Your Health

Keep pace with nutritional needs as you age

Photo of a senior man with a handful of vitamins and a glass of water.
Photo of Diana Doyle-Zebrun. LORNA SHAW-HOEPPNER
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, January 12, 2018

I recently learned a new phrase: “functional exercise.”

The phrase was used by an elderly client who came to see me for help with his cooking skills. “Functional exercise,” he explained, “means doing exercises that will help keep me strong to get through my day.” 

As we age, priorities shift. Yes, there are 80 year olds that have set goals to finish a 10k in record time, but my guess is the majority of us want to maintain muscle mass, reduce our risk of falling, and be able to get up that flight of stairs without using a lift chair.

Just like fitness priorities, nutrition priorities also change. As we age, we may need fewer calories to preserve our healthy weight, but we will require more vitamins and nutrients.

Unfortunately, many older Canadians may not be aware of this. Studies show that about one third of older adults are at risk of malnutrition. But the good news is we can take steps to maintain our health and well-being as we age.

Here are a few tips:

Get protein:
After age 50, adults can lose up to two per cent of their muscle every year. This muscle loss is referred to as sarcopenia. Fortunately, sarcopenia can be slowed with adequate protein intake and regular resistance exercise. Muscle loss can cause weakness which increases the risk of falls and can limit mobility. Older adults need one to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, more than the needs of a younger adult. 

High quality, animal protein seems to have the most benefit in reducing muscle loss. Include a protein source at all meals: two eggs at breakfast, three ounces of meat and a cup of milk at both lunch and dinner provides 72 gm of protein, enough to meet the needs of an older adult weighing 60 to 70kg (130-150lb).

Take a vitamin D supplement: Health Canada recommends that adults over the age of 50 take a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IU. Research suggests that 1,000 IU per day may help maintain muscle strength and reduce the risk of falls. Fortified milk, eggs and fatty fish are the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Vitamin D can be produced in our skin from sunshine. As we age, the skin is less able to convert sunshine into vitamin D, so a supplement is necessary.  

Strengthen your bones: Women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70 require 1,200 mg of calcium per day. Dairy products and fortified milk alternatives are excellent sources of calcium, containing about 300 mg per cup. Fish with edible soft bones such as salmon and sardines, dark leafy greens like kale and calcium-set tofu are also good choices. Getting enough calcium can keep bones strong and decrease the risk of fractures. Talk to a health-care provider before taking a calcium supplement.

Check your B12 level: Vitamin B12 is essential for making healthy red blood cells and proper nerve function. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause muscle weakness, dizziness, tiredness and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. It can also cause symptoms such as balance issues, depression, confusion and poor memory, symptoms that might be confused with age related cognitive changes. Animal products such as meat, fish, poultry, milk and eggs are the only natural food sources of vitamin B12. Deficiencies are rarely remedied by increasing food sources of the vitamin. Vitamin B12 supplements are the best way to treat deficiency. 

Choose fibre: Men and women over 50 years of age need about 30 gm and 21 gm per day, respectively. Fibre helps prevent constipation and can also lower cholesterol and control blood sugar levels. Choose whole grain instead of white products, leave the peels on vegetables and fruits and try adding legumes into soups, salads and casseroles.

Drink up: Age related changes such as decreased sense of thirst, reduced kidney function can increase the risk of dehydration. Dehydration can lead to headaches, irritability and fatigue, but can progress to low blood pressure, muscle cramps and irregular heart rate. Aim for nine to 12 cups of fluid every day. Water is best, but milk, tea and soup count as well.

For information on meal programs, grocery delivery, meal ideas or if you have struggles buying food, call Dial-a-Dietitian at 204-788-8241.

Lorna Shaw-Hoeppner is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, January 12, 2018.

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