The importance of having a balanced, nutritious diet increases as you age. This is because ageing is linked to a variety of changes in the way your body functions. It is good to recognise these changes, as some of them might affect the amount of nutrients we absorb from food.
As you age, you may find that you eat less than previously. Many people experience a reduced appetite, while others might take medication which affects their eating habits – or suffer from dental issues which make consuming some foods difficult.
Changes to the sense of smell and taste, which is often linked with ageing, can also affect the enjoyment of food. The less you eat, the more important it is to have a diet which fulfils your nutrient needs. Most people also become less active as they age, which means that you burn less calories during the day. It is therefore important to check your calorie intake, in order to avoid piling on extra weight.
There can be physical changes too, such as your body producing less stomach acid. This can cause issues, as the acid activates important enzymes required for the digestive process and ensures optimal absorption of any nutrients, including proteins, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
In other words, there are a number of factors which can increase your chances of either suffering from nutrient deficiencies or gaining weight as you age. How then, can you ensure you maintain a healthy, balanced diet which includes all the nutrients you require? Here are some tips.
Little by little
Eating little and often can be an effective way to get sufficient essential nutrients, especially if you have a diminished appetite.
It can also work as a way to avoid piling on the pounds – especially if you are less active than before, but do not have problems with your appetite! A recent study by the National Institute on Ageing suggested that the key to a better old age may be to reduce the amount of food on our plates, via an approach called “calorie restriction”.
What do I need?
As you age, there might be some specific dietary requirements you need to consider, and these are always best discussed with a medical professional or a nutritionist. For example, low stomach acid can affect the absorption of nutrients such as vitamin B12, iron and magnesium.
As a rule of thumb, make sure your diet includes calcium and vitamin D for mobility and folate and vitamin B12 to support an active mind.
Don’t forget protein
Sarcopenia – the loss of muscle and strength in older age – happens to everyone. Your muscles grow larger and stronger up until around the age of 30, but at some point in your 30s, you start to lose muscle mass and function.
Keeping physically active does help slow down the process, but no matter how active you are, you’ll still experience some muscle loss.
As well as keeping active, maintaining a healthy level of protein in your diet will help your body retain muscle. One recent study in the US – which followed more than 2,000 elderly people over three years – showed that those who ate the most protein daily, lost 40 per cent less of their muscles than those who ate the least.
Fibre it up
One of the most likely health issues you are likely to encounter as you age is constipation. The good news is that constipation is a symptom, not a disease – therefore, there are steps you can take to avoid it.
One of the main causes of constipation is not having enough high-fibre foods – so make sure you have enough fibre in your diet.
Wholegrain breakfast cereals, whole-wheat pasta, barley and rye are great sources for fibre, as are vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots and sweetcorn.
As well as staving off constipation, having enough fibre in your diet can help tackle obesity.
While bones may seem like hard and lifeless structures, they are actually living tissue with blood supply and active metabolism. During your lifetime, your body constantly breaks down old bone and builds up new bone. If the old bone is broken down faster than new bone is made, it leads to bone loss.
Age-related bone loss is progressive and can lead to osteoporosis. Poor bone health can also cause other conditions, such as rickets. To help avoid bone loss, you need sufficient calcium to strengthen your bones and vitamin D to help your body absorb calcium. According to NHS guidelines, adults need around 700mg of calcium a day.
Good sources of calcium include milk, cheese and other dairy foods, as well as green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and okra. For variation, try soya beans, tofu and fish where you eat the bones – such as sardines and pilchards.
The other bits
Other nutrients and elements to consider in your diet as you age include potassium, which is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Bananas, oranges, raisins, cooked spinach and cucumbers are great sources for potassium. Make sure that you also intake enough Omega-3 fatty acids (it can lower heart disease risk factors); magnesium (an important mineral); and iron (lack of iron causes anemia).