Nutrition Advice For The Elderly

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 12:06pm

By Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN

Numerous changes in body composition and physiology are associated with advancing age. Compounding these changes are the accompanying lifestyle, social, economic and medical conditions that often impact the amount and quality of food that elderly people have available to them. To maximize their resources, the elderly must make an extra effort to choose nutrient-dense foods and avoid empty-calorie snacks.

Elderly people are at increased risk for nutrient deficiencies, and should ensure adequate intake of calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium and fiber. Here are some specific recommendations to ensure they get the most from their diets.

Seniors should increase antioxidants and fiber in their diet

As our bodies' own natural antioxidant systems become less effective, we must increase our intake of antioxidant and potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, such as artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cranberries and plums. In addition, many seniors fall short on dietary fiber. In addition to helping maintain optimal cholesterol levels, fiber improves irregularity. Good sources of fiber include beans, oats, oranges, raspberries and green peas. A bonus of eating lots of fruits (such as pineapples and cherries) and vegetables is that they're rich in a compound called bromelain, which may alleviate joint pain.

Eating foods rich in protein and B12 is especially important as we age

Protein is another macronutrient that the elderly may fall short on. A safe protein intake for elderly adults is 1.0-1.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. The body's ability to absorb vitamin B12 declines with age (found mostly in meats), so it makes sense to consume foods rich in both protein and vitamin B12, such as salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, sardines and flounder. The added bonus to these foods is that they are a source of omega-3 fats (as are walnuts, avocados and seeds), which may help improve brain function and reduce inflammation.

The senior diet: often deficient in calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B6

Good nutrition planning is needed to reach the recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D (for bone health), and vitamin B6 (for energy metabolism and heart health). Riboflavin deficiency in the elderly is actually quite common, at about 24% not meeting the RDA for this vitamin; while approximately 10% do not meet the RDA need for vitamin B6. Foods rich in these nutrients include bananas, yogurt, chicken, spinach, fortified cereal, milk, beans (such as lentil and pinto), fish (yellowfin tuna and snapper) and whole grains.

Limit sodium intake

It is common for the elderly to have a diminished sense of taste and smell. This may be why they readily add salt to their meals. The new dietary guidelines suggest limiting our sodium intake to less than 1 teaspoon per day to reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure. These individuals should try adding curcumin (a compound in curry that may protect against Alzheimer's disease), Mrs. Dash® salt-free seasonings, and other herbs and spices to meals.

Watch vitamin A intake

Vitamin A intakes in the elderly are generally below the current standard of 1,000 milligrams per day for men and 800 milligrams for women. Despite these low intakes, liver stores of vitamin A are well preserved with advancing age so supplementation would be more detrimental in elderly persons than in younger persons because of a diminished ability to clear this vitamin from the body. If retinyl esters build up, they transfer into low -density lipoproteins (LDLs) in the bloodstream, remaining for several weeks to act as potential toxins.

As we age our caloric needs decrease, but body fat may increase

One of the most noticeable changes is that we lose lean body mass (muscle) and gain body fat. Between the ages of 30 and 80, lean body mass declines by about 15% in people who are sedentary. Because of these changes, we need about 10% fewer calories as each decade of life passes. However, our nutrient needs generally stay the same. When declining energy requirements are not matched by decreased caloric intake, total body fat increases.

Different stages of our life require different health strategies

At every stage of life, our bodies change. As a result, certain nutrients become important for optimal health at different times. Always keep in mind that there are specific nutrition considerations that, if addressed properly, can help each of us function at our peak.