How Our Nutrition Needs
Change as We Age
Ageing naturally requires, and sometimes, demands adjustments in lifestyle. It manifests physically, like reduced skin thickness, and internally, like less stomach acids. As you age, preserving the health of your bones, brain, and muscles are crucial, so you must watch what you eat. This need differs by age as well as individuals. For instance, a 50-year old woman requires a least 2.1L of fluid per day, while a male of the same age would require about 2.6L.
Generally, we understand nutritional requirements based on food classes like proteins, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins, their significant functions like energy-giving or body-building, and how each affects our mental and physical health. Building on that familiarity, the following are the nutritional changes our body requires as we age.
Changes in Protein Needs
At an early age, the body absorbs protein quickly and easily and uses it to build muscles, increase bone density, and boost the immune system. On the other hand, ageing comes with a condition known as sarcopenia. This means there’s an involuntary loss of muscle function and strength, and starts happening as early as your forties.
This condition implies relying upon the usual protein consumption as we age is insufficient. As the body becomes less efficient at utilising protein, it’s essential to incorporate more high-quality protein sources into our diet and take it further with easy but consistent exercises. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the daily protein intake from age 50 should be at least 46g for females and 64g for males. Simply put, apart from the usual meat and egg, explore other protein sources like seafood, chickpeas, and lentils.
Changes in Nutritional Needs for Minerals and Vitamins
Minerals and vitamins are nutrients that the body needs in relatively small quantities to function optimally. As we age, we should pay special attention to potassium, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B-12. The good news is you can get these nutrients from similar kinds of food, especially fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Osteoporosis and osteopenia are common bone health conditions among older adults. Over 66% of Australian adults over 50 have this condition, and the nutrition-based method of avoiding it is consuming adequate calcium, potassium, and vitamin D with a reasonable dose of exercise. Deficiency in potassium can also cause mood changes and increase the risk of depression.
Calcium and potassium are essential mineral nutrients present in dairy products – milk, yoghurt, and cheese. Fortunately, these same products are good sources of vitamin D after the sun. So, if there’s a reason you can’t get 10-30 minutes of sun every day (in the morning), ensure that your diet caters to that need. Also, if you are out in the sun, be ever vigilant of the sun’s possible effect on your skin and take adequate precautions.
You can also get vitamin D from fish like salmon or a supplement like cod liver oil. For exercises, moderately long daily jogs and walks are fine, but if you’re considering weights or something a bit more hardcore, it’s best to consult a GP for personalised recommendations.
Changes in Dietary Fibre Needs
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), one in three older adults experiences occasional constipation and poor bowel movement. While constipation is not usually severe or fatal, it is often a sign of poor nutrition, causes discomfort, and has been implicated in conditions like colorectal and gastric cancer. Therefore, in this case, prevention is undoubtedly better than cure.
Fibre is an integral part of our nutrient responsible for maintaining healthy digestion and preventing conditions like constipation and gastric cancer. The major sources of fibre are vegetables, wholegrain cereals, fruits, and pretty much all plant-based foods. Try to include these foods in your daily intake, and be careful not to counter the benefit of fibre by over-indulging in sweet or processed foods.
Note: If you have a medical condition like Parkinson’s or diabetes, you’re more likely to experience constipation, and nutrient change might not help much. In this case, it is best to speak to your doctor about the best way to handle constipation.
Cholesterol exists in the body as low-density lipoprotein (bad) and high-density lipoprotein (good). At a younger age, fat is a source of body fuel and helps with vitamin absorption. However, having a high quantity of saturated and trans fat in your diet as you age puts you at risk of heart disease and stroke. This is because the processing rate for these fats is significantly lower, which means a higher chance of clogging the arteries. Common sources of these bad fats are pastries, processed meat, pizza, and fried foods.
An alternative to bad fat is fats and oils from plants and fish. Examples are avocado, palm oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, and nuts. These alternatives lower the level of bad cholesterol in the blood by moving it to the liver, which removes it. The easiest way to avoid bad fats is to pay attention to food labels, read them, and pick carefully.
Salt and Sugar Consumption
Too much salt equals high blood pressure, and too much sugar threatens the heart and is a potential recipe for obesity. As we age, it is crucial to reduce our salt and sugar intake, by increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and, preferably, homemade meals. The World Health Organisation recommends about one teaspoon of salt a day and not morethan 6 teaspoons of sugar a day.
Some alternatives to salt while cooking are natural herbs and spices. They don’t just serve as a healthy substitute for salt; they also provide a new and enjoyable experience for every meal.
Water Consumption Changes
Water is an essential part of our nutrients to regulate body temperature, maintain hydration, and improve digestion. One of the side effects of ageing is that the body slowly fails to recognise the feeling of thirst and the need for water. If you’re not careful, you can go dehydrated for an entire day without realising it.
An easy way to address this loss of function is to be deliberate about water intake, more so during warm weather. Make a water bottle an essential part of your daily kit as you work, step out of the house, or exercise. Remember to refill that bottle at least twice daily because you can only refill if you drink.
In addition to age, gender, past and current daily activities, the weather and previous health conditions also influence your nutritional needs and dietary choices. Therefore, no matter how much you follow the information here or on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, it is still important to consult your personal health adviser. Remember that your nutrition affects your physical, mental, and social health, so eat healthy and stay healthy.
Food Standard Australia New Zealand: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/nutrition/Pages/default.aspx [Accessed on 27th of March, 2023]
Healthy Bone Australia: https://healthybonesaustralia.org.au/your-bone-health/about-bones/ [Accessed on 21st of March, 2023]
National Institute of Health: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/concerned-about-constipation [Accessed on 21st of March, 2023]
Health Victoria: https://doi.org/10.1097/00075197-200401000-00006