Dietitians Dish: You're never too old to adopt healthy lifestyle

Dec. 27, 2011 at 6:27 a.m.

Lindsay Adams

Lindsay Adams

By Lindsay Adams

More and more individuals in the United States are living longer. Currently, 12 percent of the North American population is 65 and older. Since the older population is growing larger, it is important to make sure we keep these older individuals healthy, and proper nutrition is one of the first steps in doing so.

A healthy eating plan for older individuals should be filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk products, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, and low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars. Calorie requirements in the older population decrease, although older adults need greater amounts of other nutrients.

First, older adults need more vitamin D and calcium to help keep bones strong and healthy. They should include three servings of vitamin D fortified, low-fat, or fat-free milk or yogurt products daily. Fortified cereals and fruit juices, dark green, leafy vegetables and canned fish with soft bones are other great sources of calcium.

Vitamin B12 is another important nutrient for older individuals, and many people more than 50 years old do not get enough. Vitamin B12 deficiency takes years to develop, but once developed, it is difficult to reverse. Symptoms can include deterioration of mental function, change in personality and loss of physical coordination. Dietary sources of vitamin B12 include fortified cereal, lean meat and some fish and seafood.

Digestion can also be altered with aging, and adequate fiber intake can help the aged stay regular. Fiber may also lower risk for heart disease and prevent type 2 diabetes. Whole grain breads and cereals, beans, peas, fruits and vegetables are good sources of fiber.

Changes can occur as individuals age that can affect their nutritional status. One of the most significant changes involves shifts in the musculoskeletal system, which can lose up to 15 percent of fat-free mass. There is an average decline in lean body mass of 2 to 3 percent per decade from age 30 to 70, including loss of muscle, beginning around age 40, even when weight is stable. Therefore regular physical activity, including strengthening and flexibility exercise, can help maintain body composition as well as improve ability to carry out activities of daily living. A recommended goal is to be physically active at least 30 minutes every day. Physical activity and healthy eating can also help stifle weight gain. Studies have shown that weight and body mass index tend to peak between the ages of 50 and 59, then stabilize and begin slowly dropping around age 70.

Changes in sensual awareness can also occur with aging. Decreased taste and smell can start declining at age 60 although it is unclear if this is related to age or increased illness that occur with aging. Making meals visually appealing and individualizing spices and seasoning to the individual's taste can help accommodate those experiencing this problem. Hunger and satiety cues are also weaker for the elderly. Eating five to six small meals throughout the day may help older individuals meet all of their nutritional needs.

So, remember, nutrition in old age is just as important as when you are young. It is never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Lindsay Adams is a registered dietitian. Send questions or comments to



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