5 nutrients you need more of (and some delicious ways to get them)

Consuming more of these vitamins and minerals can help prevent falls and fractures, reduce your risk of disease and even help you live longer.

K. Aleisha Fetters
Healthy salad

Too often, it can feel like healthy eating requires constant cutting down and cutting out. (Think: sugar, fat, salt, bread.) But as you age, there are plenty of foods you actually need more of.

Here’s the deal: With every birthday, your body becomes less efficient at absorbing and using nutrients, says registered dietitian Georgie Fear, a nutrition coach and author. In fact, up to 83% of older adults who live in independent- and assisted-living communities are at risk of malnourishment, according to a 2018 report in the American Journal of Nursing

Obviously, malnutrition is a serious matter. In older adults, the Mayo Clinic says it’s a contributing factor to a number of nasty outcomes: falls, fractures, more frequent infections, poor wound healing following an injury or surgery, a higher risk of hospitalization and a shorter lifespan.

That’s why it’s critical to ramp up your intake of certain nutrients — but there are more immediate side benefits of doing so, too. The idea you can eat more, not less, of something is quite the motivational boost. 

“Focusing on adding to your meals can be a really great mindset change, and often has a greater positive impact on your overall health than trying to always take away from your plate,” says Fear. 

Plus, by focusing on particular foods, you’ll automatically start relying less on refined and processed stuff, says Fear. You literally crowd them out of your plate!

Ready to go? Here are the five nutrients most older adults fall short on — plus delicious ways to get your fill.

More Please: Fiber

Fiber is the nondigestible part of plants. Your body uses fiber to keep your digestive system humming along nicely. It’s also important for good heart health and key metabolic functions. 

Trouble is, fiber is lacking in the vast majority of Americans’ diets, says Fear. Simply put: Too many of us aren’t eating enough veggies, fruits and whole grains. 

Added up over a lifetime, Fear explains, the negative effects of skimping on fiber often become drastic. By the time you’re well into retirement, she says, you may be paying the price in the form of high cholesterol, more frequent blood sugar spikes and bowel irregularity. 

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Fear also notes that increasing your fiber intake is the one and only way to feed your gut’s beneficial “good” bacteria. Those bacteria are necessary for maintaining a healthy weight, supporting a strong immune system, staying mentally sharp and getting even better sleep. Studies have also shown that increasing your fiber intake may reduce your risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

Your move: Stock up on more fiber-packed foods — but know that not all plant-based foods are equally rich in fiber. “Even eating a large salad every day doesn’t mean you’re in the clear when it comes to fiber,” says Fear, “since lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers aren’t particularly rich in fiber.” 

Instead, branch out with whole grain breads, cereals and pastas. In the produce aisle and frozen foods section, she suggests picking up avocados, blackberries, raspberries and broccoli. Grab a few cans of low-sodium artichokes, black beans and kidney beans. And look for chia seeds and flaxseeds to sprinkle on foods for another fiber boost. 

“Also remember, you need to include fiber-rich foods in every meal throughout the day, not just here and there,” she says. 

More Please: Iron

Iron helps your body transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body via the bloodstream. It’s a tricky nutrient, as you can easily confuse the signs of low levels — fatigue is a biggie — with those of other conditions or, worse yet, ignore them entirely. 

“Who hasn’t felt extra tired at times, or breathless from exerting yourself?” Fear says. In addition to feeling extra tired, common signs of iron deficiency include weakness, pale skin, infections, as well as cold hands and feet. 

Your move: If you’re experiencing symptoms that might point to an iron deficiency, it’s worth getting your iron levels checked, says Fear. Your doctor or health care provider would order a simple blood test. Routine testing is especially important if you never or rarely eat meat, shellfish or eggs — all of which are prime sources of iron.

Animal foods aren’t the only source of iron, though. You can also find it in leafy greens, beans, lentils and tofu, says Vicki Shanta Retelny, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author. Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads are other options.

A handy trick to getting the most benefit from nonanimal sources of iron, says Retelny, is to pair them with other foods or ingredients that are high in vitamin C. The combo helps boost iron absorption, she says. Some options include citrus fruits, broccoli, and dark, leafy greens. 

More Please: Vitamin D

Much like iron deficiency, the signs of low vitamin D can be easily ignored or confused with other issues, Fear says. 

A lack of vitamin D can lead to fatigue, bone pain and depression. “None of these is terribly specific,” Fear admits. “The bone mineral loss that can occur with inadequate vitamin D intake may not produce any symptoms until a fractured bone occurs.”

Your move: Call your doctor or health care provider and ask to get your D levels checked via a simple blood test.

If it turns out you could use more vitamin D in your life, the best food sources include fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), egg yolks and fortified milk and juices. Some cereals also have added vitamin D. 

Many people have a tough time hitting their vitamin D targets from food alone, so also ask your doctor if you’re a good candidate for a vitamin D supplement. Be sure to ask them to recommend a brand and dose, since supplements can be tough to navigate on your own.

Another good way to get more vitamin D is to spend time outside. Even a short, daily walk can help. After all, the body gets most of its vitamin D when skin reacts to sunlight, Retelny says. 

More Please: Calcium

We can’t talk about vitamin D and bone health without addressing calcium. It’s the leading nutrient in charge of helping you maintain strong bones. After age 50, your daily recommended intake of the bone-strengthening nutrient goes up, according to the National Institutes of Health. And low calcium levels are a primary contributor to osteoporosis and bone breaks.

Plus, calcium is critical to heart, muscle and nerve functions, says Retelny. It also helps your blood properly clot when necessary, such as at an incision site following surgery. 

Your move: Dairy is the first food people think about as rich in calcium. For good reason — it is, without doubt, an incredible source, says Retelny. Check to make sure your milk, yogurt and juice are fortified with vitamin D. “This helps you better absorb the calcium you consume,” she explains.

Dairy may be the best-known calcium source, but it’s not the only one. Leafy green vegetables, broccoli, tofu, almonds and black beans all contain calcium. And if you’re lactose-intolerant, look for lactose-free versions of milk and dairy products that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. 

Considering a calcium supplement? Talk to your doctor first to make sure it will be beneficial for you. And ask about correct dosing. 

More Please: Protein

Protein isn’t just for bodybuilders. It’s actually hugely important to help maintain muscle function, strength and quality of life as you age, says Retelny. In fact, your muscle mass levels are more accurate than weight or body mass index when predicting your overall health and longevity, according to 2017 research from Louisiana State University.

Unfortunately, one in three adults over 50 years old doesn’t get enough daily protein, according to 2019 data in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging

Retelny says she’s seen this with her clients. “Many people reduce their intake of protein-rich foods like meat, eggs and dairy as they get older,” she says. Part of this may be because more and more people are trying to follow recommendations to eat more plant foods. And many older adults also experience a dip in their appetites, she says, and eat less in general.

Meanwhile, research also shows that older adults may need double the recommended intake of protein to achieve optimal muscle health. 

Either way you cut it, it’s very likely that you need more protein.

Your move: If the idea of eating more meats and seafood isn’t appealing, or you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, Retelny suggests keeping protein-rich nutritional support beverages or shakes on hand. “They can be easy ways for older adults to increase their intake,” she says. 

You can find these at grocery stores and pharmacies. Or, make your own protein smoothie. This simple recipe delivers about 17 grams of protein. Blend together:

  • 1 cup frozen blueberries 
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup dairy, soy or nut milk (plus more, as needed, to help the blades turn)

Of course, like all things having to do with nutrition, your first stop for hitting your daily goals should be through whole foods, says Retelny. Making a conscious effort to integrate plant-based protein sources such as tofu, beans, legumes and quinoa into your diet can help you get an extra protein edge, while also scoring you servings of many of the other vitamins and minerals on this list.

Healthier Eating Begins Here

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