As we age our nutrition needs vary greatly.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, people should consume the right types and amounts of food to support their nutritional requirements. This generally consists of a variety of foods from the five food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains, lean meat and alternatives and dairy products and alternatives), while also limiting foods that contain saturated fats, added sugar and/or salt and alcohol.
However, our nutritional needs change over time and there are multiple factors that can affect how and what we should eat.
Liam Beecroft, accredited practising dietitian for Remedy Healthcare, says lifestyle changes – such as a reduced ability to purchase and cook foods as well as a physiological reduction in appetite – can make it harder for older people to obtain the recommended amount of nutrients that are essential to managing general health.
“Our nutritional requirements for each vitamin and mineral vary as we age,” Liam says. “This is a result of physiological factors impacting our ability to absorb or convert a nutrient to a useable form. As we age, protein is needed increasingly for tissue repair and maintenance.”
So then, what are the nutritional priorities for older people?
Protein, calcium, vitamins D and B12, and good hydration are key.
Throughout adulthood, protein requirements vary based on sex, activity level and the presence of illness. However, after the age of 70 our protein requirements increase for tissue maintenance. By consuming more meat, legumes, fish, chicken, eggs and tofu, we can maintain a healthy level of protein in our diet.
Calcium plays a vital role in maintaining our bone density. However, for women, hormonal changes at the time of menopause cause more rapid bone loss, requiring an increased need for calcium (1,300mg per day). For men over 70, an increased amount of calcium (also 1,300mg per day) will also be necessary. Good sources of calcium include tinned sardines, dairy (cheese/milk/yoghurt), tinned salmon with bones, canned chickpeas and dried figs.
Vitamin D improves the absorption of calcium through the intestines and is therefore key in building and maintaining bone health. A small number of foods – oily fish, liver, eggs – contain, or are fortified with, limited vitamin D however food is not a meaningful source and supplementation is likely needed.
Eaden Rountree, accredited practising dietitian for Remedy Healthcare, says our overall energy levels and immune functions are greatly affected by what we eat.
“In older age more commonly, osteoporosis can relate to insufficient vitamin D and calcium,” Eaden says. “Constipation can result from inadequate fibre and fluids, and inadequate protein in our diet can influence muscle weakness and increase the likelihood of falls.”
A large portion of older adults suffer from a condition that causes reduced gastric acidity. This interferes with their ability to absorb vitamin B12. Higher intakes of vitamin B12 foods such as red meat, milk and dairy products may be required for people with this condition.
Water is critical for maintaining normal bodily functions such as digestion, hydration and appropriate blood volume. Due to changes as we age, identifying thirst cues can become more difficult, so older people should aim for at least 6 cups of water (more on warmer days or if you’re exercising) per day.
Liam says it’s also important to limit the amount of salt we consume, as exceeding our sodium requirements can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
“High salt foods such as hot chips, crisps, savory biscuits, manufactured meats like ham and bacon, and tomato and soy sauces should be limited, and it is encouraged to cook with a variety of herbs and spices instead,” Liam says.