As our body changes, so should our nutrition. And while food and diet are not substitutes for taking doctor prescribed medications, nutrition can support whole body health, especially when you work with an experienced dietitian to determine your unique needs. In this blog, I’ll discuss some of the normal and natural changes the body experiences as you age and how your nutrition can be adjusted to meet your changing needs.
Food for the Elderly starts with honoring changes that occur in our body
The mouth is the entry point to our digestive system and plays a large role in what we eat. Our taste buds begin to change when we are older, so the food we once loved to eat, might not be as appetizing anymore. The structural integrity of our mouth might also change to make chewing or swallowing food much harder, increasing our preference for softer foods. Along with taste, our ability to perceive thirst diminishes, which can lead to increased risk of dehydration.
Once we reach 40, our bone mass starts to decline, meaning by the time we’ve reached 60 the strength of our bones has decreased significantly. This weakening increases the risk of osteoporosis. The word osteoporosis literally means “porous bones.” It occurs when bones lose an excessive amount of their protein and mineral content, particularly calcium. Age isn’t the only contributing factor to bone weakness. Lack of physical movement, vitamin D, and calcium contribute to accelerated bone loss as well. Estrogen also plays a key role in keeping bones strong. Estrogen production declines significantly with menopause, leading to dramatic decreases in bone density.
Bone mass isn’t the only thing decreasing as age increases. Lean muscle mass tends to decrease as body fat increases over time. This results in the slowing of your body’s metabolism, meaning your body doesn’t require as much fuel as it did before. For women, menopause not only affects bones but also metabolism. The decrease in estrogen (and progesterone) can greatly impact the decrease of muscle mass, thus decreasing metabolism.
With each unique physical change your body experiences comes the opportunity to tailor your nutrition to better meet your needs. A slowing metabolism often means your body needs less food, while simultaneously requiring more nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and fiber to support your bones, muscles, and digestion. It is important to eat high quality, nutrient dense food versus a high quantity of foods with low nutrient profile. A discussion of the specific nutrients your body needs and the high quality foods in which to find them follows.
Key Nutrients for Food for the Elderly
Calcium is so important for bone strength that once men reach the age of 70 and women 51, the daily requirement INCREASES from 1,000 mg to 1,200 mg! Inadequate calcium intake will lead to weakened bones and increased fractures, increasing one’s risk of osteoporosis. Food for the Elderly foods high in calcium include:
- Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, and milk
- Bok choy, kale, and edamame
- Fortified beverages (e.g. almond milk, soy milk)
- Fortified cereals.
Aim for 3-4 servings of dairy or dairy substitute products a day to get the calcium you need. Try our Greek yogurt chocolate mousse or this cranberry and orange smoothie to try incorporating more dairy. Want to try dairy free? Check out our kale and sausage soup or our kale and quinoa super salad!
Vitamin D plays a key role in calcium absorption, meaning that having it is essential to put all that calcium you’re eating to strengthen your bones. Once you reach 70, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) increases from 600 international units (IU) to 800 IU. You might get a good dose of vitamin D if you spend the day outside when it’s sunny. But as we age not only do we spend less time outside but our body can’t make vitamin D as efficiently as it did before. Food for the Elderly foods that are high in vitamin D include:
- Fish like salmon, mackerel, carp, trou, tuna
- Egg yolks
- Fortified cereals
- Yogurt and milk
You can also have lab work done by your healthcare team to see if a vitamin D3 supplement is needed.
A few of our favorite vitamin D-rich recipes include this maple baked salmon, sardine and roasted tomato toast, and tuna pasta salad.
While the recommended amount of B-12 is not higher for seniors (2.4 mcg a day), the body’s ability to absorb it from food decreases with age. This makes consuming enough B-12 harder but still very important as a deficiency can result in constipation, sore mouth or tongue, anemia, fatigue, stomach issues, unintended weight loss, confusion, and neurological changes. It is recommended that the recommended daily amount is consumed through fortified foods or supplements like fortified nutritional yeast and cereal. Food for the Elderly foods high in B12 include:
- Beef liver
- Dairy products like yogurt, milk, and cheese
Let’s not forget about Fiber as an important part of Food for the Elderly. Fiber aids greatly in digestion as it can help keep you regular, keep you full longer, and maintain a healthy weight. Fiber also lowers the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes by lowering cholesterol. The recommended amount for men age 51+ is 30 g/ day and for women +51 it is 21 g/day– but most Americans don’t consume anywhere near enough. To increase your fiber, plan to start slow. Too much all at once can cause uncomfortable gas and constipation. Consider incorporating 1-2 fiber full foods into your diet a day for a week and increase slowly from there. It’s also important to remember to hydrate! Fiber works best when there is enough lubrication to move things comfortably through your digestive tract. Good sources of fiber include:
Whole wheat bread, cereals, and pastas
- Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, spinach, and green peas
- Legumes like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
- Fresh fruit like berries, apples, bananas, and oranges
- Dried fruit like dates and prunes
- Nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, pistachios, flax seeds, and chia seeds
Looking for high fiber options to try throughout the day? Consider our baked almond chocolate oatmeal for breakfast, bean and corn quesadilla for lunch, blueberry smoothie for a snack, chunky lentil soup for dinner, and black bean brownies for dessert!
Our bodies go through a lot in our lifetimes! Focus on setting small, realistic goals to help give your body what it needs. Avoid feeling overwhelmed by too many changes by implementing dietary changes one at a time. For example, try focusing on increasing your calcium intake by adding 2 servings of yogurt to your diet for one week. Small, sustainable changes are the ones that will make the most impact. Remember, feeding your body the nutrients it needs will help make these years the best years of your life.
Next Steps for Food for the Elderly
If you want additional help for your own nutrition or the nutrition of a loved one, please make an appointment to see one of our dietitians. We’d love to help you make the most of life! We would also love to hear what you think of this Food for the Elderly blog in the comments section.
Blog contributions from Amaris Galik.
Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients. Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.