Esther and Steven both go to Dr. Wang for their general medical care. Recently, she told Esther that her blood sugar is in the prediabetic range and suggested Esther lose a few pounds and start exercising regularly. Dr. Wang also talked to her about changing the amount of protein and carbohydrates she eats. Then it was Steven’s turn. His cholesterol has gone up recently. Dr. Wang wanted him to start reducing the fat in his diet. That was going to be especially hard for Steven who loved the chips and buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing that were served when he and his friends played cards on Thursday nights. Dr. Wang surprised them both when she said Steven’s bone density was a little low. They didn’t know older men could have problems with bone strength. Dr. Wang suggested they both exercise and get extra calcium and vitamin D to protect bone strength.
Your body needs nutrients to survive and stay healthy. There are five main types—proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, and water. What does each of these nutrients do in your body? What foods are they found in?
Here’s a tip
Foods in each group have different nutrients. Picking an assortment from every food group throughout the week will help you get many nutrients. And the variety of foods will make your meals more interesting.
Proteins are often called the body’s building blocks. They are used to build and repair tissues. They help you fight infection. Your body uses extra protein for energy. Good sources of protein are seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Protein is also found in dairy products. Protein from plant sources tends to be lower in fat and cholesterol and provides fiber and other health-promoting nutrients.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, and milk products, as well as in sweeteners like sugar, honey, and syrup and foods like candy, soft drinks, and frosting or icing. Complex carbohydrates are found in breads, cereals, pasta, rice, beans and peas, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, green peas, and corn.
Many carbohydrates also supply fiber. Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate found in foods that come from plants—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. Eating food with fiber can prevent stomach or intestinal problems, such as constipation. It might also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Fats also give you energy and help you feel satisfied after eating. Oils, shortening, butter, and margarine are types of fats, and mayonnaise, salad dressings, table cream, and sour cream are high in fat. Foods from animal sources and certain foods like seeds, nuts, avocado, and coconut also contain fat. There are different categories of fats—some are healthier than others:
- Monounsaturated. These include canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, and safflower oil. They are found in avocados, peanut butter, and some nuts and seeds.
- Polyunsaturated. Some are corn oil, soybean oil, and flaxseed oil. They are also found in fatty fish, walnuts, and some seeds.
- Saturated. These fats are found in red meat, milk products including butter, and palm and coconut oils. Regular cheese, pizza, and grain-based and dairy desserts are common sources of saturated fat in our meals.
- Trans fats (trans fatty acids). Processed trans fats are found in stick margarine and vegetable shortening. Trans fats are often used in store-bought baked goods and fried foods at some fast-food restaurants.
You can tell monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats because they are liquid at room temperature. These types of fat seem to lower your chance of heart disease. But that doesn’t mean you can eat more than the Dietary Guidelines suggest. Trans fats and saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature. Trans fat and saturated fat can put you at greater risk for heart disease and should be limited.
Here’s a tip
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in some foods. Your body needs some cholesterol. But research suggests that eating a lot of foods high in saturated fat is associated with higher levels of cholesterol in your blood which may increase your risk of heart disease. Try to limit cholesterol to less than 300 mg each day. If your doctor says you need to lower your cholesterol, you might need to limit cholesterol in your food to less than 200 mg each day.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins. Vitamins help your body grow and work the way it should. There are 13 vitamins—vitamins C, A, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate). Vitamins have different jobs--helping you resist infections, keeping your nerves healthy, and helping your body get energy from food or your blood to clot properly. By following the Dietary Guidelines, you will get enough of most of these vitamins from food.
Vitamins and minerals are measured in a variety of ways. The most common are:
- mg – milligram
- mcg – microgram
- IU – international unit
Micrograms are used to measure very small amounts—there are 1,000 micrograms in a milligram. The size of an international unit varies depending on the vitamin or drug it is used to measure.
Your doctor might suggest that, like some older adults, you need extra of a few vitamins, as well as the mineral calcium. It is usually better to get the nutrients you need from food, rather than a pill. That’s because nutrient-dense foods contain other things that are good for you like fiber. Look for foods fortified with certain vitamins and minerals, like some B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D. That means those nutrients are added to the foods to help you meet your needs.
Most older people don’t need a complete multivitamin supplement. But if you don’t think you are making the best food choices, look for a supplement sold as a complete vitamin and mineral supplement. It should be well balanced and contain 100% of most recommended vitamins and minerals. Read the label to make sure the dose is not too large. Avoid supplements with mega-doses. Too much of some vitamins and minerals can be harmful, and you might be paying for supplements you don’t need.
Minerals. Minerals also help your body function. Some minerals, like iodine and fluoride, are only needed in very small quantities. Others, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium, are needed in larger amounts. As with vitamins, if you eat a varied diet, you will probably get enough of most minerals.
Vitamin/Mineral Supplements for People Over Age 50
Vitamin D—If you are age 50–70, you need at least 600 IU, but not more than 4,000 IU. If you are age 70 and older, you need at least 800 IU, but not more than 4,000 IU. You can get vitamin D from fatty fish, fish liver oils, fortified milk and milk products, and fortified cereals.
Vitamin B6—Men need 1.7 mg every day. Women need 1.5 mg every day. You can get vitamin B6 from fortified cereals, whole grains, organ meats like liver, and fortified soy-based meat substitutes.
Vitamin B12—You need 2.4 mcg every day. Some people over age 50 have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods, so make sure you get enough of the supplement form of this vitamin, such as from fortified foods. You can get vitamin B12 from fortified cereals, meat, fish, poultry, and milk.
Folate—You need 400 mcg each day. Folic acid is the form used to fortify grain products or added to dietary supplements. You can get folate from dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach, beans and peas, fruit like oranges and orange juice, and folic acid from fortified flour and fortified cereals.
Calcium is a mineral that is important for strong bones and teeth, so there are special recommendations for older people who are at risk for bone loss. You can get calcium from milk and milk products (remember to choose fat-free or low-fat whenever possible), some forms of tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables (like collard greens and kale), soybeans, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and calcium-fortified foods.
There are several types of calcium supplements. Calcium citrate and calcium carbonate tend to be the least expensive.
Calcium for People Over 50
Women age 51 and older: 1,200 mg each day
Men age 51 to 70: 1,000 mg each day
Men age 71 and older: 1,200 mg each day
Women and men age 51 and older: Don’t take more than 2,000 mg of calcium in a day.
Sodium is another mineral. In most Americans’ diets, sodium primarily comes from salt (sodium chloride), though it is naturally found in some foods. Sodium is also added to others during processing, often in the form of salt. We all need some sodium, but too much over time can contribute to raising your blood pressure or put you at risk for heart disease, stroke, or kidney disease.
How much sodium is okay? People over 50 should get less than 1,500 mg of sodium each day—that includes sodium added during manufacturing or cooking as well as at the table when eating. That is about 2/3 teaspoon of salt. Preparing your own meals at home without using a lot of processed foods or adding salt will allow you to control how much sodium you get. Look for grocery products marked “low sodium,” “unsalted,” “no salt added,” “sodium free,” or “salt free.” To limit sodium to 1,500 mg daily, try using less salt when cooking, and don’t add salt before you take the first bite. If you make this change slowly, you will get used to the difference in taste. Eating more vegetables and fruit also helps—they are naturally low in sodium and provide more potassium.
Here’s a tip
In the case of sodium, don’t be confused by the Nutrition Facts label. It uses the recommended level for people 50 and younger, 2,400 mg. Just check the actual milligrams of sodium on the label and keep to the amount recommended for people 51 and older—1,500 mg.
It’s important for your body to have plenty of fluids each day. Water helps you digest food, absorb nutrients from food, and then get rid of the unused waste. Water is found in foods--both solids and liquids, as well as in its natural state.
“But I Don’t Feel Thirsty”
With age, you might lose some of your sense of thirst. To further complicate matters, some medicines might make it even more important for you to have plenty of fluids. Take sips from a glass of water, milk, or juice between bites during meals. But don’t wait for mealtime—try to add liquids throughout the day. For example, have a cup of low-fat soup as an afternoon snack. Drink a full glass of water if you need to take a pill. Have a glass of water before you exercise or go outside to garden or walk, especially on a hot day. Remember, water is a good way to add fluids to your daily routine without adding calories.