Eating healthy becomes especially important as you age.
That’s because aging is linked to a variety of changes, including nutrient deficiencies, decreased quality of life and poor health outcomes.
Luckily, there are things you can do to help prevent deficiencies and other age-related changes. For example, eating nutrient-rich foods and taking the appropriate supplements can help keep you healthy as you age.
This article explains how your nutritional needs change as you age, including how to address them.
How Does Aging Affect Your Nutritional Needs?
Aging is linked to a variety of changes in the body, including muscle loss, thinner skin and less stomach acid.
Some of these changes can make you prone to nutrient deficiencies, while others can affect your senses and quality of life.
For example, studies have estimated that 20% of elderly people have atrophic gastritis, a condition in which chronic inflammation has damaged the cells that produce stomach acid (1).
Another challenge of aging is a reduced need for calories. Unfortunately, this creates a nutritional dilemma. Older adults need to get just as much, if not more, of some nutrients, all while eating fewer calories.
Fortunately, eating a variety of whole foods and taking a supplement can help you meet your nutrient needs.
Needing Fewer Calories, but More Nutrients
A person’s daily calorie needs depend on their height, weight, muscle mass, activity level and several other factors.
Older adults may need fewer calories to maintain their weight, since they tend to move and exercise less and carry less muscle (5Trusted Source).
If you continue to eat the same number of calories per day as you did when you were younger, you could easily gain extra fat, especially around the belly area (6Trusted Source).
This is especially true in postmenopausal women, as the decline in estrogen levels seen during this time may promote belly fat storage (7).
However, even though older adults need fewer calories, they need just as high or even higher levels of some nutrients, compared to younger people.
This makes it very important for older people to eat a variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats. These healthy staples can help you fight nutrient deficiencies, without expanding your waistline.
Nutrients that become especially important as you age include protein, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin B12.
You Can Benefit From More Protein
It’s common to lose muscle and strength as you age.
In fact, the average adult loses 3–8% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30 (8Trusted Source).
This loss of muscle mass and strength is known as sarcopenia.
It’s a major cause of weakness, fractures and poor health among the elderly (9Trusted Source).
One study followed 2,066 elderly people over three years. It found those who ate the most protein daily lost 40% less muscle mass than people who ate the least (11Trusted Source).
Also, a review of 20 recent studies in elderly people found that eating more protein or taking protein supplements may slow the rate of muscle loss, increase muscle mass and help build more muscle (12).
Furthermore, combining a protein-rich diet with resistance exercise seems to be the most effective way to fight sarcopenia (13Trusted Source).
You May Benefit From More Fiber
Constipation is a common health problem among the elderly.
It’s especially common in people over 65, and it’s two to three times more common in women.
That’s because people at this age tend to move less and be more likely to take medications that have constipation as a side effect (14Trusted Source).
In an analysis of five studies, scientists found that dietary fiber helped stimulate bowel movements in people with constipation (16Trusted Source).
Additionally, a high-fiber diet may prevent diverticular disease, a condition in which small pouches form along the colon wall and become infected or inflamed. This condition is especially common among the elderly (17Trusted Source).
Diverticular disease is often viewed as a disease of the Western diet. It’s incredibly common, affecting up to 50% of people over age 50 in Western countries.
Conversely, diverticular disease is almost absent in populations with higher fiber intakes. For example, in Japan and Africa, diverticular disease affects less than 0.2% of people (18Trusted Source).
You Need More Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D are two of the most important nutrients for bone health.
Unfortunately, older adults tend to absorb less calcium from their diets.
Your body can make vitamin D from the cholesterol in your skin when it is exposed to sunlight. However, aging can make the skin thinner, which reduces its ability to make vitamin D (25, 26Trusted Source).
Together, these changes could prevent you from getting enough calcium and vitamin D, promoting bone loss and increasing your risk of fractures (27).
To counter aging’s effects on your vitamin D and calcium levels, it’s necessary to consume more calcium and vitamin D through foods and supplements.
A variety of foods contain calcium, including dairy products and dark green, leafy vegetables.
Meanwhile, vitamin D is found in a variety of fish, such as salmon and herring.
Older people can also benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement like cod liver oil.
You May Struggle to Eat Enough Food
Another troubling concern for elderly people is decreased appetite.
If this issue isn’t addressed, it can lead to unintended weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. A loss of appetite is also linked to poor health and a higher risk of death (3Trusted Source).
Factors that could cause older adults to have a poor appetite include changes in hormones, taste and smell, as well as changes in life circumstances.
Studies have found that older people tend to have lower levels of hunger hormones and higher levels of fullness hormones, which means they could get hungry less often and feel fuller more quickly (42, 43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
Aging can also affect your sense of smell and taste, making foods seem less appealing (46Trusted Source).
Other factors that may cause poor appetite include tooth loss, loneliness, underlying illness and medications that can decrease appetite (3Trusted Source).
If you find it difficult to eat large meals, try dividing your meals into smaller portions and have them every few hours.
Otherwise, try to establish a habit of eating healthy snacks like almonds, yogurt and boiled eggs, which provide lots of nutrients and a good number of calories.
The Bottom Line
Aging is linked to changes that can make you prone to deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium and several other important nutrients.
It may also reduce your ability to recognize sensations like hunger and thirst.
Luckily, you can take actions to prevent these deficiencies.
Make a conscious effort to stay on top of your water and food intake, eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods and consider taking a supplement.
All these actions can help you fight deficiencies and stay healthy as you get older.