One of the many aspects of life that change as we get older are our nutritional requirements. At any age, it’s important to aim for a varied and balanced diet, full of vegetables and fruit, lean sources of protein and healthy fats. However, after the age of 70, it can be useful to pay attention to particular nutrients. Read on to discover our top tips to help those aged 70 and over get all the nutrition that they need.
Vitamins and minerals
Registered nutritionist, Jo Lewin says, ‘For older adults, vitamins are vital. Various physiological and psychological changes occur as we age, which affect our nutritional requirements. The body becomes less efficient at absorbing and using many vitamins and minerals. Long-term use of prescription drugs can reduce the absorption of certain nutrients. At the same time, many people find that as they get older their appetite decreases. Since the need for vitamins and minerals stays the same, or in some cases increases, it becomes even more important that the food we eat is healthy and nutritious.’
Aim to eat a balanced and varied diet, containing at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. If cooking fresh fruit and vegetables is an issue, canned or frozen vegetables can be a great alternative as they are often easier to prepare, and are in many cases just as nutritious.
When buying tinned produce, do opt for those packed in natural juice or water, without added sugar or salt. You can also include a 30g portion of dried fruit and a 150ml portion of fruit juice or smoothies once a day, ideally eaten at mealtimes, rather than in between (to reduce the risk of tooth decay). Tinned and dried forms of fruit and vegetables are great storecupboard staples, making them especially handy if it is difficult to get to the shops.
Vitamin D can be made by the action of sunlight on the skin, so when possible, try to get out in the sun for at least 20 minutes a day without sunscreen (although if you are out for longer than this, do take the appropriate steps to protect your skin from sun damage). During the autumn and winter months the sun may not be strong enough for the body to make vitamin D, so diet is another important source of this vital vitamin. Foods such as eggs (with the yolks) and oily fish (such as salmon, sardines and mackerel) along with fortified foods such as some spreads and breakfast cereals, are good sources. However, over 65s are currently advised to take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily. Speak to your GP or health practitioner if you are concerned about your vitamin D levels.
Discover more about vitamin D.
Vitamin B12 is important for many processes in the body, including producing red blood cells, maintaining the nervous system and releasing energy from food. As we age, our ability to absorb this nutrient becomes less effective, so maintaining an adequate dietary intake is important. Foods that are rich in B12 include liver, mackerel, fortified soya milk alternatives, yogurt, most meats, salmon, cod, milk, cheese, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals. Check with your GP if you are concerned about your vitamin B12 levels.
Learn more about vitamin B12.
Include sources of protein
Protein is an essential nutrient, allowing our bodies to build and maintain tissue, cells and muscle, make hormones and produce anti-bodies. Studies suggest that as we get older we may benefit from eating more protein because it helps minimise the muscle loss associated with aging.
Good sources of protein include meat such as beef and pork, poultry such as chicken and turkey, fish such as salmon and cod, and seafood including prawns. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are suitable sources for vegetarians, while vegan sources include beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa, soya and tofu.
Keep salt levels low
Including some salt is important for good health, but eating too many pre-packaged foods may mean we consume too much without realising. Furthermore, our sense of smell and taste may become less acute as we get older, and it can be tempting to add extra salt to our food to compensate. Instead, try using herbs, spices and other strongly flavoured ingredients such as garlic, lemon juice, vinegar or mustard.
Read more about low-salt diets.
Eat enough fibre
Including fibre, also known as roughage, in your diet can help to keep your digestive system healthy and promote regular bowel movements. Make sure that your diet includes a wide variety of fibre-rich foods such as wholegrains, oats, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. A small glass of prune juice in the morning may help to alleviate constipation.
If you’re taking medication, talk to your GP before significantly increasing your fibre intake or taking fibre supplements. This is because fibre slows down digestion and may decrease the rate at which your medication is absorbed.
It can be easy to forget to drink enough water, but it’s important to aim for around 6-8 glasses or cups a day. The good news is that this doesn’t all have to be plain water – milk, sugar-free drinks and tea and coffee all count, but do bear in mind that caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee can make the body produce urine more quickly.
Fruit juice and smoothies also count, but because they contain ‘free’ sugars (the type we are encouraged to cut back on), you should limit these to a combined total of 150ml per day.
Many of the foods we eat contribute to our fluid intake – for example, dishes like soup, ice cream and jelly, as well as fruit and veg with a high water content, such as melon, courgette or cucumber.
Maintain a healthy weight
The number of calories that your body requires may change as you grow older, and depends on a wide range of factors, including your activity levels and metabolism. Eating too many calories may lead to weight gain, while eating too few may lead to weight loss. The NHS have an online BMI healthy weight calculator which may be useful if you’re not sure if your weight is in the healthy range.
Keeping weight up can be a challenge for some older people, due to illness or a loss of appetite. It’s important to maintain a healthy body weight in order to keep bones healthy, support the immune system and reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies. If you’re underweight or have unintentionally lost weight, speak to your GP to ensure there is no underlying medical reason for the weight loss.
If you need to boost your calorie intake to keep your weight up, try including healthy, but high-energy, meals and snacks. Make the most of high-calorie ingredients such as avocado, peanut butter, dried fruit, nuts, cheese and full-fat milk – you may find these easy to add to meals that you already enjoy. Spreading your food intake throughout the day with smaller meals and regular snacks may help if you find it uncomfortable to eat a lot in one sitting.
Exercise has a huge range of health benefits for all ages – and the good news is that any physical activity counts. If you’re over 65 and are able to, the NHS recommends aiming for: some physical activity every day (such as walking or vacuuming); strengthening and flexibility exercises on two days each week (such as carrying heavy shopping bags or yoga); 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity (such as brisk walking or riding a bike) or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (such as jogging, running or playing tennis). Wheelchair users or those with limited mobility may benefit from sitting exercises, swimming and strengthening exercises using equipment such as resistance bands. If you have any concerns about exercising, speak to your GP for advice.
If you are unable to get out for any reason, there are things you can do in the house or garden. Housework and light gardening are great for maintaining the mobility of joints and muscles. Chair yoga may have a positive effect on mind and body, and requires little space or equipment. If you have experienced a recent fracture, have blood pressure issues or any other medical condition, please check with your GP or health practitioner to ensure the exercise is appropriate for you.
Exercise is important for older adults, as muscles and bones naturally lose strength with age. Staying active can help to maintain strength, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, and improve balance, reducing the risk of hip fractures and falls.
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, the NHS advice is to stay active. Check with your GP first though, as some people at risk of fracture should avoid certain high-impact activities.
This page was published on 20th March 2020.
Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Since graduating from the University of Westminster in 2010, Jo has worked in a variety of public and private contexts, delivering weight management programmes, community cookery projects, and corporate wellness packages. Alongside trying to grow more of her own fruit and veg at her allotment, Jo works as a Health Coach for OurPath. She has contributed articles to a number of nutrition websites, including BBC Good Food.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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