While eating well, staying active, and other healthy habits are vital for people of all ages, our nutritional needs vary throughout different stages in life. And if you’re an older adult, it’s important to realize that certain essential nutrients become even more essential if you want to ward off numerous health conditions as you age.
According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), older adults are “disproportionally affected” by chronic illness—think cardiovascular diseases and arthritis—and approximately 80 percent are diagnosed with at least one chronic condition.
Who exactly falls under the “older adult” category, though, depends on who you ask. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) offers resources, advice, and tools for adults ages 55 and older, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) consider the aging population as those 60 and older, and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) conducts research on adults 65 and older.
Plant-forward culinary nutritionist and author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., C.D.N. recommends following the USDA’s 60+ definition when thinking about nutrition. However, “age 70 is generally when the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for certain nutrients changes,” notes Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., I.N.H.C., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.
To play it safe, if you’re over over 55, it’s time to start thinking about increasing these five nutrients.
One of the most crucial nutrients older people need more of, “protein provides the essential amino acids our body needs to get from food to support cell growth and repair,” explains Cording. “Plus, having enough protein in our diet also plays a role in supporting a healthy weight, building and retaining muscle, and supporting stable blood sugar.” Important to know: Loss of muscle mass, which is common throughout aging, can lead to falls and fractures.
What’s more, according to research published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 46 percent of people over 50 don’t consume an adequate amount of protein—and, as a result, have “significantly” more physical limitations compared to those who eat ample protein.
How much you need: “As we age, bumping up from 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight to 1.0 to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight is important in order to support retention of lean body mass,” say Cording. That means that an older adult who weighs 150 pounds, for example, would aim for at least 68 to 88 grams of protein per day.
Add it to your diet: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, beans, peas, lentils, tofu, and tempeh, as well as nuts and seeds, are all protein-rich sources, says Cording. “As a dietitian, I typically encourage food first, but when meeting your needs feels difficult, a protein powder can be an easy addition to foods where it can be blended in, such as in soup, smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, mashed potatoes, and pureed vegetables,” she adds.
2. Vitamin B12
“Vitamin B12 is a really important nutrient for neurological function and energy production, and its absorption can become impaired after about age 50,” says Cording. A study conducted at Trinity College Dublin discovered that one in eight older adults over the age of 50 were either low or deficient in vitamin B12. Those who smoked, lived alone, or lived in lower socio-economic areas were the most likely to be low.
Read More: 9 Signs You’re Vitamin B12 Deficient
How much you need: The RDA for B12 for all adults over 18 is 2.4 micrograms. “However, it’s not unusual to need more,” continues Cording. Since needs and absorption abilities vary, she recommends talking with your doctor or a dietitian to optimize your intake.
Add it to your diet: “Vitamin B12 can be found primarily in animal proteins, as well as in fortified products, like nutritional yeast and commercial plant milk,” Cording says. If your healthcare provider recommends a larger daily dose of this vitamin, try The Vitamin Shoppe brand Vitamin B12 .
3. Vitamin D
It seems like everyone could use a little more of the sunshine vitamin in their lives these days. “Vitamin D supports the immune system and cognitive function, along with helping to enhance calcium absorption,” explains Cording. According to a paper published in the Journal of Aging and Gerontology, vitamin D deficiency is common amongst older adults (in this case, those 65 and older) and significantly impacts their health. (This research specifically identified a link between low vitamin D and osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become weak and brittle.)
How much you need: The RDA for adults up to age 70 is 600 IU. Adults 71 and older are recommended to get 800 IU per day. However, many other experts suggest that adults’ vitamin D needs are much higher. The Endocrine Society recommends up to 1,500 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily for adults and Mayo Clinic states that 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D from a supplement is generally safe and should help people achieve an adequate blood level of vitamin D. Discuss with your health care provider if it may be beneficial to check your vitamin D level.
Add it to your diet: “Food sources of vitamin D include oily fish, eggs, and fortified dairy products, as well as mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light,” says Cording. However, since it’s hard to get ample vitamin D through food alone, consider taking a vitamin D3 supplement to meet your needs.
4. Lutein and Zeaxanthin
“These antioxidant carotenoids are crucial for good eye health and the prevention of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause of blindness in adults 65 and older in industrialized countries,” says Newgent. In fact, a review published in Cogent Medicine concluded that there is enough evidence to warrant a meta-analysis evaluating the role of lutein and zeaxanthin in visual outcomes in adults with healthy eyes. Basically, there’s ample reason to believe getting enough of these antioxidants affects your health.
How much you need: “Though there isn’t an established RDA for these carotenoids, it’s advisable to get 10 milligrams of lutein and two milligrams of zeaxanthin per day,” suggests Newgent.
Add them to your diet: Consume at least one daily serving each of green veggies (like kale, spinach, broccoli, or peas) and fresh herbs (like parsley and basil) to get ample amounts of these antioxidants, she suggests. “Other notable sources include egg yolks, pistachios, and corn.” Supplements, such as Nature’s Way Ginkgold Eyes, are another option.
Both Newgent and Cording highlight the importance of this vital mineral, which helps support healthy bones and strong teeth, as well as maintain normal muscle and nerve function. According to the NIH, our calcium absorption decreases as we age. Postmenopausal women, in particular, are more likely to deal with bone loss and difficulty absorbing calcium.
How much you need: The RDA for men between the ages of 51 and 70 is 1,000 milligrams of calcium. Women in the same age group, however, need 1,200 milligrams. Once you hit 71, though, all adults need 1,200 milligrams each day.
Add it to your diet: “Tofu, tempeh, white beans, almonds, tahini (sesame seed paste), kale, and broccoli all provide significant amounts of plant-based calcium,” says Newgent. Dairy, of course, is the most well-known source out there, but you can also find some calcium in canned salmon, Cording adds. If you’re looking to supplement, try Garden of Life’s Living Calcium Advanced.