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You are what you eat: Nutrition tips for healthy ageing

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By Nutritionist Bonnie Chivers – BAppSc, MHumNutr, PhD Candidate.

If you’re 50+ or approaching this milestone, firstly – congratulations! And secondly – this one is for you.  

As we age, changes occur to our bodies that we need to proactively address via our diet. Doing so in a preventative way to avoid illness or injury is always best, so the earlier you implement a healthy diet the better! 

In general, you need less of some foods, and more of others. Here we cover six things you may need more of:

Calcium

Dietary sources of calcium are:

  • Dairy products: milk, yoghurt, cheese, calcium-fortified cottage cheese, whey protein powder
  • Green leafy vegetables: broccoli, kale, cabbage, turnip greens, and mustard greens
  • Fruits: olives, dried figs, prunes, tangerines, kiwifruit, prickly pears and oranges 
  • Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, soybeans (and soybean products – tofu, edamame, soymilk)
  • Fish: canned salmon and sardines with the bones
  • Nuts: almonds and Brazil nuts
  • Eggs and egg shells
  • Calcium enriched/fortified foods: cereals, orange juice, plant-based milks, and breads that have calcium added to them

 

It is important that you do not try to get all your calcium in one meal, as your body cannot absorb more than 500mg at a time (and most of us need two-to-two-and-a-bit times this per day). 

For this reason it is important to include items from the list above in all, or most, or your meals. 

One of the main reasons calcium is important is due to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis has no cure, so a proactive approach to decreasing your risk is strongly recommended. 

The majority of the population do not consume enough calcium. As a result, the body utilises calcium from bones to support the other functions that it is needed for, decreasing the strength of your bones over time. A large proportion of adults aged 50 years and over have osteoporosis or osteopenia, resulting in 1 in 3 women (50+) and 1 in 5 men (50+) experiencing an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime.

Check out this handy meal plan for some suggestions on how to plan your daily calcium intake. 

Vitamin D

Without enough vitamin D, your body can’t absorb calcium properly. So, if you’re making the effort to get enough calcium, you need to focus on vitamin D as well. 

There is also an increasing association between vitamin D deficiency and other medical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers, fatigue and mood changes, to name a few.  

Vitamin D deficiency is prevalent in Australia and New Zealand. More than 1 in every 3 Australian adults has mild-to-severe vitamin D deficiency. This increases to more than 50 per cent in women during winter–spring and in people residing in the southern states. 

To maintain adequate vitamin D from sunlight, moderately fair-skinned people should expose as much bare skin as feasible to midday winter sunlight for 7-40 minutes (length of time depends on latitude); then decrease time to 6–7 minutes at mid-morning or mid-afternoon during summer, exposing just the arms. 

If this is not possible, vitamin D supplementation of at least 600-800 IU (20 μg) per day is recommended. Many foods are now fortified with vitamin D and choosing fortified options is strongly recommended.  

Vitamin D levels can be easily assessed via a blood test, so regular check-ups are important.

Protein

Ageing bodies process protein less efficiently and need more of it to maintain muscle mass and strength, bone health and other essential functions, especially during times or illness or stress. Despite this, up to a third of older adults don’t eat an adequate amount. 

Similar to calcium, it’s important to remember that your body cannot absorb more than 20-25g in one sitting (1.5-2 hours). This means that the 75 grams of protein in the 300g steak you have for dinner cannot all be utilised by your body. For this reason, it is important that we try to include protein in all our meals and snacks throughout the day. 

Trying adding at least one of these to every main meal or snack:

  • Eggs
  • Natural peanut butter 
  • Hummus
  • Canned tuna, salmon or sardines 
  • Dairy based yoghurt or soy yoghurt (while coconut yoghurt might be delicious, it tends to be high in calories, sugar and saturated fat and low in protein)
  • Edamame beans, canned or fresh beans (black, kidney, baked etc), lentils or peas 
  • Cottage cheese (opt for calcium fortified versions to get both protein and calcium)
  • Oats 
  • Amaranth
  • Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
  • Animal protein (poultry and a variety of fish are considered the best animal proteins; less is more when it comes to red meats)
  • Dairy, soy or pea milk (milk alternatives like almond, oat or coconut are low in protein) 
  • Whey or plant-based protein powders

 

If you think protein might be one of your areas of need, pop this list on your fridge or pantry and tick off each item when you have it. This will help you track your protein throughout the day and allow you to identify if you’re lacking. 

Fibre 

To keep your bowels active, include plenty of fibre in your diet. Fibre also helps you feel fuller for longer, can improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and can assist in preventing some diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer. 

Males need at least 30g of fibre per day and females need at least 25g. Eating a variety of plant-based foods will help you get enough fibre each day.

Fibre tips:

  • choose wholegrain, wholemeal and/or high fibre varieties of grain-based foods like bread and pasta
  • enjoy a variety of wholegrains, such as rice, oats, quinoa, barley, polenta and buckwheat
  • have at least two pieces of fruit (fresh or dried) and five servings of vegetables a day.

 

Boost your fibre intake:

  • sprinkle of bran or psyllium husk on cereal, muesli or yoghurt
  • have a small handful of nuts and seeds as a snack
  • choose high fibre fruits such as pear, figs or prunes
  • high fibre smoothie (greens, berries, dairy or soy milk)
  • add legumes to meals.

 

Vitamins and Minerals 

Eating a variety of foods from the core food groups (fruit, vegetables, grains, protein, dairy/calcium foods) will provide an array of vitamins and minerals. 

Supplements may be recommended by a doctor or dietitian for diagnosed deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies are not uncommon in older adults due to reduced appetite or digestion issues from illness or medication. For this reason, it is important to visit your doctor for blood tests at least once a year. 

Vitamin and mineral supplements cannot compensate for a poor diet and generally come at a higher cost than food, so obtaining as many nutrients as possible via food is recommended. 

Fluid

Make sure you drink enough water to prevent constipation and maintain hydration and blood volume/flow. Remember, most people need at least 6–8 cups of fluid each day. As you age, you may not feel thirsty as often, even when your body needs fluid.

Mineral water, soda water and milk count towards your fluid intake during the day, but water is always best!

Bonnie Chivers

Instagram: the_well_being

BAppSc, MHumNutr, PhD Candidate 

Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation – MCHRI
School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University

Disclaimer:

No content on this blog should be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. Please note the date of this blog post, as evidence pertaining to these findings may change overtime.