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.
The health risks of poor nutrition
Poor nutrition can have many detrimental effects on both our physical and mental health.
Physical conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers can be influenced by our dietary choices. Poor diet can also have a negative influence on mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
Eaden says older people should be encouraged to focus on their overall food choices and eating nutrient-dense foods to ensure a healthy lifestyle.
“Consume a variety of foods from the five food groups by eating lots of different coloured fruits and vegetables as well as legumes, wholegrains, lean meats, low-fat dairy (or alternatives) and nuts and seeds,” Eaden says. “By doing so, you will ensure your nutritional requirements are being met. It’s also a good idea to get regular blood tests to monitor any nutrient inadequacies.”
Quick and healthy meal options
As mentioned, shopping and cooking can be an issue for the elderly. Therefore, purchasing foods that have a long shelf life as well as being easy to prepare is paramount in helping older adults meet their nutritional requirements.
Liam says frozen vegetables, tinned fish and canned legumes are healthy and quick options to have available.
“Opting for salt-reduced or no added salt is best,” Liam says. “Other good examples are no added salt canned vegetables, canned soup, tinned fruit (in fruit juice not syrup), tinned beans, and tinned meat such as tuna.
“You can also help by adding Greek or low-fat yoghurt to cereals, or having baked beans, eggs, peanut butter or sardines instead of jam/marmalade on toast. Opt for lean meats such as chicken in sandwiches instead of deli meats. Other lean meats such as pork or other trimmed red meat can be served with a variety of salad or steamed vegetables.
“And dessert? Tinned fruit (in juice) with yoghurt, custard or ice cream is ideal!”
An Australian Unity health partner, Remedy Healthcare provides targeted, solution-oriented healthcare that is based on clinically proven techniques. In the past ten years, they have worked with more than 75,000 Australians – helping them to manage their health through caring, coaching, empowerment and support.