I remember a time when I thought little of my nutritional needs. If I managed to eat some protein, a few carbs and some fruits and vegetables (a “square meal” as they called it then), I thought I was doing the right thing. I was skinny as a rail and I could eat as much as I wanted without gaining a pound.
By the time I hit my mid-20s I could see that things were changing. I went home for Christmas one year and my mother told me I was getting fat. I’d gained about ten pounds, but I didn’t know it was enough to change my looks. Live and learn.
The changes in my nutritional needs only changed with each passing decade. The hard truth is that what’s perfect at age 30 doesn’t cut it at 60.
Let’s take a look at the science behind all this, and what we should be eating after “a certain age,” as the French say. You might be surprised by some of the things your “healthy” diet is lacking…
Dilemma #1: Fewer Calories, More Nutrients
Researchers believe that many of the signs of aging are linked to nutrient deficiencies. As we age, it can be tougher to absorb critical vitamins. Plus, there’s the fact that we also need fewer calories as time goes by. Your metabolism slows down and you just plain don’t burn as much fuel.
Your daily caloric needs depend on your general size, muscle mass, activity level and other factors. But here’s the kicker: older adults often need fewer calories to maintain their weight, as they tend to move less and carry less muscle.1
If you continue with that high calorie, 20-something diet, you’re going to gain extra weight, especially in the mid-section. Woe to those who don’t learn this lesson early, the way I did, thanks to my Mom. I’m always amazed at the way kids who are trim and fit at 20 or 22 have a paunch by the time they’re 26 or 27.
Alas, the older you get the worse it gets, because the need for calories goes down year by year. This unfortunate twist of aging is especially true in postmenopausal women,2 because the decline in estrogen levels may promote fat storage.
But here’s the thing: although older adults need fewer calories, they need the same amount of nutrients – if not more – compared to younger folks.
That’s why we need to be strategic and eat a variety of whole foods including fruits, vegetables, fish and lean proteins. This approach will help safeguard against nutrient deficiencies, without piling on extra pounds. In a moment, I’ll share some specific nutrients that are critical as we age.
Please be aware that the fast foods and packaged goods many people live on are nutrient-poor, so they don’t satisfy your appetite. You continue to feel hungry. You will tend to eat more and more of these junk foods because your body is struggling to get any vitamins, minerals and other nutrients out of them. I recommend reading a book called The Dorito Effect if you want to learn the science behind this.
I recently stopped all my supplements for a week, and I noticed I was a lot hungrier. I think it was because after I’d swallowed all those nutrients, my body stopped telling me I needed to eat.
Dilemma #2: Less Muscle, More Protein
Did you know we lose between three and eight percent of our muscle mass each decade after 30?3 Yes, another depressing fact. It’s called sarcopenia and it’s a major cause of weakness and fractures among aging Americans.
Luckily, you can stem the tide.
First, it’s important to eat more protein, because it’s been shown to help your body maintain muscle and fight sarcopenia. In one large study4 that followed 2,066 older people (70-79), researchers found that those who ate the most protein lost 40% less muscle mass than people who ate the least.
I eat meat myself, in moderate amounts, and I look askance at vegetarian diets. I can’t absolutely prove this – there must be a hundred theories on healthy diet, and each of them is supported by studies. But I think no meat at all is a bad idea.
Boosting your protein intake is easy. Make sure you include a protein with each meal. Instead of snacking on chips, opt for protein-rich nuts. For breakfast, consider replacing cereal with eggs or even a high protein smoothie. And remember to add some nuts, hard-boiled eggs, beans or lean meat to your next salad.
Dilemma #3: Boost Your B12
In past posts, I’ve discussed the importance of this vitamin, which is essential for making red blood cells and maintaining healthy brain function. As with other vitamins, after age 50 many of us begin to lose our ability to absorb B12. Aging adults are more likely to have conditions that reduce stomach acid production, which is critical for vitamin absorption.
Over time, this deficiency can lead to physical and psychological symptoms, including nerve problems, fatigue, and difficulty thinking5. B12 deficiency is a significant factor in loss of memory and cognition.
And here’s another challenge to vegetarianism: You have to get B12 from animal products. It’s not found in plants. But it’s abundant in animal foods such as eggs, fish, meat and dairy. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you may be at a higher risk of B12 deficiency. I believe we can all benefit from taking a high-quality supplement or eating foods that are fortified with B12.
More Steps You Can Take. . .
I’ve covered just a few of the dietary tweaks that older people should consider. You may also want to up your vitamin D for bone health. Potassium, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids are other nutrients we can all use more of as we age.
I consume moderate use of dairy products – NOT supplements – to make sure I’m getting enough calcium. Again, both are controversial. Many nutritionists say you should eat no dairy, and the whole subject of calcium supplements is just about impossible to sort out.
Having read tons of research on this, I come down on the side of nixing the supplements.
And, one more thing. Remember to hydrate! Older people are prone to dehydration, which can wreak havoc on your whole body and even make certain medical conditions worse. Make a conscious effort to drink enough water every day.
Eating for your age isn’t rocket science. It just takes a little more planning and attention; and healthy aging is the very best payoff!