It should come as no surprise to you that, now that you’re getting older, you need to take really good care of yourself. Not that striving to be healthy wasn’t important when you were younger, but now the stakes just seem higher, right? So you’ve got to be at the top of your game when it comes to knowing what your body needs, like the right amount of exercise and sleep, and eating well.
But when it comes to your nutrition as a senior, maybe there are still a few surprises lurking! Check out the following surprising facts about older adults and nutrition, and see if you can find some ways to tweak your diet – you might just make yourself a little healthier and a little more ready to face all the surprises that life still has in store for you.
You Need More Calcium as You Age
Think your days of needing extra calcium ended with your days of having cookies and milk before bed (ok, we won’t judge if you still have cookies and milk before bed!)? It might surprise you to know that your calcium needs actually go up as you age, even though you’re not building bones and teeth the way you were when you were a kiddo. That’s because calcium is more than just the bone-builder we think it is: it helps muscles move, and helps nerves carry messages from the brain to all body parts, meaning it remains a vitally important nutrient throughout your whole life. Not only that, but there is now evolving evidence that getting enough calcium can help to stabilize bone loss in older adults with osteoporosis or osteopenia.
So how much calcium do you need? More even than when you were younger: women over 50 need 1200 milligrams (about 4 cups of dairy) a day, and men past 70 need 1200 mg as well (under 70, 1,000 mg). Nutrition experts recommend getting your daily dose from foods as much as you can, and also speaking to your doctor about getting the right amount of vitamin D, since D helps your body to absorb calcium.
You Need Fewer Calories Now, But More Nutrients
Did you know that the average American eats 300 calories more a day now than they did in the 1980s? That’s not good for anyone, especially not older adults. Why? Because as you age, your muscle mass gradually decreases while the proportion of fat increases. Since muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, you’ll need fewer calories to maintain your usual weight. For example, a woman who is 5’4″, 130 pounds, and who engages in light exercise for an hour each day might need 1,980 calories at age 40. At age 50, weighing and exercising the same amount, she might need only 1,880.
But that doesn’t mean you should be skipping meals. It actually means you need to step up your game when it comes to eating plenty of nutrient-dense food, especially because you might have less of an appetite than you used to. (Think about this: one study found that 43% of seniors admitted to intensive care units were malnourished!) This is because, as we age, our bodies are less efficient at making or absorbing some vitamins and minerals. For example, the skin’s ability to generate vitamin D from sunlight declines, and the body’s ability to absorb B12 also decreases. Make sure you’re eating a variety of fruits and veggies, in addition to lean protein, legumes, nuts, and dairy products so that you’re sure to pack all the nutrition into those slightly smaller meals.
Nutrition Labels Aren’t Perfect
You might be doing your due diligence when it comes to reading the nutrition labels for all the foods that you’re eating, but did you know that those labels aren’t exactly 100% reliable? In fact, under FDA guidance, certain nutrients listed (calories, sugars, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium) can be 20% higher than the label says and still be in compliance. For example, if a lab analysis found 8 grams of fat per serving in a product whose label claimed it had 6, that product would be out of compliance. This can be especially alarming for those who are watching their sodium intake because of hypertension (and all seniors over 70 should limit their sodium intake to no more than 1.2 grams per day). And remember, the nutrition facts on that label tell you the amount of fat, calories, sodium, etc in one serving, not in the entire package.
You’re at a Higher Risk of Dehydration
We all know that staying hydrated is important at any age, but did you know that older adults are more prone to dehydration, a condition which can easily land you in the hospital if you’re not careful? Why? There are a few reasons:
- Just as your sense of taste diminishes as you age, so does your sensation of thirst. And by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already in the early stages of dehydration.
- Your body composition changes as you age: older adults have less water in their bodies to start with than younger adults or children.
- Symptoms of dehydration in older adults often go unrecognized, because the earliest signs, like dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness and muscle cramps, are nonspecific and could be easily attributed to other medical conditions, medications, or the natural effects of aging.
All of this means that you have to stay on top of your hydration. You’ve probably heard the old “8 glasses a day” rule, but that’s really just meant to be an easy number to remember – you might need less, or more if you’re working up a sweat. If you find it hard to chug 8 glasses of water, try sipping slowly all day out of a reinforced stainless steel water bottle (to keep your water cold), and adding some fruit peels or essences to make it more enjoyable, or changing things up by adding more fruits with high water content (like melon) into your diet.
Grapefruit Can Be Your Enemy
Most fruits are your friend, as long as you can digest them and don’t have any allergies, because they’re filled with vitamins and minerals, but there can be exceptions. For example, if you’re a fan of the bitter grapefruit, you might want to talk to your doctor before you indulge: grapefruit and grapefruit juice can intensify the effects of some drugs, especially those for anxiety, high blood pressure, and insomnia, potentially making them dangerous.
Soy Isn’t Your Enemy
Have you gotten caught up in the controversies surrounding soy? A lot of people think that soy is bad for you, especially if you’ve had breast cancer, because soy has isoflavones, or plant estrogens, and high levels of estrogen have been linked with higher breast cancer risk. But food sources of soy do not have high enough levels of isoflavones to boost risk, say experts. In fact, soy products can be a good protein source, especially if you’re not a big meat eater.
Supplements Aren’t All That
If you’re healthy, you probably don’t need a multivitamin: you should be getting the bulk of your nutrients from healthy, whole foods. In fact, not all researchers agree on the importance of supplements. A 2014 review by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, for example, recommended against daily multivitamins for adults who had no serious health problems, and said even seniors should be able to avoid using supplements as long as they’re continuing to eat healthy, so you might be better off spending your money on actual food. The only exceptions might be calcium, vitamin D, and B12 (as noted above), as well as omega-3, since you tend to have a hard time taking on this essential brain-cell-boosting nutrient as you get older. Talk to your doctor about what you might need.
Hey, we all still want some surprises in our lives as we get older, but those surprises shouldn’t be related to your health. When it comes to eating right so you can keep yourself going strong, make sure you know the facts! The above info is a really good start – and we want to know if you’ve come across any nutrition surprises as you’ve gotten older. Now get back to those cookies and milk, we won’t tell!