As we get older, nutrition rules change — or at least get stricter. Some vitamins, such as B12, become even more important with time. But at what age do we need to make changes?
"These recommendations should be addressed at different stages of life, and it's probably safe to start thinking about them in your 30s," says Helen Rasmussen, PhD, a registered dietitian at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. "Why wait until it's too late?"
Here's how and what to eat in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.
- Seek out vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is often overlooked. Needed to make blood cells and improve cognition, vitamin B12 gets into the body along with animal proteins like eggs or meat.
Most young people who aren't vegetarians easily get it in their diet. But for the body to use B12, it needs to dissolve it away from the protein. This gets more challenging with age as the level of stomach acid decreases.
B12 not bound to protein is found in fortified cereal and supplements, and is more readily absorbed by the body. Starting at age 50, you should get most vitamin B12 from these types of fortified foods.
- Eat more bananas
Blood pressure tends to rise as we age. To combat this problem and lower stroke and heart attack risk, you should eat less sodium and more potassium.
Further, many hypertension medications have a diuretic effect that lowers both sodium and potassium levels in the body. "Both of those electrolytes are necessary in a certain amount, but you need more potassium than sodium," Rasmussen says.
To replenish potassium, look to fruits and vegetables. A banana is always a good choice, as are broccoli and baked potatoes (with the skin).
- Cut calories
"As we get older, our metabolic rate slows down, so our calorie intake should drop accordingly," says Rasmussen. "We don't need as much to keep us moving."
In general, people also tend to move less as they get older. Extra calories may mean extra pounds, which ups heart disease and diabetes risk, as well as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis risk.
"Every bite should be crammed full of as many nutrients as possible," says Rasmussen.
- Spice it up
With age, a drop in saliva and taste-bud power can leave some foods lacking "pop." Don't try to fix the problem by reaching for the salt shaker, says Rasmussen. "There are millions of other spices that don't have sodium that you can enjoy."
Try new food flavors and textures, and avoid overcooking food to keep it from losing flavor. Add more hot pepper, or other spices like curry if you like them. "It might make you drink more water or milk," says Rasmussen, which is also good.
- Drink more water
While your sense of taste can decline over time, so can your sensation of thirst. In addition, certain medications — such as antihistamines and blood-pressure drugs — can make you more prone to dehydration. That means making a greater effort to get enough fluids.
In fact, dehydration is one of the main reasons older adults end up in the hospital, Rasmussen says.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that women drink about 2.2 liters, or 9 cups, of water a day, and men drink 3 liters, or 13 cups. (Try to limit coffee, tea and alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which up dehydration risk.)
- Get more calcium
Calcium is good for your bones and is found in dairy products and other foods, but Rasmussen says people may still not get enough. (Lactose intolerance, which tends to increase with age, is one reason, she says.) Adults should get 1,000 milligrams a day, but that rises to 1,200 milligrams for women over 50 and men over 70.
Rasmussen recommends taking a supplement if you don't think you are getting enough calcium from your diet. The maximum calcium intake from food and supplements is 2,500 milligrams a day for adults, or 2,000 milligrams a day if you're over 50. More than that can up the risk of kidney stones and other problems in some people.
- Up your vitamin D
Vitamin D is needed for your body to absorb and properly use calcium. Unfortunately, this vitamin — naturally gleaned from the sun — can be hard to get depending on the time of year, where you live and what you eat.
Fortified foods can help, but may not be enough, says Rasmussen. Since vitamin D is soluble only in fat, low-fat milk doesn't always contain very much. Adults should aim for 600 international units per day and raise that to 800 after age 70 (4,000 is the daily max for adults).
Rasmussen recommends taking a supplement to get enough vitamin D.
- Get lutein for clarity
The world can get blurry for a lot of older people. To save your eyes from age-related macular degeneration or cataracts, start upping your intake of lutein during middle age, suggests Rasmussen.
According to some research, the nutrient, which is related to beta-carotene and vitamin A, may also help fend off cognitive decline.
You can get your allotment of lutein by eating more green, leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, fruits like grapes and oranges, and egg yolks.
- Focus on fiber
Our grandparents may have been onto something with their ever-present packages of prunes: The fiber in the shriveled fruit helps the digestive tract run smoothly.
Overall, fiber intake is key for normal bowel function and may lower the risk of gastrointestinal inflammation. Plus, it can lower cholesterol and blunt the rise in blood sugar that occurs after eating.
But you don't need to limit yourself to prunes. Other vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains will also do the trick.
- Limit saturated fat
Avoiding foods high in saturated fat should be a lifelong goal, and it goes along with the aim of maximizing your nutrient-to-calorie intake. Low-fat dairy products, for example, are rich in nutrients such as protein and calcium without adding unnecessary fat or calories found in full-fat dairy.
Most of the fat in an older person's diet should be good fats, such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, that come from foods like soybean and canola oil. These oils can also be a good source of vitamins E and K.
- Cut out unhealthy carbs
It is always good practice to limit foods high in sugar. But this rule may be particularly important as we age in order to keep a healthy weight, rest the pancreas (the insulin-pumping organ whose functioning goes awry in diabetes), and maximize the intake of healthy nutrients per calories consumed.
Refined carbohydrates such as white bread are generally lower in vitamins and fiber than, for example, whole grains. Opt for healthy carbs, like fruit, over not-so-great carbs, like cake.
- Be supplement savvy
Food is your best source of nutrients, but it can be hard to get all you need in the recommended amounts.
Rasmussen recently helped formulate a modified food pyramid for older adults. "We put a flag on top to remind elders to take supplements," she says.
She recommends calcium and vitamins B12 and D. But over-consumption is dangerous too; you can easily end up getting too much of a good thing if you take supplements. Be a smart supplement taker and know the risks. Talk to your doctor about appropriate dosages.
For more From Health.com:
- 14 Facts About Healthy Bones
- 10 Ways to Have Great Posture As You Age
- 12 Ways to Get Your Daily Dose of Vitamin D