Diet & Aging

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Diet & Aging

Nutrient requirements stay the same or increase as we age, while calorie needs decrease. With this in mind, there is less room for empty calorie foods. If sweets are desired, nutrient packed sweets made with whole grains, fruits or vegetables are better choices than cookies, candy and other refined carbohydrates. Here are some important dietary considerations for older people.


Older folks are less efficient at breaking down food proteins. The RDA for protein increases slightly with age, to 63 g for men over 50 and to 50 g for women the same age. Protein intake is no problem for most Americans, but lean sources of concentrated protein, such as beans, fish and poultry, are a good idea for those with a small appetite.


Difficulty digesting protein can lead to problems with vitamin B12. Older people are less able to separate vitamin B12 from the food proteins it is attached to. The supplement form of vitamin B12 is not bound to a food protein so it is easily absorbed. Current recommendations are that all Americans over age 50 get B12 from a multivitamin or fortified food such as breakfast cereals and soyfoods daily.


It takes 4 cups of milk, or the equivalent, to reach the suggested intake for people over 55. Choosing milk as a beverage, yogurt as a protein source and high calcium vegetables, such as broccoli, bok choy and mustard greens, can greatly increase calcium intake. Some people may need supplements or fortified foods.


Older people must be sure to have plenty of vitamins B6, B12 and folate, which help lower homocysteine levels. A high level of the amino acid homocysteine is an independent risk factor for heart disease. The Framingham Heart study showed that men who had high homocysteine did poorly on written tests of mental abilities. The men with the highest level of homocysteine actually did as poorly as those in the early stages of Alzheimer?s disease. Heart healthy sources of B6 include: fish, nuts, whole grains and beans. Heart healthy sources of B12 include: fortified soyfoods, yogurt, skim milk and fish. Folate is found in beans, green leafy vegetables, orange juice and enriched grain products.


When 1300 older residents of Massachusetts were studied, those in the top 25% of fruit and vegetable consumption had the lowest heart disease rates. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytochemicals. Everyone, especially seniors, should choose a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to get a variety of phytochemicals. Alpha carotene is in orange vegetables. Lutein and zeaxanthin are in green vegetables. Lycopene is abundant in red foods like tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Many culinary herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, and basil contain phytochemicals too.


Some people may need supplements or fortified food if they can not meet the recommended intake of calcium, B vitamins, vitamin D and other nutrients by food alone. However supplements are not substitutes for a healthy diet. Taking a supplement does not replace eating well.

A plant-based diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, along with nonfat dairy products and lean sources of protein, assists today?s active seniors to live their latter years to the fullest.

By Carol Meerschaert, RD.

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