Nutritional needs change throughout a person’s lifespan. Babies and children need more of certain nutrients than adults because their bodies are growing, but the same applies at the opposite end of the spectrum, the latter years of life. Why do nutritional needs change? Nutrient absorption diminishes with aging and the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies go up.
People eat less with age, and that can affect nutritional status. Not only do older adults need fewer calories because of a slowdown in metabolic rate, but the diet that men and women over 60 eat should also be nutrient-dense to make up for absorption issues. Let’s look at some key nutrients you may need more of as you age.
Older adults may need more protein than younger adults to preserve muscle and prevent loss of muscle and bone tissue. One study that looked at adults over 70 found those with the highest protein intake had less bone loss relative to those who consumed less protein. Plus, older adults need protein to preserve muscle mass, combined with strength-training to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Without strong bones and muscles, adults have a higher risk of falling.
Protein doesn’t have to come from animal sources. Consuming a variety of plant-based protein sources is effective too, although you have to consume more plant-based sources since most plants don’t have as much protein as meat and dairy.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of heart-healthy fat. They come in two forms: long-chain and short-chain. Long-chain fatty acids are abundant in fatty fish and fish oil supplements, while short-chain forms of omega-3 are in certain plant-based foods. Ground flaxseed, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, chia, and some vegetables are good sources of short-chain omega-3s.
Long-chain omega-3s may have benefits for heart health, although studies are conflicting. However, their anti-inflammatory benefits are clear-cut, and if you get omega-3s from fish, you also get a healthy source of protein.
The best source of vitamin D is exposure to sunlight. However, older people are less likely to get the sun exposure necessary to meet their vitamin D requirements. Plus, they aren’t as efficient at converting vitamin D to its active form Food, except fatty fish, eggs, and fortified milk and cereals, and mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light isn’t a good source of vitamin D.
Why do you need it? Vitamin D plays a crucial role in bone health and also helps regulate the immune system. Various studies show many people over the age of 50 have a low vitamin D level. Unfortunately, this is a hard situation to correct through diet, so it’s best to check a vitamin D level and take a vitamin D supplement if it’s low.
Fiber is important for bowel regularity and a healthy gut microbiome. Adults of all ages fall short in fiber. In fact, the average American gets only half of the recommended fiber intake for males of 38 grams of fiber and 25 grams for females. The best way to get more fiber is to eat more whole, plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Ultra-processed foods are low in this dietary component, so it’s not surprising that constipation is a common complaint of people who eat a junk food diet.
Calcium is a mineral your body needs in substantial quantities for minute-by-minute activities like muscle and heart function, but also for bone health. Some medications also cause loss of calcium through urine. According to Mayo Clinic endocrinologist Dr. Wermers, it’s harder to keep a healthy calcium balance after the age of 50. However, calcium supplements increase the risk of kidney stones, whereas dietary calcium does not. So, it’s best to get calcium from dietary sources. Although dairy is a standout calcium source, you can also get calcium from fish that contains bones, calcium-fortified foods, leafy vegetables, and dried beans and peas.
Magnesium takes part in over 300 chemical reactions in the human body, including those you need for healthy heart and blood vessel function, muscle contractions, and bone health. It also supports healthy blood sugar control. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Americans of all ages don’t get enough magnesium. The best sources are nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green, leafy vegetables.
Many people over the age of 50 don’t get enough potassium, a vitamin that plays a crucial role in heart heath and blood pressure regulation either. One reason older people fall low in this vitamin is they don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables. The other reason is certain medications, like diuretics and some blood pressure medications, increase potassium loss through the urine. The best way to add more potassium to your diet is to consume more fruits and veggies. If you have kidney disease, talk to your doctor before increasing your potassium intake.
Vitamin B12 deficiency becomes more common after the age of 50, mainly due to absorption issues. A deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause anemia and neurological problems, like balance issues and numbness/tingling in the legs and hands. It can also cause brain fog, confusion, and long-term damage to the peripheral nerves, spine, and brain if it goes without treatment. Plus, vitamin B12 deficiency can mimic some symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis. People who don’t consume meat and dairy are at higher risk because vitamin B12 is only in animal-based foods. However, poor absorption due to aging is the most common cause in people over 50.
The risk of developing vitamin B6 deficiency goes up with age, too. Like vitamin B12, deficiency can cause cognitive changes. One study found that people with the lowest vitamin B6 levels in their blood developed greater loss of cognitive function over five years relative to those who had the highest levels.
A study found that 92% of adults over 50 fall short of the estimated average requirement for vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that supports heart health. It’s difficult to get the recommended 15 milligrams of vitamin E daily without consuming nuts, seeds, or seed oils. Seed oils aren’t the healthiest way to get vitamin E, so consuming a handful or two of nuts or seeds, like pumpkin or sunflower seeds, is a good alternative. Wheat germ oil is another excellent dietary source of vitamin E.
The Bottom Line
The risk of nutrient deficiencies goes up with age because of a variety of factors. Make sure you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet and talk to your doctor about health problems and medications that may increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies.
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