Dr. Jeffrey B. Blumberg
It is always a challenge to eat healthfully and know you are getting the right amount of essential nutrients and other important dietary constituents like fiber and phytochemicals. This challenge is even harder for adults over 50 years as their physical activity and the total amount of food they consume declines with advancing age. While eating less may result in fewer calories consumed and match their lower energy (calorie) requirement, it becomes harder to meet their requirement for vitamins and minerals which remain the same as younger adults or, in some cases as recent research shows, are actually higher. Therefore, it is more important for older adults to choose mostly nutrient-rich foods like fruit and vegetables, whole grains, eggs, fish, and low-fat dairy products and eat less of foods like cookies, candies, and potato chips.
As our bodies grow older, they have different needs and certain nutrients become especially important to support good health. Aging is associated with a loss of bone (osteopenia or osteoporosis) and muscle (sarcopenia) as well as decrements in the function of the blood vessels, kidney, lungs, eyes, and other tissues. Getting all the nutrients you need could help slow down some of these changes. For example, older adults need more calcium and vitamin D to maintain their bone health and more vitamin B6 to maintain their metabolism of carbohydrate, fat, and protein than younger people require. These changes become even more marked in people over 70 years old. Further, due to age-associated decreases in the acidity of their stomach, many older people cannot readily absorb nutrients like iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12, essential nutrients important for many functions including the support of healthy red blood cells. Though often not thought of as a nutrient, water is essential for everyone but, as we age, thirst is not triggered as well even as we become dehydrated, so special attention is needed to avoid this problem. Foods and beverages with a high water content such as fruit, vegetable juice, and low-sodium soups can be important in maintaining good hydration in older people.
In addition to the aging process itself, a number of drugs can impair the absorption and use of nutrients in the body. As older people take more medications and take them more frequently than other age group, particular attention is needed to their nutrition by healthcare providers. For examples, antacids impair the absorption of folic acid, vitamin B12, and zinc; some diuretics (water pills) increase the elimination of calcium, potassium, and thiamin; and some anti-inflammatory drugs counteract the effects of vitamin C, folic acid, and iron. Supplementation with these nutrients may be necessary to offset these untoward side effects of the drugs.
If you are over 50, you can help face the challenge of meeting your nutrient needs and supporting body functions by choosing more whole grains and fortified cereals, bright-colored vegetables like carrots and broccoli, deep-colored fruit such as berries and melon, and low- or non-fat dairy products like yogurt. You should also try to get more “good fats” by eating fish and nuts and seeds and selecting sources of high quality protein like eggs, dry beans, and poultry. And a multivitamin supplement with minerals can help ensure that no shortfall in essential nutrients occurs while you are working toward this goal.