As we age, we need fewer calories, but the same amounts of nutrients. Understanding this is key to healthy aging.
Food and medicine have an ancient and tightly interwoven relationship. Hippocrates of Kos, sometimes referred to as the Father of Medicine, supposedly said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
The link between health and a good diet might not come as a surprise, but did you know that our food needs change with age?
This is especially true of the elderly, who require fewer calories, but just as many nutrients as before, if not more. These needs can be met through a combination of eating a variety of whole foods and taking some nutritional supplements.
This begs the question of the difference between calories and nutrients, since we get both from food. Simply put, we measure the amount of energy stored in foods by calories, whereas nutrients are specific components needed to perform certain tasks. You can think of calories as the fuel you put in your car, while nutrients are all the little pieces that hold the car together.
As we age, our metabolisms slow, our muscle mass declines, and we need less energy from food to sustain ourselves. Many diseases suffered by the elderly are the result of dietary factors, or are exacerbated by malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
On its own, consuming fewer calories as our metabolisms slow is a good thing. You simply don’t need as much energy to sustain your body’s systems as before, so why overdo it? Especially when eating less saves you money at the grocery store.
Problems arise, though, when our organs don’t get the nutrients they need. Extending the car analogy, you don’t need much fuel if you’re not traveling far, but even a quick trip can be impossible if your engine blows a fuse.
Among the elderly, the loss of skeletal muscle mass and function is called sarcopenia. It causes a general sense of frailty and increases both the risk and consequences of falls. The loss of muscle health and function; and by extension, one’s independence, can be mitigated through good nutrition.
Research indicates that things like plants, seafood, and vegetable oil (the so-called Mediterranean diet) are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other compounds, such as flavonoids, that contribute to sustained muscular health. Dietary supplements can also help to fill in gaps, particularly if your diet is low in antioxidants, calcium, and vitamin D, all of which are important to healthy aging.
Declining muscle mass is far from the only part of aging that raises the need for dietary changes. Yet more research has shown that our taste buds “dull” with age, making food in general less tasty. An easy fix to make food tastier is to add sodium, such as that found in table salt, to our dishes. This presents a risk for the elderly, however, as too much sodium increases one’s blood pressure and risk of heart attack.
A healthier option to add flavor is to add herbs and spices, many of which contain useful and needed nutrients.
Finally, don’t forget that water is a nutrient. As we age, we tend to feel thirst less, even when we should be replenishing our body’s supply of water. This puts seniors at higher risk for dehydration and the many serious health problems that accompany it.
We can’t control whether or not we age, but to a certain degree, we can control our health as we age. Ensuring that we consume the nutrients needed for healthy aging is an important part of remaining happy, active and fit into our later years.