Along with ageing comes a physiological slowing down of the metabolic processes within the body. All this is inevitable and normal, as long as it is kept within certain limits. Having proper nutrition, along with a good lifestyle that includes, among other things, maintaining a good level of physical activity, is a cornerstone of disease prevention and healthy ageing.
And as you age, there is a reduction in your energy requirements. This is not only linked to a reduction in physical activity but also to a decrease in the basal metabolic rate, in other words, the energy you burn when resting. Therefore, as the years go by, it is necessary to reduce the calories taken in with food to avoid becoming overweight or obese, which are huge risk factors of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.
Even in the elderly who maintain a normal weight, they experience a change in their body composition, including an increase in fat mass and a decrease in muscle mass. This phenomenon, normal within certain limits, can lead to “sarcopenia” and can be limited by maintaining a correct intake of proteins and good physical activity.
Regarding fats, the rules are the same as for adults: keep them to a minimum, avoid saturated ones and include fish twice a week to maintain a good supply of omega-3 fats. The recommendations for carbohydrates are also the same: consume them mostly in the form of starches, eat a lot of fibre (this is important for regulating intestinal function, which tends to become “sluggish” in the elderly) and keep sugars to a minimum. This recommendation must be followed carefully by the elderly, who often tend to become greedier and prefer sweet foods despite having a reduced glucose tolerance.
The elderly should drink the correct amount of water (at least 1.5 litres per day), because dehydration is very common during this stage of life. So the elderly must be urged to drink water, but a glass of wine is also allowed!
Finally, it is important that the elderly consume all the necessary vitamins and minerals, and therefore must have a varied diet rich in fruit and vegetables. In particular, they must consume the right amount of calcium and vitamin D to counteract osteoporosis, and also reduce their intake of sodium (table salt) to reduce the risk of hypertension. Since taste sensitivity is lost over the years, we must learn to flavour recipes using herbs and spices, avoiding salt. This rule applies to all ages, but even more so in the elderly.
So good nutrition will add life to your years!
Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences,
University of Bologna