It’s amazing the way our approach to food and eating changes as we get older. As kids, we ate quite a bit to fuel our growth and get proper nutrition. As adults, our approach became more measured, since eating with abandon wasn’t as wise as our metabolisms slowed. Then as older adults, many of us begin to experience diminishing appetites while at the same time, some of our nutrient needs increase.
That’s why it’s so important that we eat nutritious meals and snacks – especially ones with high-quality protein – in order to support muscle and bone health.
As Appetites Wane, Nutrition Needs Increase
The nutrient needs of older adults are different than in our younger years. We now need more:
- Protein to support muscle and bone health, as well as immune system function. Protein is hugely important for older adults, since it’s harder for us to build and maintain muscle. A hallmark of older age is sarcopenia, or muscle weakness, but we can help combat that by increasing the amount of protein we eat.
- Calcium for strong bones. The bones in our body are in a constant state of building up and breaking down, but as we get older the breakdown happens much faster, and there’s no more building up. That’s why it’s important to get this mineral every day from foods like milk, yogurt and calcium-fortified foods and beverages. Older women especially need to focus on calcium, since they tend to be at greater risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis.
- Vitamin B6 to convert the foods we eat into energy for the cells of the body. Our body’s need for vitamin B6 jumps from 1.3 mg per day for all adults ages 19-50, to 1.5 mg and 1.7 mg for women and men, respectively, ages 51 and older.
- Vitamin B12 which helps make cell DNA. As we get older, we lose the ability to properly absorb vitamin B12 from foods, so we need good quality food sources and sometimes a dietary supplement.
- Vitamin D which works alongside calcium to support bone health. This vitamin also plays a vital role in immune system health. After age 70 our daily vitamin D requirements increase from 600 IU (15 mcg) to 800 IU (20 mcg).
- Magnesium, a mineral that supports muscle health, heart health and bone health. Like vitamin B12, our ability to absorb magnesium from foods tends to decrease as we age, so older people are at greater risk of magnesium deficiency.
Getting proper nutrition can sometimes feel like a puzzle: there are so many pieces you need to fit together to get the nutrients for everyday health but with fewer calories as you get older. Add in a diminished appetite, and it’s easy to see why you need to make every bite count.
Using Snacks to Round Out the Diet
Snacking can be a smart strategy to get more nutrients into the body. However, it is estimated that fewer than 20 percent of people ages 55 and older snack every day. Snacking should be part of your daily routine because it allows you to:
- Get More Calories. For many older Americans, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding weight loss can be a struggle. By adding a snack or two into your day, you’re giving yourself another opportunity to get in some extra calories that you need.
- Get More Nutrients. Similarly, a nutrient-dense snack that includes some or all of the vitamins and minerals that most older adults lack is a smart way to get the nutrients you need.
- Pace Your Protein. If your daily protein goal seems challenging, break it up across four or five meals or mini meals (snacks) throughout the day. There’s some research that suggests pacing your protein and aiming for 20-35 grams or so at each eating occasion can help with maintaining muscle.
- Eat Smaller Meals. A diminished appetite is common when we get older. If you have a hard time stomaching a large meal, break up your eating occasions over the course of the day with smaller meals and snacks. You’ll still get the nutrients and calories you need, and your stomach will appreciate it!
- Save Time and Effort. If your household is small, or if it’s just you, it can be a hassle to prepare a big meal that has just one or two servings. Snacks that pack in nutrition but in a small serving or a convenient container, like supplemental nutritional beverages, can be just what you need to help get the nutrients you need.