A selection of food, including nuts, olive oil and salmon.
OPINION: Older adults have unique nutrient needs and the process of ageing occurs at different rates in different people. A combination of good food and regular physical activity can delay or even reverse many of the problems associated with ageing, helping older adults to continue to live independently and enjoy a good quality of life.
In general energy needs decrease with age and this means older people need to select mostly nutrient-dense foods to make sure their nutrient requirements are met. Protein needs are generally higher and food sources of high-quality protein help to prevent infections, muscle wasting and to optimise bone health. New evidence suggests that spreading protein intake evenly over meals may be beneficial, so don’t forget an egg or other protein food for breakfast.
Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruit and vegetables, also rich in fibre are the best energy source and with an adequate water intake can help alleviate constipation, which can be a problem, especially in those who are physically inactive and take multiple medications.
Vitamins and mineral requirements can be achieved by eating a variety of foods from the major food groups. This means eating plenty of vegetables and fruit; where possible whole grains in place of refined grains (such as white bread, cakes and biscuits); lean meat, poultry and fish or legumes (such as baked beans and lentils) plus nuts and seeds. Include low-fat dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese and healthy fats such as avocado and oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, and salmon.
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Calcium is an essential nutrient as we grow older and we need a good reserve in our bones to help prevent osteoporosis and fractures. Aim for three serves of milk, yoghurt or cheese each day or substitute with calcium-fortified soy milk or tinned fish (with bones), nuts including almonds, brazil and hazelnuts, legumes, and tofu. Enjoy a latte or milk-based sauces and soups to boost your intake.
Vitamin D is essential to help our bodies absorb calcium from food and the best source is sunlight. Try to get out in the sun for at least 30 minutes a day, preferably before 11am and after 3pm. If getting enough sun is difficult for you, discuss taking a Vitamin D supplement with your GP.
Folate is a B vitamin important in the replacement of red blood cells and not having enough may eventually lead to macrocytic anaemia (large immature blood cells), which can make you feel weak, tired and possibly give you palpitations. Include plenty of leafy vegetables such as cabbage and spinach, liver (if you like it), citrus fruit and nuts. Look for orange juices and cereals fortified with folate when you shop.
Vitamin B12 is supplied almost entirely by animal foods such as meat (especially liver), eggs, seafood (sardines) and dairy products. An inadequate intake can lead to pernicious anaemia characterised by tiredness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and weight. At least one serving of either lean meat, chicken, fish, or eggs and two servings of dairy products each day are needed.
To help you feel at your best have at least three meals every day. Skipping breakfast may be counterproductive. Include plenty of different vegetables and fruit, which will help you maintain a healthy weight. If your weight is a little low, have a snack between meals. Include at least 6-8 glasses of fluids each day, such as water, tea, coffee, and calcium-enriched milk.
In advanced age older adults may be vulnerable to eating too little energy with associated weight loss. Those who have lost a spouse are especially at risk. Sharing a meal with others is the best preventative measure. Eating is a social event and companionship facilitates eating and enjoyment.
Carol Wham is Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Massey University.