Eating right matters, and this does not change as we get older.

In fact, it is never too late in life to see the health benefits of good nutrition. The main principles of eating well are the same no matter what age. A nutritious diet should emphasize fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins (including fish and seafood) and plant proteins (beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds), and healthy unsaturated fats while limiting processed foods, especially processed meats and fast foods.

Here are the key recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020:

The Key Recommendations for healthy eating patterns should be applied in their entirety to reflect an overall healthy eating pattern. Consume a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all food and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.

A healthy eating pattern includes:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils

A healthy eating pattern limits:

  • Saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium

Aging

However, due to changes in processing and absorption of certain nutrients as our bodies age, we have a few nutritional needs we must pay attention to that can improve our quality of life. Some examples of this include protein, B vitamins, vitamin D, fiber, and hydration.

Protein

Protein level requirements are in some debate, but overall everyone agrees for people to get 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. So for example, a 150 lb. healthy person would need about 55 to 82 grams of protein a day. With that said, the individual’s overall health and physical condition, including daily activity level, play a part in how many grams of protein needed per day. Research is showing that moderate to high protein consumption in older adults may optimize how long and how healthy we live. I encourage you to try to meet a good amount of those protein needs via plant proteins in order to keep meat consumption limited for the overall health benefits and risk reduction of multiple conditions.  

Veggies

This may surprise you but research has shown that plant proteins (i.e. vegetables) are associated in maintaining our muscle mass due to the alkalizing effects they have that may neutralize the mild metabolic acidosis that occurs with the aging process. So plant based proteins can actually preserve muscle strength as we age.  

Vitamin D

Vitamin D status is affected by several body mechanisms. For adults 51 to 70 years, the (dietary reference intake) DRI is 800 IU. Older adults may have decreased intake of vitamin D and reduced sun exposure, as well as a decreased ability to synthesize vitamin D from UV light. Foods that provide vitamin D include: fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon; foods fortified with vitamin D, like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals; cheese; and egg yolks.

B Vitamins

The intake and utilization of Folate, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12 may be affected with aging and therefore supplementation is sometimes needed.

Folate Food Folate is found naturally in a wide variety of foods, including vegetables (especially dark green leafy vegetables), fruits,, nuts, beans, peas, dairy products, poultry and meat, eggs, seafood, and grains, including enriched breads.

Vitamin B6 food sources include: protein foods such as seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, soy products, non-citric fruit, as well as fortified cereals.

Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. Vitamin B12 is generally not present in plant foods, but some fortified breakfast cereals and some nutritional yeast products contain B12. Vegetarians and vegans would most likely meet their B12 needs from supplementation.

Hydration

Drink water while limiting sugar drinks and empty calorie drinks including sodas of all kinds. General guidelines call for a minimum of 50 ounces of fluid a day (or 30 mL per kilogram of weight).

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Fiber

If you follow all the suggestions given above, you will meet your fiber needs. Whole grain breads, fruits, vegetables, and plant proteins contain fiber. 

Research that was published in the Public Health Nutrition Journal in December 2013 found that when choosing grains or other carbohydrate rich foods, aim for at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of total carbohydrates. The recommended amount of daily fiber intake is 21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 grams for men. That’s a high number to strive for considering the average American only consumes 15 grams per day, but this new 10:1 ratio can make choosing good foods a little easier. Look at your food labels, identify the carbs and fiber, and divide the grams of carbohydrates by 10. If the amount of fiber listed on the label is at least as large as the answer, the food has met the 10:1 ratio.

Research indicates that people who regularly consume whole grains have multiple health gains, including a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers. A study published in Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences reported that individuals with the highest fiber intake had an almost 80 percent greater likelihood of living a long and healthy life over a 10-year follow-up. They identified that essentially these people had a decreased likelihood of hypertension, diabetes, dementia, depression, certain types of cancers, and functional disability. 

Metabolism

Lastly, there is the question of metabolism. Does it truly slow down as we age or is the slow-down actually a result of eating more and moving less? There is increasing support that the weight we gain as we get older may not be so much due to slowing metabolism, but rather a decline in our activity. Sedentary individuals over the age of 65 can lose 1 percent of their muscle mass every year. What that means is, get moving, stay active, and improve your muscle strength to keep up your metabolism. Burn calories throughout the day by increasing your activity of any kind, including walking, and, of course, watching your portions can prevent weight gain at any age.

Tufts University provides an illustration of the MyPlate geared toward older adults. Take a look and use as a guide: http://hnrca.tufts.edu/myplate/files/MPFOA2015.pdf


Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.

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