Getting adequate nutrition can be a challenge as you get older. With age, the number of calories you need begins to decline. Every calorie you consume must be packed with nutrition in order to hit the mark.
Even then, you may fall short. "As we get older, the body becomes less efficient at absorbing some key nutrients," says Katherine Tucker, RD, PhD, chair of the department of health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston. In addition, the ability to taste food declines, blunting appetite. Some foods become difficult to chew or digest.
Several key nutrients in particular may be in short supply as you get older. Here are the top vitamins and nutrients to look out for -- and how to get enough.
B12 is important for creating red blood cells and DNA, and for maintaining healthy nerve function. “Getting enough B12 is a challenge for older people because they can’t absorb it from food as well as younger people," says Tucker. "Even if your diet contains enough, you may be falling short."
How to hit the mark: Eat more foods rich in B12. The richest sources include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. Talk to your doctor about whether you should take a B12 supplement.
Shortages of this essential B vitamin can cause anemia and increase the risk of a pregnant woman having a baby with a neural tube defect. Older people whose diets don’t include a lot of fruits and vegetables or fortified breakfast cereals may be falling short.
How to hit the mark: Now that breakfast cereals are fortified with folate, deficiencies are less common. "Still, if you don’t eat breakfast cereals or plenty of fruits and vegetables, it’s wise to ask your doctor if you should take a supplement that contains folate," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD.
Calcium plays many roles in the body. But it is most important for building and maintaining strong bones. Unfortunately, surveys show that as we age, we consume less calcium in our diets. "Calcium is so essential that if you don’t get enough, your body will leach it out of your bones," says Zelman. Coming up short on calcium has been shown to increase the risk of brittle bones and fractures.
How to hit the mark: Help yourself to three servings a day of low-fat milk and other dairy products. Other good dietary sources of calcium include kale and broccoli, as well as juices fortified with calcium. Calcium-rich foods are by far that best choice, says Robert Heaney, MD, a Creighton University professor of medicine and an expert on calcium and vitamin D. "The body needs both calcium and protein for bone health," says Heaney. "So the ideal source of calcium is dairy products, not supplements." If you tend to steer clear of dairy products, talk to your doctor about whether you should take a supplement.
Joanne Koenig Coste, a former caregiver who works with older people, says that smoothies made with yogurt, fruit, and even vegetables can be an attractive option for people who have lost their appetite, have trouble chewing, or have a dry mouth. "I used to make one for my mother with spinach, yogurt, a little orange juice, and a little pistachio ice cream," she says. "My mother loved it. I'd divide it into small portions and freeze them for her. She'd take it out in the morning and have it for lunch." Another favorite: a smoothie of vanilla yogurt, a little molasses and maple syrup, and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.