Nutrition is important no matter what age you are – it’s just as important to get it right when you are aged 85 years as it is when you are in your teens.
Living a healthy and active life is closely linked to a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity paired with wise food choices.
Research has proved that nutritional intervention can improve outcomes in many clinical scenarios. This is especially true for older individuals with different acute and chronic conditions and diseases, or with malnutrition.
The best way to get the right nutrition is by what you eat. The right intake of nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, and fibre are essential for normal body functions, from maintaining muscle to promoting healthy digestion.
The Importance of Protein
As we age, our bodies experience uninvited changes, with one of the more dramatic changes being loss of muscle. It is important to maintain muscle, because loss of muscle can be associated with loss of muscle strength and functionality which can result in limited ability to perform daily activities such as walking upstairs or rising from a chair.
Protein requirements increase as we age, therefore it is important that high quality protein is part of every meal for muscle health and helping to preserve muscle function and strength. Protein rich foods include: meat, fish, eggs, milk, beans, nuts and pulses. Research shows that protein should be spread evenly over the day with the aim of 20-30g of protein per meal.
There is often confusion around dietary fats and the different types. With so much conflicting information out there it can often be challenging for older people to know what they should eat.
Fats are needed to help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, the so-called fat-soluble vitamins. Fat also insulates your body to help keep you warm. So it’s important to maintain fat in an older person’s diet.
While it is important to include some beneficial fats in your diet to maintain a healthy body, such as monounsaturated fats, there are other fats that should be consumed in smaller quantities such as saturated fats and trans fats.
Ways to include beneficial fats in your diet include using olive oil as a dressing or in cooking; using avocado as a sandwich filling or a spread; having nuts as a snack; and having fish as a regular part of your diet.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to stay healthy and function properly.
There are 13 vitamins—vitamins C, A, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate). Examples of minerals include iron, calcium, and zinc.
The body can only make limited amounts of vitamins for itself, the rest must come from the nutrients in our diet. A varied diet including fresh fruit and vegetables, along with lean meat, whole grains and legumes is the best way of getting all the vitamins and minerals we need.
Everyone requires a certain amount of salt, but too much can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Salt occurs naturally in many foods such as meat, eggs, milk and vegetables, but much of the salt in most people’s diet comes from processed foods, where salt is added to season food and add flavour.
The Importance of Fibre
Constipation can be common with many older people. Before resorting to medication and laxatives, making dietary changes may be an effective solution.
To prevent constipation it is important to include foods in your diet that are high in fibre. Wholegrain cereals (porridge, wheat biscuits, brand flakes), wholemeal bread, fruit, dried fruit, vegetables, brown rice, dried peas, beans and lentils are excellent sources of fibre.
Fibre and water work well together to manage constipation, so make sure you consume enough fluids throughout the day to help prevent and alleviate any digestion struggles you may have.
Increasing Fluid Intake
Something that many people don’t realise is that older adults actually have less body fluid mass than that of a young adult. Traditionally, it is thought that a person is made up of 60% water, but in an older person that may only be 50%. As we get older, the body’s warning signals about not having enough fluid – such as thirst –get weaker.
This means that older adults are at a higher risk of being dehydrated, and it is for this reason that it is essential that older adults drink more fluids. This is particularly important if you reside in a place with a warmer climate.
To help increase your fluid intake, you may wish to have fluids readily available throughout the day that you can sip on, or eat foods with higher water content. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most common food source for water or fluids, including watermelon, grapefruits, cantaloupe, broccoli, peas, potatoes and spinach.
The Right Nutrition for Ageing Well
Good nutrition helps support overall health as we age. A good diet is one that is complete and balanced – that is, a diet that contains essential vitamins and minerals along with a balance of protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre.
A good appetite and a varied diet often means that our nutritional needs are met. However, there are times when we don’t eat enough or what we do eat lacks sufficient nutrients and this can put us at health risk.
If you experience a change in appetite or weight, talk to your doctor, dietitian, case manager or other healthcare professional. Your healthcare professional will help to determine the cause and will advise you about the diet that is right for you. They may suggest oral nutrition supplements such as Sustagen® Hospital Formula to help provide the body with the extra nutrients that it needs. For more information on Sustagen®
Nutritional supplements can only be of assistance when dietary intake is inadequate. Please seek advice on your individual dietary needs from an Accredited Practising Dietitian or your healthcare professional. Sustagen® Hospital Formula is a formulated meal replacement and cannot be used as a total diet replacement.