You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: A healthy diet consists of lots of fruits, veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats and whole grains.
Pretty straightforward, right? But here’s the thing: As you get older, certain nutrients become increasingly important–either because your body needs more of them to operate optimally, or because the older population is simply not getting enough of them.
The good news is, for most of these nutrients, you can increase your intake simply by adding foods that contain them to your diet. And for those that might be difficult to obtain through diet, a simple supplement could help boost your levels. Just be sure to consult with your physician before adding any supplements to your diet.
Here are the six nutrients older adults should pay extra close attention to, and how to incorporate more of them into your diet.
Generally speaking, older adults tend to have a smaller appetite than their younger peers, which means they likely consume fewer calories and therefore, inherently get less of most nutrients. But that’s not the only reason seniors may need to increase their calcium intake.
As we age, our intestines become less effective at absorbing calcium. To make matters worse, our kidneys have a harder time retaining this nutrient, which means more of it is lost through urine.
This is problematic given how important calcium is in the body. Calcium is most known for the crucial role it plays in bone health. But it is also a key factor in blood clotting, heart rhythm regulation and nerve impulse transmission. When the body doesn’t have enough calcium circulating to support these functions, it will actually steal it from your bones, which can leave them porous and brittle. This can lead to bone conditions like osteoporosis and osteomalacia. And, since brittle bones break easily, it can increase your risk of breaking a bone and falling.
Protect your bones and keep your calcium supply at an optimal level by striving for three servings of calcium-rich foods and drinks a day. Good choices include milk and dairy products, dark leafy green veggies, canned fish with soft bones, tofu and fortified foods like plant-based beverages, cereals and fruit juices.
And don’t forget to ask your doctor if you should be taking a calcium supplement.
Vitamin D is called “the sunshine” vitamin for a reason: Your skin requires sunlight to synthesize it.
But, since many older adults get very little exposure to sunlight, and older skin is less effective at producing vitamin D even when it is exposed to the sun, this is definitely a nutrient of concern for seniors.
Vitamin D plays an important role in calcium absorption. It is also a key part of bone growth and remodeling, which means without sufficient vitamin D levels, bones can become thin, brittle or misshapen. Getting enough vitamin D therefore helps prevent osteomalacia in adults and, together with calcium, helps protect older adults from osteoporosis.
Unfortunately, very few foods naturally contain vitamin D. Some of the best sources include fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, and fish liver oils. Beef liver, cheese and egg yolks contain small amounts of this nutrient, as do some mushrooms. However, it is fortified foods that provide most of the vitamin D in American diets. Milk, breakfast cereals, orange juice and yogurt are often fortified with this nutrient. Check the nutrition labels when selecting these products and opt for those that are fortified.
If you take a calcium supplement or a multivitamin, make sure that it includes vitamin D, and be sure to chat with your doctor about your vitamin D status.
Fiber is one of those nutrients that very few people, regardless of age, get enough of. In fact, in a study published in the journal Nutrients, researchers found that 97 percent of Americans are not consuming enough fiber.
But if you’re an older adult, you’ll want to pay special attention to this nutrient for several reasons, the first being because it can help alleviate constipation. As we age, constipation becomes increasingly common due to changes in the gastrointestinal tract as well as side effects of certain medications. Fiber can help give stool bulk and can speed up the movement of food through the digestive tract, making it a great natural remedy for this condition.
But that’s not the only thing this super-nutrient can do.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 50 percent of all Americans age 65 or older have prediabetes and are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Fiber plays an important role in both managing and preventing type 2 diabetes, since it can slow the digestive process, helping to improve blood sugar levels.
Research also suggests that consuming enough fiber may help reduce your risk of developing heart disease, lower your cholesterol and help you keep your weight in check.
According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines, adults 51 years of age and older should be consuming between 22 and 28 grams of fiber a day, depending on gender. This is fairly easy to accomplish since fiber can be found in a wide variety of foods.
Good sources include fruits and vegetables, whole-grain bread, cereals, and pasta, as well as legumes (beans and peas). Try having a bowl of oatmeal with berries for breakfast, a big salad with lots of colorful veggies and beans for lunch, and whole-grain pasta with a protein of your choice at dinner, and you should hit your fiber goal without issue.
If you’re over the age of 50, chances are good you’re not getting enough of the nutrient B12. This is a concern because B12 plays an important role in red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis.
Vitamin B12 is naturally present in animal products like fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy foods. And while this vitamin is not generally present in plant foods, vegetarians and vegans can obtain this nutrient from fortified breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast products and supplements (just be sure to check with your doctor before adding any new supplements to your diet).
One thing to note is that oftentimes a B12 deficiency is attributable to poor absorption rather than insufficient consumption. Work with your doctor to determine if either of these are issues for you.
Sodium and potassium are electrolytes that have opposite effects on blood pressure. Research suggests that the combination of reducing sodium intake while increasing potassium consumption may have a positive impact on high blood pressure.
If your blood pressure is greater than 120/80 and you are otherwise healthy, consider increasing the potassium content in your diet. This can be achieved by eating more potassium-containing foods like bananas, sweet and regular potatoes, apricots, raisins, dates, spinach, tomatoes, avocados, cantaloupe, oranges, peas, fat-free or low-fat milk and yogurt, halibut and tuna, and lima beans.
But keep this in mind: Potassium can be harmful in certain people, particularly those with kidney disease. So be sure to discuss your plans to increase the amount of this nutrient in your diet with your doctor.
For many years, “fats” were regarded as another four-letter word. But the truth is, there’s no reason to fear fats, as long as you select the right ones.
It’s true that you should stay away from trans fats (the kind found in margarine, baked goods, doughnuts, many microwave popcorn mixes and even some biscuits). And until more research confirms the impact of saturated fats, strive to minimize those as well. Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, like the kinds found in nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and fish, are beneficial to your health. So, consider bumping up the amount of these healthy fats you consume.