Once a baby gives up the bottle for solid foods, little thought is given to age-related dietary changes. But just as our appearance changes, our digestive system and dietary needs also evolve over time.
Genetics, illness and even socioeconomic factors can influence our dietary health and needs as we age. As the body gets older, its structure also changes, losing muscle mass, bone density and water weight. All of these changes and more contribute to changing dietary needs. And while everyone ages differently, these dietary changes can help ensure better health and potentially a longer life.
1. Reduce caloric intake
Your metabolism slows with age, and continuing to eat the same number of calories would result in weight gain. According to the National Institute on Aging, women over age 50 should get 1,600 calories each day if they are not physically active, 1,800 if they are somewhat active, and up to 2,200 if they live an active lifestyle. For men, those recommended daily calories are: 2,000, up to 2,400, and up to 2,800, respectively.
You can get the most out of these allotted calories by eating foods that are nutrient dense and likely to keep you full longer. For instance, you could get a breakfast sandwich and hash browns from a fast food restaurant for about 650 calories, or you could have a half-cup of oatmeal, half-cup of fresh blueberries, one hard-boiled egg and half of a large grapefruit for roughly 300 calories. One of these is obviously a much healthier choice.
2. Double-down on calcium
As you age, your bones become less dense and weaker. This is especially true in women, whose bone loss accelerates after menopause. Bone loss puts you at risk for osteoporosis and debilitating injuries. Research indicates calcium supplements may be able to slow osteoporosis. Exercise, including weight-bearing strength training, can also keep bones strong.
3. Stay hydrated
Older adults don’t experience the sensation of thirst in the way they used to. Your kidneys also become less effective at retaining body fluids, and without that nagging feeling that you need to drink some water, you could easily become dehydrated. Because you won’t be as thirsty but still need about 2 liters of water each day, always keep a drink at your side. If you experience the early signs of dehydration like headache or sleepiness, try drinking a glass of water before lying down or taking an over-the-counter pain reliever.
4. Prioritize fiber
Your digestive system may be slowing down, leading to less frequent bowel movements and even uncomfortable constipation. These are bad enough, and they could contribute to hemorrhoids and fecal impaction. Changing eating habits, decreased water consumption and some medications will only worsen these symptoms. Boost your fiber intake by eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and by taking a fiber supplement as needed. Also, keep track of how much water you drink.
5. Eat what you like
Both your sense of smell and taste will change as you age, and you may find that you just don’t like the same foods. There is no sense in forcing down foods you don’t like, as long as you are replacing them with similarly healthy options. Trying new dishes or revisiting others you’ve passed on before could open up some options, and low-sodium seasonings like herbs may help make dishes more palatable. Don’t let your changing tastes prevent you from eating enough to nourish your body.
6. Note new food sensitivities
Along with your senses, your tolerance of certain foods could change according to the changing chemistry of your digestive system. For instance, many elderly people find they are lactose intolerant as their body produces less lactase, an enzyme needed to digest lactose in dairy products. Pay attention to how your body reacts after certain foods, and remove those that cause you discomfort.
From the day we’re born, our bodies are constantly changing. Being aware of how aging affects your digestion and dietary needs can keep you healthy, more comfortable and better able to keep doing the activities you enjoy.