Eating healthy becomes especially important as you age.
That’s because aging is linked to a variety of changes, including nutrient deficiencies, decreased quality of life and poor health outcomes.
Luckily, there are things you can do to help prevent deficiencies and other age-related changes. For example, eating nutrient-rich foods and taking the appropriate supplements can help keep you healthy as you age.
This article explains how your nutritional needs change as you age, including how to address them.
Aging is linked to a variety of changes in the body, including muscle loss, thinner skin and less stomach acid.
Some of these changes can make you prone to nutrient deficiencies, while others can affect your senses and quality of life.
For example, studies have estimated that 20% of elderly people have atrophic gastritis, a condition in which chronic inflammation has damaged the cells that produce stomach acid (1).
Low stomach acid can affect the absorption of nutrients, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and magnesium (1,
Another challenge of aging is a reduced need for calories. Unfortunately, this creates a nutritional dilemma. Older adults need to get just as much, if not more, of some nutrients, all while eating fewer calories.
Fortunately, eating a variety of whole foods and taking a supplement can help you meet your nutrient needs.
Another issue people may experience as they age is a reduction in their body’s ability to recognize vital senses like hunger and thirst (
This could make you prone to dehydration and unintentional weight loss. And the older you get, the harsher these consequences may be (
Aging is linked to muscle loss, thinner skin and reduced stomach acid. Your ability to recognize hunger and thirst may also be reduced as you age.
A person’s daily calorie needs depend on their height, weight, muscle mass, activity level and several other factors.
Older adults may need fewer calories to maintain their weight, since they tend to move and exercise less and carry less muscle (
If you continue to eat the same number of calories per day as you did when you were younger, you could easily gain extra fat, especially around the belly area (
This is especially true in postmenopausal women, as the decline in estrogen levels seen during this time may promote belly fat storage (7).
However, even though older adults need fewer calories, they need just as high or even higher levels of some nutrients, compared to younger people.
This makes it very important for older people to eat a variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats. These healthy staples can help you fight nutrient deficiencies, without expanding your waistline.
Nutrients that become especially important as you age include protein, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin B12.
Older adults generally need fewer calories. However, their nutrient needs are just as high or higher than when they were younger. That’s why eating nutrient-rich, whole foods becomes extremely important.
It’s common to lose muscle and strength as you age.
In fact, the average adult loses 3–8% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30 (
This loss of muscle mass and strength is known as sarcopenia.
It’s a major cause of weakness, fractures and poor health among the elderly (
Eating more protein could help your body maintain muscle and fight sarcopenia (
One study followed 2,066 elderly people over three years. It found those who ate the most protein daily lost 40% less muscle mass than people who ate the least (
Also, a review of 20 recent studies in elderly people found that eating more protein or taking protein supplements may slow the rate of muscle loss, increase muscle mass and help build more muscle (12).
Furthermore, combining a protein-rich diet with resistance exercise seems to be the most effective way to fight sarcopenia (
Eating a protein-rich diet could help fight sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle and strength. Research shows you may get the most benefits if you combine a protein-rich diet with resistance exercise.
Constipation is a common health problem among the elderly.
It’s especially common in people over 65, and it’s two to three times more common in women.
That’s because people at this age tend to move less and be more likely to take medications that have constipation as a side effect (
Eating fiber may help relieve constipation. It passes through the gut undigested, helping form stool and promote regular bowel movements (
In an analysis of five studies, scientists found that dietary fiber helped stimulate bowel movements in people with constipation (
Additionally, a high-fiber diet may prevent diverticular disease, a condition in which small pouches form along the colon wall and become infected or inflamed. This condition is especially common among the elderly (
Diverticular disease is often viewed as a disease of the Western diet. It’s incredibly common, affecting up to 50% of people over age 50 in Western countries.
Conversely, diverticular disease is almost absent in populations with higher fiber intakes. For example, in Japan and Africa, diverticular disease affects less than 0.2% of people (
Bowel-related issues, including constipation and diverticular disease, can occur as you age. You can help protect yourself by increasing your fiber intake.
Calcium and vitamin D are two of the most important nutrients for bone health.
Calcium helps build and maintain healthy bones, while vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium (
Unfortunately, older adults tend to absorb less calcium from their diets.
Human and animal studies have found that the gut tends to absorb less calcium with age (
However, the reduction in calcium absorption is likely caused by a vitamin D deficiency, since aging can make the body less efficient at producing it (
Your body can make vitamin D from the cholesterol in your skin when it is exposed to sunlight. However, aging can make the skin thinner, which reduces its ability to make vitamin D (25,
Together, these changes could prevent you from getting enough calcium and vitamin D, promoting bone loss and increasing your risk of fractures (27).
To counter aging’s effects on your vitamin D and calcium levels, it’s necessary to consume more calcium and vitamin D through foods and supplements.
A variety of foods contain calcium, including dairy products and dark green, leafy vegetables.
Meanwhile, vitamin D is found in a variety of fish, such as salmon and herring.
Older people can also benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement like cod liver oil.
Calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients for maintaining optimal bone health. Your body stands to benefit from getting more calcium and vitamin D as you age.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin also known as cobalamin.
It’s essential for making red blood cells and maintaining healthy brain function.
Unfortunately, studies estimate that 10–30% of people over age 50 have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12 from their diet.
Over time, this could cause a vitamin B12 deficiency (28).
Vitamin B12 in the diet is bound to proteins in the food you eat. Before your body can use it, stomach acid must help it separate from these food proteins.
Older people are more likely to have conditions that reduce stomach acid production, leading to less vitamin B12 absorption from foods. Atrophic gastritis is one condition that can cause this (29).
Additionally, older people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet are less likely to eat rich sources of vitamin B12, since it’s more abundant in animal foods such as eggs, fish, meat and dairy (28,
For this reason, older people can benefit from taking a vitamin B12 supplement or consuming foods fortified with vitamin B12.
These fortified foods contain crystalline vitamin B12, which is not bound to food proteins. So people who produce less than the normal amount of stomach acid can still absorb it (31).
Aging increases the risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency. Older adults can especially benefit from taking a vitamin B12 supplement or consuming foods fortified with vitamin B12.
Several other nutrients may benefit you as you age, including:
- Potassium: A higher potassium intake is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, kidney stones, osteoporosis and heart disease, all of which are more common among the elderly (
32, 33, 34).
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Heart disease is the leading cause of death among the elderly. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can lower heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and triglycerides (
- Magnesium: Magnesium is an important mineral in the body. Unfortunately, elderly people are at risk of deficiency because of poor intake, medication use and age-related changes in gut function (
- Iron: Deficiency is common in elderly people. This may cause anemia, a condition in which the blood does not supply enough oxygen to the body (
Most of these nutrients can be obtained from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats.
However, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet could benefit from taking an iron or omega-3 supplement.
Although iron is found in a variety of vegetables, plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well as meat sources of iron. Omega-3 fats are mostly found in fish.
Potassium, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and iron are other nutrients you can benefit from as you get older.
Water makes up about 60% of your body (
It’s important to stay hydrated at any age, since your body constantly loses water, mainly through sweat and urine.
Additionally, aging can make you prone to dehydration.
Your body detects thirst through receptors found in the brain and throughout the body.
However, as you age, these receptors may become less sensitive to water changes, making it harder for them to detect thirst (4, 41).
Additionally, your kidneys help your body conserve water, but they tend to lose function as you age (4).
Unfortunately, dehydration comes with harsh consequences for older people.
Long-term dehydration can reduce the fluid in your cells, reducing your ability to absorb medicine, worsening medical conditions and increasing fatigue (4).
That’s why it’s important to make a conscious effort to drink enough water daily.
If you find drinking water a challenge, try having one to two glasses of water with each meal. Otherwise, try carrying a water bottle as you go about your day.
Drinking an adequate amount of water is important as you age, as your body may become less able to recognize the signs of dehydration.
Another troubling concern for elderly people is decreased appetite.
If this issue isn’t addressed, it can lead to unintended weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. A loss of appetite is also linked to poor health and a higher risk of death (
Factors that could cause older adults to have a poor appetite include changes in hormones, taste and smell, as well as changes in life circumstances.
Studies have found that older people tend to have lower levels of hunger hormones and higher levels of fullness hormones, which means they could get hungry less often and feel fuller more quickly (
In a small study with 11 elderly people and 11 young adults, researchers found that elderly participants had significantly lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin before a meal (
Additionally, several studies have found that elderly people have higher levels of the fullness hormones cholecystokinin and leptin (
Aging can also affect your sense of smell and taste, making foods seem less appealing (
Other factors that may cause poor appetite include tooth loss, loneliness, underlying illness and medications that can decrease appetite (
If you find it difficult to eat large meals, try dividing your meals into smaller portions and have them every few hours.
Otherwise, try to establish a habit of eating healthy snacks like almonds, yogurt and boiled eggs, which provide lots of nutrients and a good number of calories.
It’s common for elderly people to experience reduced appetite. If this issue isn’t addressed, it can lead to weight loss, nutritional deficiencies and poor health.
Aging is linked to changes that can make you prone to deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium and several other important nutrients.
It may also reduce your ability to recognize sensations like hunger and thirst.
Luckily, you can take actions to prevent these deficiencies.
Make a conscious effort to stay on top of your water and food intake, eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods and consider taking a supplement.
All these actions can help you fight deficiencies and stay healthy as you get older.