As we get older, it’s important to maintain a well-balanced diet to stay energised, avoid nutrient deficiencies, maintain strong immunity and prevent disease.
But, at the same time, our lifestyles and eating patterns can change as we age. We tend to be more sedentary, have a reduced appetite, and illness and mobility issues can make shopping and food preparation difficult.
And while older people require less energy, they actually have increased dietary requirements for a range of nutrients. This mismatch between food intake and nutritional requirements can potentially result in deficiencies and accelerate ageing and disease risk.
The most recent Australian Health Survey reported that men over the age of 70 were less likely than younger men to meet their requirements for protein, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, selenium and zinc. Women over 70 were less likely than their younger counterparts to hit their protein, riboflavin and vitamin B6 targets, which can affect energy levels, immunity, cell function and repair, and overall health.
What nutrients do we need to increase once we hit 70?
Compared with younger people, men and women aged 70 and over require 25% more protein to help preserve muscle and strength, support bone health and help the body deal with illness. If your protein intake is inadequate, you’re less likely to be able to perform everyday tasks as you age.
But you don’t necessarily need to eat more animal foods. Plant foods such as tofu, nuts and seeds, and beans, peas and lentils are good sources of protein, plus they contain dietary fibre, antioxidants and phytonutrients that lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
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As we grow older we lose bone mass, so we need to ensure our diets provide sufficient calcium to slow down the process. If we have a chronic dietary deficiency, our bones give up calcium to the blood for other vital functions. These calcium-robbed bones then become porous and brittle and can easily fracture, resulting in osteoporosis.
According to Osteoporosis Australia, one in two women and one in three men over 60 years will suffer at least one osteoporotic fracture. These fractures cause pain and disability, and for some older people it may mean full-time care or moving into a nursing home.
Adults over 70 need 1,300mg of calcium per day. Good sources include dairy foods, calcium-fortified foods, tofu and fish with edible bones (like sardines and tinned salmon). Green vegetables and nuts and seeds also provide calcium.
Also known as vitamin B2, riboflavin helps our body convert food into energy. Our bodies don’t absorb it as well as we age, and this is reflected in international studies and large surveys that have reported suboptimal riboflavin status in older people.
In Australia, the last national health survey reported that 20% of both men and women aged 71 and over had inadequate riboflavin intake. Dairy foods, eggs and seafood (such as oysters, clams, mussels, trout and salmon) are good sources. Many breakfast cereals and plant milks are fortified with riboflavin, too.
4. Vitamin D
We need vitamin D for strong bones, muscles, immune function and overall health. While some foods like eggs, cheese, oily fish and fortified foods provide vitamin D, we get most of our vitamin D from exposing our skin to sunlight.
However, older people tend to spend more time indoors and the ability to synthesise and convert vitamin D to its active form decreases with age, compounding the issue. Being physically active outdoors, baring as much skin as tolerable, can increase your vitamin D levels.
Make sure you get your vitamin D status checked by your GP to see if you need to take supplements, which may reduce risk of falls and fractures.
The bottom line
A healthy diet can increase your healthspan as well as your lifespan. To ensure you’re meeting your nutritional requirements, Nutrition Coach has put together a week of healthy eating for men aged 70+ and a week of healthy eating for women aged 70+.
The sample week will show you what healthy looks like for you now that you’ve reached 70, and hopefully you enjoy the meals so much that you incorporate them into your repertoire in the weeks and years beyond.
Kate Barnes (ANutr, BAppSc, GDipHumNutr) is a Sydney-based nutritionist and founder of Nutrition Coach, where she works with clients to change behaviours and promote optimal nutrition.