Eating well is a core part of achieving a state of wellbeing, however old we are. But as we age, gracefully and graciously, we can also learn how adjusting elements of our diet and nutritional intake can be a positive response to the way our bodies evolve throughout our life.
Some things remain constant, whether we are 8 – or 88 years old.
Maintaining a broad diet, blending all the major food groups, always creates a strong platform for good health.
Taking water regularly will ensure we are well hydrated. Taking in the correct amount of key minerals and vitamins sustains our body’s processes. And we should always rely on good common sense: that excess calories can be a risk at any age.
Alongside that core philosophy, however, our nutrition does need a gentle tweak every so often to reflect the physiological changes in our bodies: as we get older we are less able to absorb certain nutrients, for example.
Once children are through their earliest years as babies and toddlers – when nutritional support and advice is essential from health professionals – we can help our kids develop healthy eating patterns by encouraging them to try different foods (and setting them an example by doing the same ourselves). Part of this process is helping them to avoid being too picky in what they eat: easier said than done, but worth persevering with, as the attitude to food they develop before their teens will set the basis for later life.
As young, fast-growing children, they need plenty of good nutritious energy-giving food, especially protein, and calcium to help the development of their bones and teeth. This is also a time as parents to keep an eye out for possible allergies to certain food types.
Heading into adolescence, further growth spurts require foods with plenty of nutrients and calcium – milk, cheese and yoghurts – at a time when teens would rather graze and snack on nutrient-poor junk food. They will also need to maintain their intake of major minerals, including zinc, magnesium and iron.
As teenagers transition into adulthood, particularly those going to college or university, certain bad habits might start to creep in. (If you were a student yourself, you probably remember a few bad habits of your own…) The tendency is to increase consumption of processed, cheap and easy foods – takeaways and pizza! – and of course enjoy more than a few drinks on campus. That’s all part of life’s great adventure, true, but later teenagers still need to ensure they are getting a quality balance of key nutrients to support their health and especially their concentration and energy levels – good sources of Iron and Zinc are key for this.
A significant change to nutritional need occurs when a woman becomes pregnant, as well as after the birth. Nutrient rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrains along with vitamins and minerals such as calcium and folate will help both mother and child, alongside – ideally – not drinking alcohol and maintaining awareness of foods that contain harmful elements, such as mercury. Breastfeeding mothers need to take on an extra 400-600 calories a day – and this is not bars of chocolate, but again fresh produce, quality proteins (i.e. white fish) and low GI foods which release carbs slowly. Of course, new parents will require plenty of nutrients that help with fatigue! Vitamins B&C, as well as Magnesium are your friends here…
As we advance through to middle age and later, the level of nutrient-rich food becomes significant, rather than foods that are high in energy but not nutrients: sugary biscuits, cakes or soft drinks, for example, tempting though they are. For women, during the menopause, calcium is again important to maintain, along with a diet that is high on fibre, low on salt and fat – soy, chickpeas and lentils can help here.
As we age, our body mass tends to drop, affecting our overall metabolic rate, so adjusting our energy balance is crucial. We require fewer calories, so we should make ‘nutrient-dense’ choices – low-fat milk is denser in nutrients than full-fat, for example – while boosting our fibre intake.
We can help restore decreasing vitamin D levels by drinking vitamin D-fortified milk, or best of all, taking time to walk outside. Staying active is just as important as our diet as we grow older. Gentle activity for a few minutes a day is shown to add huge quality of life for those in later years.
Nutritional supplementation can be a useful source of vitamins and minerals to complement your diet, whatever stage of life you are at. As always, a discussion with your doctor or health adviser will give you professional support and advice to help you adjust your nutritional needs.
With a little gentle change to our diets, a positive attitude, and by making sure we enjoy an active life that adjusts along with us, we can boost our chance of living longer – living happier – and sharing that enjoyment with everyone else around us!