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Experts recommend that seniors eat two servings of fatty fish such as salmon each week.Rafal Stachura/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Eating a nutrient-dense diet is especially important when you’re older. It helps maintain physical health, cognition and extends the quality of life as you age.

Getting proper nutrition, though, can be challenging for older adults, leaving them at risk for becoming undernourished.

People who live alone may lack motivation to cook for one. Depression and social isolation can also make meals less appealing.

Aging decreases the sense of taste and smell, which can further reduce appetite. Chewing and swallowing problems may also lessen food intake.

Some medications dull appetite and others reduce the absorption of certain nutrients. Age-related changes in the body can also predispose people to nutrient deficiencies.

According to Statistics Canada, one-third of Canadians aged 65 or older who live independently are at risk for developing malnutrition and its health consequences, including fatigue, muscle weakness, depression, memory problems and anemia.

Nutrients to focus on

Older adults require fewer calories to maintain their weight than they did in middle age. That’s owing to age-related muscle loss (which slows the rate at which the body burns calories at rest) and a decline in physical activity.

Yet nutrient needs remain the same, or even increase, making it necessary to consume more nutrients in fewer bites to hit daily targets.

Whether you’re older than 65 or you’re caring for aging parents, pay attention to the following six nutrients.

Protein. To help preserve muscle mass and strength, adults older than 65 should consume 1.2 grams of protein for every kilogram they weigh. People who are undernourished or have an illness should aim for 1.2 grams to 1.5 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight each day.

Distribute protein-rich foods over breakfast, lunch and dinner (20 grams to 35 grams a meal). Good sources include fish, chicken, lean meat, eggs, yogurt (especially Greek and Icelandic), milk, hard cheese, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, soy milk, tofu and edamame.

Fibre. Getting 30 grams of fibre a day guards against Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. Doing so also can help prevent constipation.

Include whole grains, vegetables and fruit in your daily diet. Fibre-rich choices include farro, quinoa, bulgur, barley, oatmeal, green beans, peas, spinach, sweet potato, butternut squash, apples, avocado, pears and raspberries.

Lentils and beans (e.g., black beans, kidney beans) and nuts are also excellent sources.

Vitamin B12. Found naturally in animal products only, B12 is needed to make red blood cells, maintain nerve function and make DNA.

Up to 30 per cent of older adults don’t produce enough stomach acid to properly absorb B12 from foods.

For this reason, older adults should get most of their daily B12 from a multivitamin or foods fortified with B12 such as non-dairy milks and nutritional yeast. The form of the vitamin that’s added to foods and supplements is easily absorbed.

Calcium. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body removes the mineral from bones to maintain a constant level in the bloodstream. Over time, this can lead to low bone mass, a risk factor for osteoporosis. Calcium also helps maintain healthy blood pressure.

Older adults need 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. One cup of milk or fortified non-dairy milk, three-quarters of a cup of plain yogurt and 1.5 ounces of hard cheese each deliver 310 milligrams of the mineral.

Other good sources include tinned sardines and salmon (with bones), firm tofu (made with calcium sulphate), cooked leafy greens, pinto beans and almonds.

Vitamin D. The nutrient maintains strong bones by helping the body absorb calcium from foods. Getting enough vitamin D can also help preserve muscle strength and mobility and prevent falls and frailty.

Take 800 to 2,000 international units of vitamin D3 from a supplement year-round. Some people may need more to maintain sufficient vitamin D in the bloodstream; consult your doctor to determine the right dose for you.

Omega-3s. These anti-inflammatory fats found in oily fish are thought to help protect against heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and age-related macular degeneration, a condition that impairs vision.

Eat two servings of fatty fish each week such as salmon (fresh or tinned), trout, Arctic char, sardines, herring and mackerel.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.

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