"Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, maintain bone density, and prevent osteoporosis," says Zelman. Recent findings suggest that D may also protect against some chronic diseases, including cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune diseases. In older people, vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to increased risk of falling. Many Americans fall short on vitamin D, which is mainly produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight.
How to hit the mark: Many foods are fortified with vitamin D, including cereals, milk, some yogurts, and juices. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D. However, vitamin D is found in salmon, tuna, and eggs. Researchers are currently debating what the recommended level of vitamin D for optimal health should be. Many experts think older people need to take vitamin D supplements, since the skin becomes less efficient at producing the vitamin from sunlight as we age. For now, the best advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Getting enough potassium in your diet may also help keep bones strong. This essential mineral is vital for cell function and has also been shown to help reduce high blood pressure and the risk of kidney stones. Unfortunately, surveys show that many older Americans don’t get the recommended 4,700 mg of potassium a day.
How to hit the mark: Fruits and vegetables are by far the richest dietary sources of potassium. Banana, prunes, plums, and potatoes with their skin are particularly rich in potassium. By helping yourself to fruits and vegetables at every meal, you can get enough potassium. If you’re considering potassium supplements, talk to your doctor first. Just as too little potassium can be a problem, too much potassium can be very dangerous for your health.
Magnesium plays a crucial role in some 300 different physiological processes. Getting enough can help keep your immune system in top shape, your heart healthy, and your bones strong. "Many whole foods, including vegetables, contain magnesium. But it is often lost in processing," says Tucker. Absorption of magnesium decreases with age. Some medications older people take, including diuretics, may also reduce magnesium absorption.
How to hit the mark: Fill your plate with as many unprocessed foods as possible, including fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans and seeds, all of which are great sources of magnesium.
Fiber helps promote healthy digestion by moving foods through the digestive tract. Foods rich in fiber, including whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables, have many other health benefits, including protecting against heart disease. "If you don’t eat a lot of these whole foods, chances are you’re not getting enough fiber," says Zelman. You’re not alone. Most Americans only get about half the recommended levels.
How to hit the mark: Eat more whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Be creative. "Try adding cranberry sauce to your turkey and whole wheat bread sandwich," Coste suggests. "Family can help out with this too. When you visit your parents, divide up pumpkin seeds, nuts, blueberries, or already-chopped vegetables into snack size bags and leave them in the refrigerator so they're ready to eat." And talk to your doctor about taking a fiber supplement.