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Nutrition and Older People

As our life expectancy steadily increases it is important that we adopt healthy lifestyle habits to ensure that any extra years of life we gain are free from disease.

Eat a healthy varied diet

As we get older, our sense of taste and smell can change, having an impact on our diet and appetite. Our body’s ability to absorb some nutrients also becomes less efficient with age, so it can be harder to get all the necessary nutrients into your diet for good health.Try to eat a varied and balanced diet containing plenty of fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, noodles, yams, cassava). You should eat moderate amounts of milk and dairy products, as well as meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of products. Keep food and drinks high in fat and/or sugar to a minimum.

Opt for healthier fats

There are two basic kinds of fat: saturated (saturated fat or saturates) and unsaturated (which includes both polyunsaturates and monounsaturates).

All dietary sources of fat provide a combination of saturated and unsaturated fat, but some foods contain far more saturated fat than others. Fat-containing foods from animal sources are high in saturated fat (e.g. fatty meat, butter, lard, whole milk, cheese, cream), whereas fat-containing foods from vegetable sources (e.g. vegetable oils (such as rapeseed, olive, sunflower, soya), nuts and seeds) are usually rich in unsaturated fat. The exceptions to this are palm and coconut oils, which are high in saturated fat and should be used in small quantities or swapped for other vegetable oils. Hard margarines are also high in saturated fat compared to other vegetable oil based spreads. Other sources of saturated fat are foods such as cakes, chocolate, biscuits, pies and pastries, as these are made with ingredients that contain a lot of saturated fat. Women should aim to keep saturated fat intakes below 20g per day and men below 30g per day.

Include oily fish in your diet

Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna, trout, sardines, kipper and herring are rich in omega 3 fatty acids which can help protect against heart disease. Therefore, it is advised to eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish. However, avoid eating more than four portions of oily fish as it can contain contaminants.

Research suggests omega 3 fatty acids may help alleviate some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. There is also some evidence that they play a role in preserving eye health, preventing cognitive decline and improving immune function.

Get plenty of fibre

Eating plenty of fibre-rich foods, such as wholegrain breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, vegetables, fruit and pulses, will prevent some digestive problems such as constipation and can help to protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. As you begin to eat more fibre it’s also a good idea to increase the amount of fluid you drink.

Cut back on salt

Salt (sodium chloride) is the main source of sodium in our diet. Some sodium in the diet is necessary for health, too much can cause fluid retention, and raise blood pressure which is a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Too much salt can also potentially increase the amount of calcium lost from bones.

All adults should keep their salt (sodium chloride) intake below 6 g a day. But currently the average intake among adults in the UK is far higher than this, at 8.6 g a day.

As we get older, it is common to experience a reduction in our sense of taste and this may tempt us to add more salt to meals for flavour. Try not to get into this habit, instead of adding salt, experiment with herbs and spices.

Read our salt article here

Eat calcium-rich foods

We all lose bone mass as we age, so it is important that we consume plenty of calcium. After the menopause, women are particularly susceptible to osteoporosis and reduced bone density. This is because the hormone oestrogen protects bone and after the menopause, oestrogen production is lowered.

It is very important for older women to get plenty of calcium from their diet to minimise bone loss in older age. The best source of calcium is dairy products – milk, cheese, yogurt – but other sources include fish with edible bones (canned salmon, sardines), pulses (e.g. beans and lentils), calcium fortified soy products (fortified soya drinks and tofu) and fortified breakfast cereals. Calcium supplements may also be of benefit for women after the menopause, particularly if dietary intake is low.

B vitamins

B vitamins – especially B6 and B12 and folate – can help reduce the levels of an amino acid (homocysteine) in the blood. High levels of this amino acid have been linked with heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss. Low blood levels of folate have also been linked with depression. Although we do not yet know if supplements of these vitamins can reduce risk of heart disease or dementia, a diet providing sufficient amounts of these vitamins is important for health.

Good sources of these vitamins include – vitamin B6 from pork, poultry, fish, bread, whole grain cereals, eggs, vegetables, soya beans, milk; vitamin B12 from meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs; folate from liver, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, peas, chickpeas, brussel sprouts.

Over 65? Vitamin D supplements

Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health and muscle function, by helping your body absorb calcium. Low levels of vitamin D can increase the risk of falls and bone fracture in older adults. Most of the vitamin D that our bodies need is made in the skin from sunlight but our skin becomes less efficient in producing vitamin D from sun exposure as we age.

Vitamin D can be obtained from dietary sources such as oily fish, margarine, reduced fat spreads, dairy products and eggs. But because many older people are short of vitamin D, all those aged 65 or more are advised to take a daily supplement of vitamin D containing 10 µg.