Today’s fast-paced schedules and convenience food culture don’t leave much room for needed nutrients, so it’s no surprise that many Americans are slacking in the nourishment department. And if you chase and corral rowdy students all day, chances are your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to keep up—particularly if you’re approaching your golden years.
“Your body—and dietary needs—change with age,” explains Diane McKay, Ph.D., scientist in the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. “Our guts become less efficient, particularly when we reach our 60s and 70s, and that limits our ability to get sufficient nutrients from food.”
Plus, aging often brings ailments, disease and accompanying medications, which can make absorbing nutrients more difficult. Metabolism slows, your body produces less of the fluids it needs to process food and you’re more likely to suffer from low appetite and upset stomach, which can lead to poor nutrition.
No matter what your age, consuming needed nutrients can boost immunity, reduce the risk of chronic disease and sharpen your mind. To help you stay on top of your nutrient game, we asked the experts for some basic guidelines about what should be on your plate come chow time:
1. Protein: When you reach your senior years, your ability to build muscle mass diminishes. What’s worse, the juicy steak you loved in your 40s not only begins to taste like cardboard it’s also harder to chew. The end result: Your protein needs go up at the same time as your intake plummets.
Where to get the goods: Beans, eggs, chicken, fish, lean meats, low-fat dairy and nuts and seeds are all protein-rich food sources.
2. Water: Aging interferes with your ability to feel thirsty. Add caffeinated beverages or alcohol to the mix and it’s no surprise many seniors get dehydrated. So while you may be able to rely on your sense of thirst to stay hydrated when you’re younger, when you’re older, you have to make a concerted effort to count the number of beverages you consume, explains McKay.
Where to get the goods: To stay hydrated, drink at least sufficient fluid from water and decaffeinated beverages (2 liters a day for women and 3 for men). According to McKay, you should also get an additional 2-3 cups of water from water-rich foods, including grapes, melon, cucumbers and soup.
3. Fiber: Fiber helps propel food through the digestive tract and keeps your bowels moving even when you’re taking constipating medications. Unfortunately, your body becomes less adept at digesting foods as years pass, so once you hit your 50s, it becomes even more important to get more roughage. Trouble is, most Americans (50-plus or not) get less than half of the recommended 25 to 35 grams daily.
Where to get the goods: Whole-grain cereals, oats, barley, beans, nuts and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (especially apples, berries and broccoli). The caveat: If you’re adding fiber to your diet, make sure to boost your water intake, too. A sudden increase in fiber consumption without additional H2O can cause bloating, constipation and other tummy troubles.
4. Healthy fats: Consuming a diet rich in mono and polyunsaturated fats helps prevent irregular heartbeats, reduce plaque buildup on arteries, inhibit inflammation and keep blood sugar levels in check—all of which reduce the risk of heart disease. What’s more, scientists think a specific type of fatty acid, called omega-3s, help reduce inflammation in the arteries and keep blood flowing to the brain. Need more reasons to load up on these heart-healthy fats? Researchers from the National Institutes of Health report that omega-3 fatty acids are more effective at combating depression than commonly prescribed anti-depressant drugs.
Where to get the goods: You can find monounsaturated fats in foods such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish, flaxseed and walnuts.
5. Probiotics: The older you are, the more vulnerable your system is to “bad” bacteria. If you get enough good bacteria (also known as probiotics) to attach to the intestinal walls, you might be able to prevent the bad guys from wreaking havoc on your stomach. In fact, studies show probiotics help boost immunity, prevent urinary tract and yeast infections and encourage the development of a healthy microbiome (a.k.a., gut bacteria).
Where to get the goods: Fermented foods like Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir are your best bets since they contain both the live bacteria (probiotics) and the nutrients that feed the bacteria (their prebiotic cousins).
In an ideal world, you would get the nutrients you need from home-cooked meals and snacks. In reality, more than half of Americans aren’t consuming enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains to meet their nutrient needs.
Even if your diet is top notch, you may not be able to reach your daily quota of certain nutrients without a supplement. Take vitamin D, for example. Not only are you more likely to stay indoors as you get older, but the skin is also less efficient at making vitamin D from sun exposure. Vitamin B12 is another tough-to-get nutrient since stomach acid, which is required for the body to absorb vitamin B12 from food, begins to decline during your 50s and accelerates from there.
Still, according to Roxanne Sukol, M.D., staff physician for Executive Health and Preventive Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, people should look to their diets first to improve nutrition, and then use vitamin supplements only as a sort of “nutrition insurance policy” or to correct a documented deficiency.