Do Our Nutrition Needs Change as We Age?
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Eating habits and nutritional needs change with every age and stage of life. Pregnant women must eat mindfully to keep pace with a growing fetus. Growth spurts in babies and teenagers make them ravenous ‘round the clock.
If you’re an older adult, you may experience dietary challenges and requirements for physiological or psychosocial reasons.
As we age, “Our metabolism is slower; we don’t absorb or utilize nutrients as well or have the same hunger cues as when we’re young. Often there’s a loss of appetite, smell or taste, or dental issues that interfere with chewing,” says Shelby Birdwell, M.S., RD, LD, a registered dietitian with the University of Miami Health System.
Some older people also face food insecurity, financial limitations, and mobility problems that make grocery shopping difficult, Birdwell says. Those who live alone may not feel motivated to prepare a healthy, balanced dinner for one.
Top it all off with chronic disease and polypharmacy, which often accompany aging – and you could have a dietary dilemma on your hands.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet is the goal, Birdwell says.
“The government’s ‘MyPlate’ guidelines replaced the traditional food pyramid and recommended filling half of your plate with fruits or vegetables, one-fourth with protein, and one-fourth with whole grain.” The guidelines also suggest opting for low-fat or non-fat dairy products if you eat dairy and limiting your consumption of salt, sugar, and saturated fat.
While a varied, balanced diet is best, it might not be possible for an older person struggling with appetite loss or lack of energy.
“Ensure and Boost are great supplement tools,” Birdwell says.
Adding protein powder to a smoothie of spinach greens, fruit, and nut or dairy milk is another possibility, but read the supplement label carefully. “Not all nutrition supplements are FDA-approved. Look for products from manufacturers that do third-party testing.” Better yet, ask an Internet-savvy grandchild to research products for you.
There are several ways to achieve a nutrient-rich diet:
“Focus on high-quality proteins such as lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy,” Birdwell says. Maybe it’s as simple as spreading peanut butter on whole-grain bread or eating tuna salad with chopped hard-boiled eggs to boost your protein intake.
Fruits and vegetables
Smoothies are a lifesaver for people with a limited appetite or difficulty chewing. Dark, leafy greens, combined with fruits, avocado (a good source of healthy fat), a dollop of nut butter, and nut or dairy milk cover several bases at once.
Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are a budget-friendly, convenient alternative to fresh produce.
People have a misconception that frozen or canned produce is not as nutritious as fresh. For older adults, they can be more feasible than fresh because there’s less preparation and they’re less expensive.Shelby Birdwell, MS, RD, LD
She recommends checking expiration dates to make sure you’re consuming these foods at peak freshness and rinsing canned vegetables to remove excess sodium, even from products labeled “low-sodium.”
People who are losing their sense of taste “may be tempted to use extra salt or sugar to add flavor, but this can contribute to high blood pressure and insulin resistance. Use a variety of herbs, spices, lemons or limes to flavor foods instead,” Birdwell says.
Hearty grains such as brown rice, whole-grain pasta, and whole-wheat bread pack more nutritional punch than refined white flour products. Oats, quinoa, spelt (a type of wheat), buckwheat, and faro are healthier and just as easy to prepare as highly processed refined grains.
Yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, kefir, and low-fat cheeses are filling, convenient sources of protein and calcium. If you’re lactose intolerant, look for calcium-fortified nut milk or orange juice. Dark leafy greens, salmon, sardines, anchovies, tahini, tofu, almonds, and chia seeds are other solid sources of non-dairy calcium.
According to Birdwell, “Our ability to absorb vitamin B-12 diminishes as we age.”
To counteract that, she recommends eating cereals fortified with B-12, eggs, meat, or milk. Nutritional yeast is a tasty, vegan form of B-12; sprinkle it on popcorn, baked potatoes, eggs, soups, and in salad dressing.
“You can also talk to your health care provider about supplementation if indicated.”
For those who can’t eat enough to get all of the foods recommended in the MyPlate guidelines, Birdwell suggests eating smaller, more frequent meals. Try for “twofers”: yogurt sprinkled with chopped nuts, a cheese and vegetable omelet, cottage cheese with fruit, or vegetable soup with a slice of whole grain bread.
While doctors can provide some dietary information and may know alternative medications with less impact on appetite and absorption, consider speaking to a registered dietitian.
“Most doctors are happy to collaborate with registered dietitians to help you reach your health goals. We are considered nutrition experts. Ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian or call your insurance company and get a list of dietitians within your network,” Birdwell says.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to the UHealth Collective.
She has written for several major health care systems and the CDC. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.
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