As we get older, there are unique dietary challenges that affect us. We need to make sure we’re meeting our nutritional needs for good health and plenty of energy.
Eating healthy also helps manage weight and prevent overweight and obesity, which can affect insurance coverage and rates. Life insurance for overweight individuals can be easy and inexpensive to obtain as long as there are no other healthcare concerns. However, being overweight can put you at higher risk for many chronic conditions.
Nutrition is the foundation for weight management and is important to lower the risk of chronic diseases in all adults. Healthy eating also keeps energy levels high and improves overall well-being.
Unique dietary challenges for aging adults include making sure you have enough macronutrients, vitamins and minerals, water, and antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Macronutrients are those dietary nutrients we need in large quantities that provide us with energy in the form of calories. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fiber.
Sugar comes in two forms in foods — natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are those that are naturally occurring, like those found in fruits and dairy products. Added sugars are those that have been added to foods and are a concern because they are overconsumed by many people.
Natural sugar is not an issue in our diet because foods with natural sugars also come with many other nutrients, like vitamins and minerals. However, too much added sugar is linked to increased inflammation in the body, which can lead to chronic health conditions.
Heart disease has also been linked to a high amount of added sugar in the diet. Too much added sugar can also lead to weight gain because of the extra calories in the sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily for women and nine teaspoons of added sugar daily for men. That equates to 24 grams for women and 36 grams of added sugar for men daily.
The average amount consumed by American adults is about 77 grams of added sugar daily. Ask your healthcare provider for more information if you are unsure of your specific needs and restrictions.
Fiber is an important nutrient needed for digestive health and passes through the body mostly undigested. It is found in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and grains. Many foods that are high in fiber are also anti-inflammatory foods.
Fiber can help with weight management because it expands and stays in the stomach longer, leading to a feeling of fullness. The soluble fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and grains is important in helping to lower cholesterol.
Because fiber helps keep digested nutrients moving through the gastrointestinal tract, it also helps prevent diverticulosis and diverticulitis. Diverticulosis happens when small pouches or pockets form in the large intestine and waste can get trapped in them.
Diverticulitis is when these pockets become inflamed and can be very painful. Both conditions are more common in adults over the age of 40.
Protein is needed for the building and repairing of body tissues, including muscle tissue. We tend to lose muscle as we age, especially if we are not active. It is critical that all adults eat plenty of protein, especially older adults.
Protein is found in meat, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, beans, nuts, some grains, and soy-based protein foods. Fruits and most vegetables are low or lacking in protein.
You can determine how much protein you need daily by taking your body weight and multiplying it by 1 gram of protein daily per pound of bodyweight. This is a high estimate for protein needs but can be a good number for older adults to aim for on a daily basis.
Older adults may not eat enough protein for a variety of reasons. First, meat is a good source of protein and can be expensive for adults living on a limited budget. Also, meat can be difficult to chew for older adults who have issues with their teeth, so they may choose to limit meat consumption.
Fats have many important functions in the body, including insulation, cushioning and protecting vital organs, transporting and storing some vitamins, and for healthy cells. Saturated and trans fats are those that are unhealthy for the heart. Saturated and trans fats are found in processed, packaged, fried, and restaurant foods.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are heart-healthy and should replace saturated and trans fat in the diet. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, avocados, nut butter, and fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of polyunsaturated fat that is especially healthy for our heart and brain. The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is found in fatty fish. Adults should consume two servings (four to six ounces) of fish each week to reap the heart and cognitive benefits.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients that are important for body functions but do not have energy or calories. Many vitamins and minerals must be consumed in the diet, but a few can be produced by the body.
Calcium is one of the most important bone-building nutrients. As adults age, we tend to lose bone mass so calcium is a vital nutrient for all aging adults.
Calcium is found in dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium is also added to some other products like orange juice, some soy products, plant-based milk like almond milk, and some grains.
Three servings of dairy will give adults the calcium they need, but a calcium supplement may be needed to meet the daily recommendations.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, so it is another important bone-building nutrient. This nutrient is found in a few foods, like fatty fish and dairy products, but is not abundant in the diet.
Our body can convert sunlight to vitamin D, but many areas of the United States do not get adequate sunlight in the winter months. Adults may need a vitamin D supplement to help meet their daily needs.
Iron is important to enable the red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body. The iron in animal products is best absorbed by the body, but some plant foods also have iron. A lack of iron may cause fatigue and weakness and can lead to other negative health conditions.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for proper enzyme function, DNA, neurotransmitters, and the formation of other important nutrients. Vitamin B12 can also help prevent some chronic diseases like heart disease, some types of cancer, depression, osteoporosis, and cognitive impairment. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal products like meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
Older adults do not absorb naturally-occurring vitamin B12 as easily as younger adults. For that reason, older adults should consume foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12, like cereal or soy milk, or a vitamin B12 supplement.
Vitamin C is important for collagen and immunity. Collagen is like the glue that holds the structure of our body together. Older adults tend to have an immune system that does not work as well as younger adults, so optimizing immunity is critical.
Vitamin C It also plays a role as an antioxidant to help protect cells and prevent damage from free radicals. Vitamin C is abundant in many fruits and vegetables like red bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, and kiwi.
Drinking plenty of water daily is important for good health. It is also easier to become dehydrated as we get older for a few reasons. One is that older adults may not want to drink plenty of water or fluids because that causes more trips to the bathroom.
Another is that our thirst mechanism does not work as well as we age, so older adults may not feel thirsty. Some medications may be diuretics, which cause fluids to be lost from the body.
All adults should make sure they are consuming plenty of fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration and to stay regular.
Antioxidants are substances found in foods that help prevent damage to cells from free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are formed from metabolism, exercise, smoking, pollution, and ultraviolet rays.
Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals, which helps protect cells from damage and prevents many chronic diseases. Some vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium.
Phytonutrients are nutrients found in plant foods that boost health. Many phytonutrients act as antioxidants and give fruits and vegetables their many colors. For example, beta carotene is a phytonutrient that acts as an antioxidant and is also converted into vitamin A by the body. It gives the orange color to fruits and vegetables like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots, and
Eating Healthy for Life
Regardless of your age, eating a wide variety of different foods including fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains are the best options for your energy levels and overall well-being.