According to registered dietitians, it's less about quantity and more about quality.
senior couple eating dinner at table
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As we get older and our bodies change, physical developments aren't limited to graying hair or tired joints. What we consume—and how the food we consume impacts us—often changes, too. Whether we use food to manage a health issue that emerges over time or to boost certain vitamin deficiencies as a result of the aging process, simple decisions can make a big difference. It shouldn't come down to consuming smaller or larger quantities of food, though: "I advocate for eating smarter as we age, rather than eating more or eating less," says Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center. "We need to get more nutrients in every bite than we did when we were younger. So, it's really very much about quality more than quantity."

It is true, however, that our bodies require fewer calories as the years pass so, in order to explore just how much we really need to eat, we asked the experts for their insight and to share the foods that keep our bodies feeling strong at every phase.

Our bodies require fewer calories over time, but certain nutrients should be increased.

While eating smarter is the main goal, our bodies, in general, need less fuel as we age, explains Amy Adams, RDN, LDN, because we need less calories to function. The reason? Our basic physical processes don't require as much energy in the first place, and we also lose muscle mass as we enter our senior years. Declining physical activity and decreasing muscle mass equals less calories needed. However, while calorie count may decrease, other aspects of our diet should increase, Adams says. "Nutrient needs tend to increase as we age, meaning that it is more important for older adults to focus on nutrient-dense foods—or foods that contain a large amount of nutrients with fewer amounts of calories."

Focus on foods that support bone density, cognitive health, and easy digestion.

Over time, we experience various vitamin deficiencies and ailments that are directly related to our diets—they can either be hurt or helped by them. Adams emphasizes the importance of joint health, something that can be boosted by what we put in our mouths. "During the aging process, we lose muscle mass and bone density, which increases our risk for osteoporosis," Adams explains. "It is important for older adults to focus on protein for maintaining muscle mass, calcium, and vitamin D for bones." Aging also impacts our thinkers, from memory and cognitive function to overall brain health. Molly Robinson, a registered dietitian specializing in senior nutrition and nutrition for patients with dementia, notes that diet is paramount in this context: "Supporting memory and brain function with nutrition and lifestyle helps to keep our bodies and minds working well for as long as possible."

Growing older also impacts how we digest food in the first place. "​As we age, our digestive tract slows, our taste buds dull, and our ability to smell decreases," explains Hunnes, adding that we also have less intrinsic factor, a substance produced in the stomach that helps digest and absorb vitamin B12, as we age. "All of this makes food taste a little more bland and can at times lead to digestive issues, including bloat, gas, and constipation." Eating foods with a lot of fiber and plenty of water, vitamins, and minerals can ease this discomfort, Hunnes notes.

Eat more protein, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Foods rich with protein, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids are key as we get older, Adams says. For protein, she recommends increasing your intake of beef and chicken—or lentil and tofu if you eat a plant-based diet. For that calcium and vitamin D boost, Adams suggests milk, yogurt, eggs, and salmon. And for the sake of your cells, don't skip out on leafy greens: Along with blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, greens can help reduce oxidative stress on the body, Adams says, thus helping protect our cells from damage. And when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, Adams points to particular research: "Some studies indicate that eating more omega-3 fatty acids reduces the chance of developing dementia. One good source comes from oily fish like sardines, salmon, mackerel, and trout."

In her work with dementia patients, Robinson follows a specific dietary pattern for brain health called the MIND diet. This stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. In addition to those leafy greens, berries, and fish, Robinson says the MIND diet also includes colorful vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans in the weekly routine. "This can help to prevent or delay dementia and the loss of brain function as we age," she says. To help your body absorb more vitamins and minerals, Hunnes suggests combining vitamin C-rich foods, like citrus and bell peppers, with iron-rich foods, including spinach.

Eat less refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and unhealthy fats.

"We should avoid refined carbohydrates and ultra-processed foods as we age," Adams notes, "because the sugars in these foods are absorbed by the body quickly and prompt a larger insulin response than when we eat complex carbohydrates." Over time, this can lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is why complex carbohydrates are so important. When it comes to the MIND diet, Robinson emphasizes that there are also foods to limit in your weekly meals—particularly those high in saturated and trans fats. "These include butter and margarine, cheese, red meats, fried foods, and foods high in added sugars," Robinson says.


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