What Nutrients Do You Need More Of As You Get Older?
By Nicole Pajer, AARP April 2023
Do you know what 9 Nutrients You Need More of As You Get Older?
If you are over 50, you may not be getting enough of these vitamins, minerals and other essentials.
You strive to eat healthy and hit the gym when you can — or at least sneak out for a daily walk with the dog. But are you getting all the nutrients your body needs to function at its best? If you’re over 50, there’s a good chance you’re not.
“In general, as we get older our ability to absorb many nutrients — vitamins and minerals and other bioactive components of foods — tends to wane,” says Howard D. Sesso, director of nutrition research and an associate epidemiologist at the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This, combined with a decrease in appetite that often comes with age, he explains, can often lead to nutritional deficiencies in older adults.
“As you age, it is important to eat healthy to prevent age-related changes like increased risk for chronic disease, bone loss, muscle loss and decreased metabolism,” adds Brooke Levine, a dietitian nutritionist at NYU Langone Health.
That’s why, beginning in our 50s and 60s, we need to make sure we get enough of certain nutrients in our diets. Here are a few that are important for older adults, along with advice on how to incorporate them into your daily breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
“Vitamin B12 is one of the essential vitamins, and our ability to absorb it weakens quite a bit as we enter our 60s and 70s,” says Sesso. It helps keep the nervous system running smoothly and is involved in red blood cell formation, as well as DNA synthesis. B12 deficiency can cause everything from lethargy to neurological issues.
How to get enough:
B12 is primarily found in animal products, like liver, mackerel, sardines, eggs and red meat, and is sometimes added to fortified cereals. Aim to get 2.4 mcg per day from foods like the ones listed above. If you’re vegan and not eating animal products, prioritize alternative sources like fortified nondairy milk and nutritional yeast. If you’re not eating these foods on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about having your blood levels of B12 checked, and ask whether you should take a supplement.
A nutritious start
Marisa Moore says one easy way to get many essential nutrients is by whipping up a spinach omelet for breakfast. It’s a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins B12 and D. “I find that many people lack protein at breakfast, so that’s a great place to start,” she says. Have some raspberries on the side for fiber.
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is important for the central nervous system as well as immune health. “Adults over the age of 50 do not absorb vitamin B6 as efficiently as younger adults, and often have a diet that is low in foods that contain this vitamin,” says Amber Core, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Foods rich in B6 include liver, fatty fish, chickpeas, dark leafy greens, bananas and citrus fruits. Women over the age of 50 should aim for 1.5 mg of B6 per day, and men of the same age need 1.7 mg per day. This, adds Core, can be obtained by prioritizing several of the B6 rich foods above.
How to get enough:
On average, bananas have 0.4 mg of vitamin B6, and fatty fish such as salmon or tuna have approximately 0.6 mg of B6 per 3-ounce serving, Core says.
Magnesium is an important mineral that many adults are deficient in. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of adults over 70 don’t get the required daily amount. Not having enough of this essential mineral has been linked to everything from sleep disorders to impaired cognition, cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, asthma and depression.
“Magnesium relaxes the smooth muscle of the vascular wall, keeps muscles supple and, in some individuals — typically those who are high-strung — can lower blood pressure,” adds says Rand McClain, author of Cheating Death: The New Science of Living Longer and Better. And high blood pressure, he explains, is more of an issue for people over 50 because of the typical loss of vascular flexibility that occurs as we age. Magnesium also plays a key role in bone health.
How to get enough:
You can increase your magnesium consumption by eating nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, leafy vegetables, milk, yogurt and fortified foods. Men, says Levine, should aim for 420 milligrams per day, and women 320 milligrams. One ounce of pumpkin seeds contains 168 mg, a half-cup of boiled spinach has 78 mg, and 1 cup of soy milk has 61 mg. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that men get 400 to 420 milligrams a day and women get 310 to 320 milligrams daily.
Some studies have linked omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fish and flaxseeds, to improved brain health. In addition, some research done in middle-aged and older adults has shown that omega-3s may have benefits for heart health, “both in terms of triglycerides or lipids and perhaps with a modestly lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Sesso. This can be helpful, as heart disease remains the leading cause of death in American adults and is more common in people over the age of 65.
“The body cannot make omega-3s, so we have to get them from food such as fatty fish or supplements,” explains Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Plant Love Kitchen.
How to get enough:
After age 50, men should aim for 1.6 grams a day and women should consume 1.1 grams daily. Levine suggests getting this through salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds or anchovies. “If someone eats fish, three, four times a week, they’re probably getting enough, unless the doctor does blood work and notices that triglycerides are up or there’s another reason to be on omega-3 supplements on a regular basis,” says Pouya Shafipour, M.D., a board-certified family and obesity medicine physician, of Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.
If you’re taking an omega-3 supplement, make sure to ask your doctor for the specific dose you should be taking, as consuming too much can cause side effects. “Omega-3 supplements thin the blood,” Shafipour says. “So if someone is at risk of falling and bruising, or if they are on blood thinners for heart issues or stroke prevention, then we have to make sure they’re not overloading, because they could be losing a lot [and] then it can increase risk of bleeding.”
“Most of us get only about half the recommended amount of fiber daily,” says Amy Fox, a certified nutritionist and founder of Food & Mood Lab. “As we age, our digestive system slows down, which can lead to constipation and weight gain,” she says. Fiber can keep you regular and comes with additional health benefits, like lowering your risk of diabetes and some types of cancer. And one of fiber’s greatest benefits, adds Fox, is related to cardiovascular health. Several studies have found that people who eat the most fiber have a lower risk for heart disease. “High fiber intake — particularly soluble fiber, the kind that dissolves in water and includes plant pectin and gums — seems to protect against several heart-related problems,” Fox explains.
How to get enough:
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend women older than 50 consume about 22 grams a day, and men 28 grams. A half-cup of bran cereal contains about 10 grams. Additional sources are legumes (a half-cup cooked serving has 7 to 8 grams) and fruit like apples (one apple, with skin, has 4.8 grams) and raspberries (1 cup has 8 grams). Nuts, seeds and vegetables, including broccoli, brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, are also great sources.
6. Vitamin D
“Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because our bodies can produce it when exposed to sunlight,” says Core. But spending less time outdoors or wearing clothes that cover more of the skin can make it more difficult for older adults to get enough vitamin D from the sun alone. The fact that adults over age 65 are the most prone to skin cancer adds to this difficulty.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which is especially important as we age since it’s essential for maintaining strong, healthy bones. It’s also important in the healing of fractures and possibly metabolic function.
How to get enough:
This nutrient is found in some foods, like salmon, tuna and other fatty fish. However, Shafipour notes that adequate amounts are not easily obtained through diet alone.
“Certain high-calcium foods are supplemented with vitamin D to increase calcium absorption, so adults over the age of 50 should include foods such as fortified dairy milk or fortified plant-based dairy alternatives to take in more vitamin D,” says Core. Adults up to age 70 need 600 IU of vitamin D every day, and those 71 and older need 800 IU, according to the NIH. One 3-ounce serving of salmon offers approximately 450 IU of vitamin D, and a cup of whole milk has approximately 120 IU. To obtain enough vitamin D through food, adults should aim to consume four servings of dairy foods per day, and include fatty fish twice per week or more, Core explains.
Many people, especially older adults, are deficient in vitamin D. “All of my patients – I have seen tens of thousands to date – I see are low or deficient in serum vitamin D3 unless [they are] supplementing with D3, and even those supplementing typically are not maintaining optimal levels,” McClain says. It’s a good idea to have your levels checked by your physician, who can advise on foods to eat or supplements to help you reach an adequate daily level.
“Calcium helps promote bone health, nerve function and muscle movements,” Levine explains. “It can help slow down the process of osteopenia and osteoporosis, age-related bone loss, which is higher in postmenopausal women due to the fact that they cannot absorb sufficient calcium.”
How to get enough:
Adults should strive for 1,200 mg a day, she says, and you can obtain this through dairy products, leafy greens and canned fish with soft bones. One cup of skim milk and 1 cup of yogurt each have 300 mg; 1 cup of greens can contain anywhere from 40 to 100 mg. Studies are still mixed as to whether taking calcium supplements is a good idea, with some linking it to a potentially increased risk of calcium build-up in arteries.
“My feeling with supplementation in general is that it really should be a second line of defense,” Sesso says. “If you’re getting calcium through your diet, that’s always the preference, the best way to go.” If you are going to take a supplement, a lower dose is better so that, ideally, you’re getting some daily calcium through dietary sources.
And check your multivitamin, if you’re taking one, to make sure you don’t overdo it. “A lot of supplements will go up to 1,000 or more milligrams,” says Sesso. “That, to me, is probably too high. Most typical multivitamins might have 400 to 600 milligrams, and that’s usually more than adequate.”
Protein can help build muscle and slow down the process of sarcopenia, a gradual loss of muscle, which kicks in as early as our 40s and continues each year beyond that. “Studies show that older adults need more dietary protein than younger adults to preserve muscle mass, promote recovery from illness and maintain a certain quality of life,” Moore says. Protein, she adds, provides the essential amino acids our body needs to support cell growth and repair.
Adequate protein also helps to keep blood sugars stable and plays a role in building and retaining muscle. And the timing of your protein consumption matters, according to research. Studies have found that eating protein in the morning and about the same amount at lunch and dinner helps people maintain muscle mass, according to AARP’s The Whole Body Reset.
How to get enough:
Levine says to aim for as much as 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. You can get this much through a variety of animal and plant-based products. A 3.5-ounce boneless chicken breast contains 30 grams of protein, 6 ounces of Greek yogurt has 17 grams, a half-cup of tofu contains 10 grams, and a half-cup of cooked legumes contains 6 to 10 grams.
Our bodies are about 60 percent water. But as we age, we may tend to drink less. “With older people, sometimes the sensation of thirst goes down,” says Shafipour. This, he says, tends to occur in your 70s and beyond. With age also comes an increased risk of being more prone to dehydration, he adds. “That is something we see a lot, that older people get dehydrated; they get dizzy, more prone to falls and things like that.”
How to get enough:
Shafipour recommends that adults divide their weight in pounds by 2 and consume that many ounces of water daily. Therefore, a 120-pound person would need about 60 ounces per day. “And make sure to drink it throughout the day and not just in one sitting.” Consuming water-based fruits and vegetables, like watermelon and cucumbers, as well as soup can help contribute to this number.
Recommendations for how much water to consume per day can vary. For more information, see “Do You Really Need 8 Glasses of Water a Day?”
Recipes Packed With the Nutrients You Need
Amy Fox’s One-Pan Salmon and Vegetables
Salmon is a wonderful food for aging adults because it includes antioxidant elements like selenium; other minerals, including phosphorus, zinc and potassium; and the vitamin B group — riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, B6, folate and B12.
This recipe is easy and versatile. Change it up with other flaky fish, such as tilapia or trout, or swap out the vegetables for whatever’s available in your refrigerator or at the store. Consider adding thinly sliced sweet potatoes to the baking sheet for a heartier meal.
1 squash or zucchini, sliced into rounds
1 bunch of asparagus, stems removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ onion, cut into wedges
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 bell pepper, sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 or 3 salmon fillets, about 4 ounces each
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning (optional)
Preheat oven to 450° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or grease the pan with olive oil.
In a large bowl, toss all the veggies with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the Cajun seasoning, if using, then spread them over the baking sheet in a single layer.
Place the salmon fillets, skin side down, between the vegetables. Brush with the remaining olive oil, and top each with 2 thin lemon slices.
Bake for 14 to 15 minutes, until salmon is flaky and mostly opaque.
Amy Fox’s Hearty Lentil or Bean Soup
This soup is nutrient-dense, containing protein and large amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals. The recipe comes together quickly with mostly pantry ingredients. If lentils aren’t your thing, you can substitute any bean, such as black, navy or pinto beans or chickpeas. This soup is excellent the next day too. It also freezes and defrosts well.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 large can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup chopped fresh spinach or kale
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Warm the olive oil in a pot over medium heat.
Add the chopped onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, until the onion has softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the garlic, cumin and thyme. Cook about 30 seconds. Pour in the drained diced tomatoes, and cook for a few more minutes.
Pour in the lentils (or beans), broth and water. Add the salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes.
Add the soup to a blender and puree until smooth. Pour the pureed soup back into the pot.
Add the chopped greens and cook for 5 more minutes, or until the greens have softened to your liking.
Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.