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How Your Nutritional Needs Change as You Age

We look at some of the most common misconceptions about the dietary needs of older people.
By Christina Boufis
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Do you need to change what and how you eat in your 50s, 60s, and beyond? Yes, though maybe not in ways you might think. Fallacies about nutritional needs later in life abound, and it's not always easy to separate myth from fact, especially because a lot of information is aimed at younger adults.

  1. You should eat less as you get older. True. "Energy requirements decrease with every decade," says Connie Bales, PhD, RD, professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and associate director of the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center at Durham VA Medical Center. "We move around less, we have less muscle, and our metabolic rate goes down." But Bales says the challenge while eating less overall is to eat more nutrient-rich foods, such as low-fat milk and lean meat, which calorie for calorie, pack more of a nutritional punch.
  1. Nutritional needs decrease with age. False. People often think because you need fewer calories as you age, you need fewer nutrients. That's not the case. Your body requires the same amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals and, in some instances, even more nutrients. Take B-12, for example. After age 50, your body's ability to absorb the vitamin often decreases due to reduced stomach acids needed to break it down from food sources. The same holds true for vitamin D. Aging skin is less able than younger skin to convert the vitamin from sunlight, which in turn affects the body's ability to absorb calcium -- and both vitamin D and calcium are needed to prevent bone loss. That's why taking a daily vitamin/mineral supplement is a good idea; so is talking to your doctor to see if you need additional supplements beyond the multivitamin, Bales says.
  1. It's OK to skip meals if you're not hungry. It depends. "If it's once a week, that's fine. But if this happens regularly, I don't think it is," Bales says. While it's true that you generally eat less as you age, she says, "you don't always respond to the need for food with the normal hunger sensation," perhaps due to neurological or chemical changes in the body. Frequently skipping meals can backfire nutritionally. "It's not good to go eight hours without protein," Bales explains. "The body needs a regular supply of protein and essential nutrients to maintain metabolism, and for making bone and muscle and enzymes." Try to eat every few hours -- even if it's a light meal like a peanut butter sandwich.
  1. Older people need to drink less fluid. False. Though it may seem that you aren't as thirsty, that doesn't mean you need to drink less. "You don't always respond to dehydration with the normal thirst sensation," Bales says. "Our regulatory processes are just not as sharp." So you might not feel thirsty even when dehydrated. Her recommendation? Drink six glasses of water daily and other fluids as well. Perhaps the biggest myth about nutrition and aging? That older people are set in their ways, Bales says. "That really is not true. I've found that most are really motivated about their health, and many of them are quite willing to try to change."  


Reviewed on March 23, 2011

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