How to Get the Nutrients You Need as You Age

A balanced diet is a key to well-being at any stage of life, but good nutrition takes on added importance as you age. Many of the health issues associated with aging—such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cognitive changes—can be improved, managed or prevented with a healthy diet and regular exercise.

“Prioritize nutrition for your best, most independent life as you age,” says UNC Health dietitian Shelly Wegman.

We spoke to Wegman and John Batsis, MD, a UNC Health geriatrician and obesity medicine specialist, about nutritional needs for your 50s, 60s and beyond.

Healthy Diets for Aging

“Balanced, healthy diets are extremely important as people age,” Dr. Batsis says. “If someone has medical conditions, they should work with their clinical team that includes a registered dietitian to modify their diet to align with those needs.”

The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and fish, has been shown to prevent or improve many age-related chronic conditions, including heart disease and bone disease.

If you are concerned about blood pressure, the DASH eating plan (short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is similar to the Mediterranean diet in its focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains but also emphasizes reducing sodium consumption.

The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet, or MIND diet, is a combination of these approaches with the goal of preventing the onset of dementia and cognitive decline. This plant-based diet limits saturated fat and sugar.

“Older people should focus on eating vegetables as often as possible during the day,” Wegman says. “An easy way to meet your nutrient needs is to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter of your plate with protein from beans or lean meats, and a quarter of your plate with whole grains and fruits. The nutrients from these foods are essential to brain and body health.”

Physical Changes Affect Nutritional Needs

As you get older, your body can’t absorb nutrients as easily as it did when you were younger, leading to potential nutrient deficiencies. Focusing on nutrient-rich foods can help you address some of the changes that occur in your body over time.

“One major concern is an increased need for protein as you age, because the body’s ability to utilize protein diminishes,” Dr. Batsis says. “It is vital for an individual’s physical function to make an effort to increase the amount of protein one consumes and spread it throughout the day to overcome the challenges that occur with aging.”

Exercise can help to maintain lean muscle mass, but staying active in old age can be a challenge.

“When people become more sedentary, there’s unintended weight gain, a greater risk of falls and an inability to perform activities of daily living,” Wegman says. “Your calorie needs also decrease when your activity levels do, so it’s even more important to focus on getting the right nutrients if you’re eating less.”

Nutrient Deficiencies in Aging People

Because your body is less able to absorb nutrients as you age, an unhealthy diet can easily lead to nutrient deficiencies. Dr. Batsis and Wegman say common deficiencies in aging people include vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin B12, vitamin D, fiber, zinc and calcium.

These deficiencies can contribute to various health problems. A lack of vitamin B12, for example, can cause confusion or numbness and pain; a lack of fiber can lead to constipation and heart disease.

About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men older than 50 have osteoporosis, which causes weakened bones and increased risk of breaks. Calcium is essential to strengthening bones; good food sources include leafy greens, salmon, sardines, dairy and fortified cereals. You may need to take calcium and vitamin D supplements.

However, Dr. Batsis and Wegman both urge caution before taking too many dietary supplements to address nutrient deficiencies.

“There are lots of limitations with dietary supplements. They are often not subjected to regulatory approval or rigorously tested,” Dr. Batsis says.

There is a better result when your nutrients come from food rather than a supplement, Wegman adds.

“If you start taking a bunch of supplements, they may not work well together, and they can conflict with some medications,” Wegman says. “Talk to your clinical team or dietitian about what might be missing that you’d need to supplement.”

Overcoming Challenges to Healthy Eating

You may face challenges in consistently building a healthy diet as you get older. Seniors living on their own might lack motivation to cook for one. Mobility or transportation issues can make cooking and grocery shopping difficult. Problems with oral health or dentition may affect your ability to chew certain foods.

Dietitians can help you in many of these areas.

“We might suggest protein smoothies or softer foods if texture is an issue,” Wegman says. “We can help to identify quick and easy ingredients to keep on hand that don’t require cooking but still meet nutritional needs.”

Wegman says dietitians can help you connect with food pantries, home-delivered meal services and group meal options if transportation or a fixed income affects your access to food.

If you’re unable to meet with a dietitian, Wegman recommends the National Institute on Aging’s healthy eating information and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s resources for older adults.

If you have questions about your nutritional needs, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.