7 Key Nutrients for Senior Nutrition
Let’s talk about senior nutrition. Every nutrient is important and vital for health. However, there are certain nutrients that seniors just need more of. These key nutrients are especially important in an aging body.
Key Nutrients for Seniors
This article will cover the 7 key nutrients for senior nutrition including:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B-6
- Vitamin B-12
Seniors Need MORE of These Key Nutrients
The theme for these nutrients? These are all nutrients that seniors frequently need more of. Keep in mind every senior is different. They may have different medical conditions, be on different medications, or just have different preferences in the foods they like to eat.
This article is intended to serve as general guidelines. Always consult a geriatric dietitian for specific guidance.
Understanding the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)
The Recommended Dietary Allowance is how much of the nutrient the Institute of Medicine has determined a person needs. The RDA is broken down by both age and gender. The first three nutrients we will be discussing in this article all have a higher RDA for seniors.
So, for vitamin B-6, calcium, and vitamin D the RDA is higher for older adults that it is for younger adults. Seniors need more of these nutrients per the RDA.
Vitamin D and Seniors
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin involved in bone health, muscle health, immunity, and cognition. Famously known as the “sunshine” vitamin- this is the only vitamin that our bodies can create when exposed the to the sun.
However, as we age, our skin is unable to make vitamin D as efficiently as it did when we were younger. Seniors are also more likely to spend more time indoors. And sunshine through a window doesn’t quite cut it, we can’t absorb vitamin D when it’s coming through a window.
Other things can impact absorption of vitamin D from the sun including having darker skin complexion, wearing sunblock or protective clothing, or even how far you live from the equator. So, vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin, but often times getting a little sunshine just isn’t enough.
Vitamin D Needs
If an older adult doesn’t get enough vitamin D it can cause weak bones or other health issues. But they also don’t want to get too much. Too much vitamin D can cause weight loss, heart issues, and kidney damage.
The RDA for vitamin D is 800 IU for adults >70 years. For everyone else (ages 1-70) the RDA is 600 IU (1). Older adults >70 years need even more vitamin D than younger adults, but they are less likely to get their vitamin D from the sun. So, they have to count on food sources for their vitamin D.
Food Sources of Vitamin D
Here are some food sources of vitamin D (2):
- Fish liver oil
- Fortified milk or juice
- Eggs (the yolk only)
- Fortified dairy products
- Fortified plant-based milks
- Fortified cereals
Older adults who are unable to get vitamin D through food or sunlight may need to take a vitamin D3 supplement. Their healthcare team can order lab work to determine if supplementation is needed.
Calcium and Seniors
Calcium and vitamin D go hand-in-hand. Both are so important for bone health. Calcium is a mineral involved in bone health, muscle health, nerve transmission, and hormone secretion. It’s important to note that foods high in “oxalic acid” decrease the absorption of calcium.
Foods high in oxalic acid include spinach, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and beans. These foods actually have some decent calcium, but because oxalic acid is present, the calcium isn’t well absorbed. So, these are foods we wouldn’t consider to be good sources of calcium.
If an older adult doesn’t get enough calcium it can cause weak bones and fractures. Too much calcium can cause kidney damage or kidney stones.
The RDA for calcium is 1,200 mg for men >70 years old and women 51+ years old. For younger adults of both genders the RDA is 1,000 mg (1). Older adults need more calcium, but the reality is most older adults don’t get enough calcium in their diets.
Food Sources of Calcium
Here are some food sources of calcium (2):
- Fortified beverages
- Turnip greens
- Bok choi
For older adults with lactose intolerance (this means they can’t break down the sugar found in milk) getting enough calcium can be a challenge. They may be able to consume dairy in very small amounts at a time. They also may be able to tolerate dairy when taking a lactase enzyme supplement.
However, for those who do not consume dairy at all, they should be mindful to consume plant-based foods high in calcium and other calcium fortified food and beverages (ex. fortified cereal, milk alternatives, orange juice).
Vitamin B-6 and Seniors
Vitamin B-6 is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a role in metabolism, immunity, and is in involved in over 100 different enzyme reactions in the body. Vitamin B-6 is very important for seniors. Vitamin B-6 deficiency is rare. But 24-31% of people are at risk for a vitamin B-6 deficiency.
The good news is that vitamin B-6 is found in a wide variety of different foods. Eating a balanced diet with a wide variety of foods can help seniors meet their vitamin B-6 needs.
Vitamin B-6 Needs in Older Adults
If an older adult doesn’t get enough vitamin B-6 it can cause anemia, cracks in the corners of their mouth, depression, or poor immunity. Getting too much is pretty rare. This typically occurs from over supplementation.
The RDA for adults ages 51-70 years old is 1.3 mg daily. Men >70 years old need 1.7 mg daily. Women >70 years old need 1.5 mg daily (3). Vitamin B-6 needs increase with age.
Food Sources of Vitamin B-6
Vitamin B-6 is found in a wide variety of foods, from grains to veggies!
Here are some food sources of vitamin B-6 (2):
- Beef liver
- Chicken breast
- Cottage cheese
Vitamin B-12 and Seniors
Vitamin B-12 is a water-soluble vitamin involved in DNA creation, red blood cell formation, and nerve function. It can also help prevent a type of anemia that can make people feel tired and weak.
The RDA for vitamin B-12 is not higher for seniors. It’s the same for younger and older adults. But, absorption of vitamin B-12 may decrease with age. Approximately 10-30% of older adults are unable to absorb vitamin B-12 through food sources (3).
Therefore, it is recommended that older adults get at least half of their vitamin B-12 through fortified foods or supplements. Note: Fortified foods do not “naturally” contain vitamin B-12. Rather, food companies have added that nutrient to the food.
Vitamin B-12 Needs
Too little vitamin B-12 can cause a ton of issues. From anemia, fatigue, stomach issues, constipation, unintended weight loss, neurological changes, confusion, and a sore mouth or tongue. It is unlikely someone can get too much vitamin B-12. We are more concerned about not getting enough.
The RDA for those ages 14+ years old is 2.4 mcg (3). Remember, older adults should get half of their vitamin B-12 though fortified foods or supplements (this can just be a good old multivitamin).
Food Sources of Vitamin B-12
Here are some food sources of vitamin B-12 (2):
- Beef liver
- Fortified nutritional yeast
- Fortified cereal
- Chicken breast
Vitamin B-12 is primarily found in animal products. Older adults who do not consume animal products (or consume very little) should be mindful to consume vitamin B-12 fortified foods and/or take a supplement.
Fiber and Seniors
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest. Fiber plays a role in digestion, feeling full, preventing constipation, and even reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
The RDA for fiber is actually less for older adults than younger adults. So why am I saying seniors need more fiber?? The RDA being lower in older adults can be a little misleading because the reality is that 95% of adults fail to meet the RDA.
So, we’re not eating enough fiber in general. Older adults may need less than younger adults, but 95% are still not eating what they need. So, yes most older adults do need more fiber.
Too little fiber can cause constipation or even increased risk of chronic disease. But too much fiber can cause stomach issues including bloating, gas, and cramping. Especially if fiber is added to the diet too quickly! Make sure you increase fiber gradually.
Men typically need a little more fiber than women. The RDA for men ages 51+ is 30 grams per day. The RDA for women ages 51+ is 21 grams per day (4).
Food Sources of Fiber
Here are some food sources of fiber (2):
- Black beans
- Whole wheat bread
- Brown rice
Some seniors are not able to get adequate fiber through food alone. Taking a supplement like psyllium (ex. Metamucil) or methylcellulose (ex. Citrucel) may be needed for some people. Check with a health care provider to determine the best plan for supplemental fiber.
Protein and Seniors
Protein is a macro-nutrient found in every single cell in the body. It is essential for life. Protein also aids in immunity, maintaining muscle, and maintaining physical function in seniors.
Protein in seniors can be an entire blog post topic in itself. Here’s the bottom line, the RDA for older adults is the same as younger adults. However, emerging research suggests seniors may indeed require more protein. Endurance and resistance training exercises are also advised to promote muscle health (5).
And we want to protect the muscles of aging adults! Muscle mass decreases with age (this is known as “sarcopenia”). This can lead to frailty, disability, loss of independence, and death. Protein and calories (we’ll discuss calories next!) are so important for protecting muscle in older adults.
Too little protein can cause malnutrition and/or muscle loss. However too much can cause dehydration and in those with kidney disease, can further kidney damage. The RDA for all adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. However, emerging research suggests older adults may need more protein.
Researchers recommend that older adults consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (5). There are 2.2 kilograms per pound. Using a 150 lb person, 1-1.2 grams per kilogram body weight would be 68-82 gms of protein per day.
Now please remember that endurance and resistance training exercises are also advised to promote muscle health along with increased protein intake. The two go hand in hand for protecting the muscles.
Food Sources of Protein
Here are some food sources of protein (2):
- Green peas
Some of the foods highest in protein come from animal sources. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts also contain protein. Older adults who consume vegetarian diets should be sure to eat a wide variety of plant-based high protein foods throughout the day.
Calories and Seniors
I want to wrap up this article discussing calories. Now, NOT every senior needs more calories. In fact, many seniors need fewer calories. But there are circumstances when calories become a KEY nutrient, like unintended weight loss (and in turn- malnutrition).
Calories for Stopping Unintended Weight Loss
Any time a senior starts losing weight unintentionally, they are losing muscle. When this happens providing calories is key. Calories stop unintended weight loss. And this is SO important. You can learn more about this at our article Weight Loss in Elderly Must Be Stopped.
We want to stop unintended weight loss in older adults to preserve their muscle and maintain their independence. So, while not every older adult needs more calories- this one is VERY important anytime an older adult starts losing weight.
Food Sources of Calories
Foods highest in calories include those high in fat.
Here are some good high calorie food sources (2).
- Whole milk
- Olive Oil
- Peanut butter
- Cottage Cheese
You can get more information on high calorie foods by reading High Calorie Smoothies for Weight Gain or Weight Gain Smoothies: Stopping Unintended Weight Loss in Older Adults.
For some additional resources, check out my freebie on RD2RD Marketplace High Calorie Shakes. It includes The King of Calories recipe with a whopping 1200 calories! And it’s delicious! My High Calorie Foods SERIES on RD2RD includes a high calorie food list, grocery list, and meal planner to help implement high calorie foods into the diet of an older adult.
Senior Nutrition Summary
Senior nutrition need are different. All nutrients are important. But vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, fiber, protein, and calories are KEY!
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2011. https://www.nap.edu/read/13050/chapter/5
- FoodData Central. U.S. Department of Agriculture website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/. Accessed November 19, 2019.
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998. https://www.nap.edu/read/6015/chapter/1
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2005. https://www.nap.edu/read/10490/chapter/1
- Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. Journal Of The American Medical Directors Association. 2013 Aug 1;14(8):542-59.
- Deer RR, Volpi E. Protein intake and muscle function in older adults. Current Opinion In Clinical Nutrition And Metabolic Care. 2015 May;18(3):248.
- Dahl WJ, Stewart ML. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: health implications of dietary fiber. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015 Nov 1;115(11):1861-70.
- Nielsen SJ, Trak-Fellermeier MA, Joshipura K. The Association between Dietary Fiber Intake and CRP levels, US Adults, 2007–2010. The FASEB Journal. 2017 Apr;31(1_supplement):648-8.
- ter Borg S, Verlaan S, Hemsworth Jet al. Micronutrient intakes and potential inadequacies of community-dwelling older adults: a systematic review. British Journal of Nutrition. 2015 Apr;113(8):1195-206.