Good nutrition is one of the best gifts we can give our bodies and minds as we age.
Macronutrients provide energy, give structure to your cells, and help you build and maintain muscle mass.
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients for supporting health and wellness at every stage of life.†
Aim for a diet based on whole and minimally processed foods and consider an age-appropriate supplement.
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that change is inevitable, especially as we get older. While we can’t control everything, there are certain aspects of aging that are important to prioritize as much as possible. One of these is nutrition.
As you enter new stages of life, your nutrition needs also adjust. Both the physical and physiological changes that the body goes through can influence how much we need of certain nutrients.
You might wonder, what vitamins do I need? With a better understanding of why nutrition is important as we age, you can help ensure that you’re getting what you need through your diet and supplementation as needed.
Why is Nutrition Important in All Life Stages?
Nutrition becomes important the moment you are in your mother’s womb. Receiving adequate protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals is necessary to thrive. Nutrition supports your growth and development all the way from infancy through your elderly years — so it’s important to make it count.†
Understanding the physiological changes
Your metabolism refers to life-sustaining chemical reactions like converting food to energy. It’s natural for your metabolism to change as you get older. Perhaps you could eat whatever you wanted as a teenager without it affecting your energy levels — a phenomenon that dissipates with age.
Energy expenditure also tends to be higher during the younger years. With age, people tend to become more sedentary, often due to changes in jobs, routines, exercise patterns, or energy levels. Over the years, people may find that the amount of energy they burn each day decreases.
Additionally, the absorption of certain nutrients, like Vitamin B12, begins to decline with age. Intestinal Calcium absorption also decreases with age. Taking medications may interfere with the ability to absorb and utilize certain nutrients. Consult with your healthcare practitioner about supplementation to help fill nutrient gaps in your diet.
These physiological changes affect your nutrition needs.
Common nutrition-related challenges in aging
A lot of focus is placed on nutrition when we’re very young – when are bodies and brains are still forming. But we can’t neglect our nutrition once we’ve become adults, and beyond. It’s not uncommon to be faced with nutritional challenges later in life.
Depending on your work schedules and food availability it can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet and eating pattern as we enter the work-force. Faced with irregular hours, it’s not uncommon to go for what is convenient rather than what is nutritious.
Also, as we age many people experience a loss of appetite or an altered perception of taste. This can make it difficult to maintain a regular eating schedule. If you’re not hungry, even your typically favorite foods may no longer sound appealing.
Certain foods and textures can become more difficult to eat as we reach our golden years, so it becomes important to try new foods, different preparation and different ways to get yourself the nutrients you need.
Irregular eating patterns and not eating as much can make it challenging to meet your body's nutrient needs. Studies have shown most Americans have inadequate intake of at least one vitamin or mineral.
Key Nutrients for Healthy Aging†
Focusing on supporting our health with nutrition is important at every age. However, different stages of life can have different key nutritional players that warrant extra attention.
Essential macronutrients for health
Macronutrients refer to protein, fat, and carbohydrates, which make up the largest proportion of our nutritional needs. It’s essential to obtain enough of them as they provide the energy your body needs to function and perform activities.
Protein to help support your body's structure - including muscle, skin, bone, and hair. Protein helps your body build and repair. Include high-quality sources of protein throughout your day, such as beans, peas, lentils, soy foods, poultry, eggs, and fish.
Healthy fats for cognitive function and heart health. We also need dietary fat to absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins. Minimize saturated and trans fats, instead focusing on healthy fats in foods like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
Complex carbohydrates for sustained energy. White bread and pasta are stripped of most of their nutrients and fiber, leaving you hungry shortly after eating them. Refined foods like this also cause a drastic spike (and fall) in your blood sugar. Opt for whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and 100% whole wheat bread, as well as other fiber-rich carbohydrate sources, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Crucial micronutrients for health
It’s important to obtain a variety of vitamins and minerals from your diet. But surveys show that most of us aren’t getting enough of certain micronutrients as it is, let alone later in life.
A 2020 review of data representing over 26,000 adults from the 2005-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) examined specific nutrients that are regularly under-consumed in the US. They found that 45% of American diets were lacking in Vitamin A, 46% in Vitamin C, 95% in Vitamin D, 84% in Vitamin E, and 15% in Zinc.
And after age 50, micronutrient needs can be higher or lower for certain nutrients compared to the general population. For instance, the requirements for Iron decrease for women at age 51 and up, due to menopause.
Some of the most important micronutrients to pay attention to as you get older include:
Calcium for bone health. Find Calcium in foods like fortified juice and milk, calcium-set tofu, beans, almonds, and eggs. Adequate Calcium throughout life, as part of a well-balanced diet, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.✝
Vitamin B12 to support healthy nervous system function. It supports energy metabolism by helping to convert food into cellular energy. You can get Vitamin B12 from animal products like meat and seafood, as well as B12-fortified nutritional yeast. Vitamin B12 is important for vegetarians and vegans who may not consume enough of this micronutrient from diet †
Antioxidants to help neutralize free radicals. These are compounds that help protect your cells from oxidative damage. Find antioxidants in colorful berries, dark chocolate, beets, red cabbage, and leafy greens.
Vitamin C for immune system health. Vitamin C functions as an antioxidant to help support the immune system by neutralizing free radicals in the body.†
Vitamin D to support the body's natural immune defenses. Find Vitamin D in fatty fish and in fortified milk and orange juice. Vitamin D helps improve Calcium absorption, and supports muscle, teeth and bone health.†
Nutrition Strategies for Healthy Aging†
Prioritizing your nutrition is among the best things you can do to support healthy aging. We’ve outlined some key ways that you can do this.†
Taking daily multivitamins
Taking a daily multivitamin is a convenient way to help fill nutritional gaps. When considering how to choose a multivitamin, stage of life is a priority.†
Energy needs and metabolism change as we enter different stages of life. Understanding your needs, listening to your body, and honoring your hunger and fullness cues are key.
If you notice that you’re always hungry, consider eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. More frequent and balanced food intake can help keep you satisfied longer.
On the other hand, if you’re regularly overstuffed, consider reducing the portion sizes of your meals and snacks. It can also help to slow down while eating, which can help you become more mindful of your body’s cues.
Adapting dietary patterns
It can be easy to fall into the typical Western diet pattern of overly-processed foods. This generally means a high intake of saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium, with a low intake of high-fiber foods, vitamins, and minerals.
Consider the types of foods you’re usually eating and how much nutritional benefit they offer. Are there areas where you could practice more healthy eating?
A good approach is to emphasize whole and minimally processed foods, like:
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
Lean proteins, such as skinless chicken breasts or low-fat dairy
These types of healthy foods are more nutrient-dense, meaning they provide more nutritional bang for your buck than ultra-processed and fast foods.
† These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She also enjoys writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics. Find her at www.laurenpanoff.com.
Kalyn is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and a Science & Health Educator with the Medical and Scientific Communications team at Pharmavite. Her experience in the field of nutrition prior to joining Pharmavite has included community and public health education, media dietetics, and clinical practice in the areas of disordered eating, diabetes, women’s health, and general wellness. Kalyn received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona, and completed her dietetic supervised practice in Maricopa County, AZ, with an emphasis on public health. Kalyn is certified in Integrative and Functional Nutrition through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, where she is an active member in addition to memberships in Dietitians in Functional Medicine, Women’s Health Dietitians, and the International Federation of Eating Disorder Dietitians.