.)

  • Vitamin B-12 (clams, liver, chicken, beef, fish, dairy and eggs)
  • Vitamin B-6 (chickpeas, liver, tuna, salmon, chicken, fortified cereal, bananas, and potatoes)
  • Calcium (milk, yogurt, soy/rice milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, processed cheese, ready-to-eat pudding, salmon, cottage cheese and tofu)
  • Zinc: Foods high in Zinc include red meat, oysters, poultry, fortified breakfast cereals, peanuts, beans, nuts, and whole grains.
  • Vitamin D (fatty fish (like salmon), mushrooms, sardines, fortified milk, fortified orange juice and yogurt)

Note: Older adults are often deficient in Vitamin D due to lack of sun exposure, in addition to lower consumption of foods containing the nutrient. The intestines of older adults also have fewer Vitamin D receptors, and kidneys become less capable of converting Vitamin D into its active form as we age. It is recommended that adults take a Vitamin D supplement. (Adults up to age 70 should consume 600 IU per day, and adults over the age of 70 should consume about 800 IU per day.)


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