How Do Your Nutritional Needs Change Over Time?

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As people age, daily nutritional requirements for everything from calories to vitamins and minerals change. People often need fewer calories as they get older. There are several factors that influence nutritional needs, including metabolic changes, changes in appetite, and overall body composition.

Most people begin to lose muscle mass as early as age 30. Those who have more muscle will burn more calories (even at rest) than someone who’s less muscular. As muscle mass diminishes, basal metabolic rate drops.

Although loss of muscle reduces the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight, you can counteract this by increasing your activity level.

Why Nutrition Is Important as You Age

The dietary reference intakes (DRIs) of macronutrients and micronutrients change as you age. In order to optimize the benefit of these nutrients for your health, it's important to know how your needs change over time. Adjusting the number of calories you consume, for example, can prevent unwanted weight gain. Ensuring adequate hydration and vitamins and minerals is a tool to ensure your vitality.

How Aging Changes Your Nutritional Needs

Traditionally, older adults find that their appetite decreases as their activity level and basal metabolic rate drop. This change can pose nutritional challenges since your body still needs the same vitamins and minerals as younger people, and for some nutrients like protein and vitamin D, it's recommended you get more. It can be challenging to pack all that nutrition into a smaller volume of food.

You Need More Nutrients but Fewer Calories

Calorie requirements are tied to your metabolism, which is your body's ability to break down nutrients and convert them into energy or store them as fat. When you're a teenager or in your 20s, your metabolism is relatively high. Around age 30, you start to lose a little bit of muscle and put on a bit more fat.

As you get older, muscle mass tends to decrease, and metabolism will naturally slow down as a result. As that happens, you might slowly gain weight. A pound or two a year may not seem like much at first, but over the years, it can add up.

Maintaining a stable body weight (whatever that weight may be) has been linked to better cognitive function as people get older.

Meanwhile, you need more of certain nutrients, like protein, fiber, vitamin D, and calcium.

You Should Note Your Fiber Intake

Adults over age 50 actually need slightly less fiber than younger adults. Women need 21 grams each day, and men need 30 grams each day. However, studies show only 5% of people consume adequate fiber, so be aware of meeting these requirements daily. Benefits of adequate fiber intake include decreasing cholesterol levels, improving gut health, decreasing your risk of diabetes and obesity, and reducing your risk of some cancers.

You Are More Likely to Dehydrate

As you get older, the balance of water and sodium in your body changes, making older people more prone to dehydration. It is recommended that people over the age of 50 drink between 2.7 to 3.7 liters of water each day.

Dehydration risk increases in older adults because total body water content decreases, the kidneys' ability to concentrate water changes, and the sense of thirst may be diminished, causing people to not drink enough water.

In addition, some people take medications that can decrease the amount of fluid in a person's body or alter thirst sensation, making those people even more prone to dehydration.

You May Need More Protein

Studies have shown that as people age, they become less receptive to amino acids provided by protein. Increasing the amount of protein can help ensure that those amino acids are absorbed in adequate amounts. Essential amino acids are responsible for muscle health. So eating more protein directly supports muscle health, which can prevent loss of mobility and strength.

You May Notice a Decrease in Appetite

There are several factors that cause older people to experience a decrease in appetite. Gastric emptying slows as you age, meaning you feel full for longer. Hormonal factors affecting hunger are also influenced as your hormones levels change. Psychosocial factors also affect appetite. Even entering retirement is a factor, as food habits and routines change.

You Require More Vitamin D and Calcium

Calcium and vitamin D are both essential to bone health. Adults should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 15 milligrams of vitamin D (20 mg if you are over the age of 70) each day. Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium. Ensuring adequate intake of both vitamin D and calcium are important for preventing osteoporosis.

If you decide to take vitamin D and calcium supplements, pay attention to how you take them. Calcium is best absorbed in smaller doses of about 500 mg or less at a time. Some experts recommend spacing lower-dose calcium supplements by taking them multiple times a day.

You Have Less Ability to Absorb Vitamin B12

Studies have shown that older adults are more at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. Deficiency can be associated with certain medical conditions, including atrophic gastritis, certain autoimmune disorders, and is even correlated with depression.

Vitamin B12 is essential to the central nervous system. Without adequate B12, you may experience dizziness, fatigue, dementia, and tingling. You can also become anemic. Your liver can store vitamin B12 for several years, so there can be a long delay in the onset of symptoms once you start consuming an inadequate amount of vitamin B12.

Other Nutrients That Can Help With Aging

  • Omega 3: Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in polyunsaturated fats, can help with inflammation, hypertension, and other aspects of heart health. It has even been linked to living a longer life.
  • Iron: Iron deficiency is a major cause of disability in much older adults. Not only can lack of iron cause anemia, but it can cause symptoms like those of cognitive disorders, worsening disease in people with Alzheimer's, an increase in infection risk, and osteoporosis. Eat foods high in iron and talk to a healthcare provider to see if supplementation is wise for you.
  • Magnesium and potassium: These essential minerals are both important nutrients for bone health, and yet many people are deficient in both magnesium and potassium. In addition to bone health, both minerals are also important for heart health.

Daily Nutritional Requirements for Older Adults

How many calories and other nutrients does your body require to maintain your current weight? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers the following general guidelines, for men and women over the age of 50.

Nutritional Needs for Women Over Age 50

Nutrient Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Calories 1,600–2,200/day, depending on activity level
Fiber 21g
Protein 46g
Calcium 1,200mg
Vitamin D 15-20μg
Vitamin B12 2.4μg
Iron 8mg
Potassium 2,600mg
Magnesium 320mg

Nutritional Needs for Men Over Age 50

Nutrient Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Calories 2,000–2,800/day, depending on activity level
Fiber 30g
Protein 56g
Calcium 1,000-1,200mg
Vitamin D 15-20μg
Vitamin B12 2.4μg
Iron 8mg
Potassium 3,400mg
Magnesium 420mg

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Weight as You Age

There are lots of ways you can maintain a weight that feels good to you as you age. Being as active as possible and paying attention to nutrient density in food (while being mindful of your consumption of non-nutritional calories like alcohol) are ways older adults can maintain a healthy weight.

Stay Active (or Get Active)

In general, adults should be getting 30 minutes of exercise per day, while also aiming for 10,000 steps per day. Resistance exercises like weight lifting can increase your muscle mass, which may increase your metabolism and the number of calories you burn. Aerobic activities such as running or walking burn calories while you're moving. They're also good for your heart health.

Calculate Your Daily Calorie Needs

Each person has a different caloric requirement based on their height, current weight, age, activity level, and sex. To find the right caloric intake for you based on all these factors, plus your goals for gaining, maintaining, or losing weight, use an automated calorie calculator tool.

Watch What You Eat

To stay healthy and avoid disease, aim for an eating plan made up of a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, healthy fats, and foods that are high in fiber. Lean protein sources such as fish and seafood are low in calories and contain omega-3 fatty acids. Make sure you also get plenty of high fiber foods (non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, legumes, and 100% whole-grain products).

Watch Your Alcohol Intake

Alcohol has more calories per ounce than carbohydrates or proteins, but has no other nutritional value. Plus, it's often combined with sweetened mixers that add even more calories.

A Word From Verywell

Getting older has many implications for how to eat an optimal diet, but eating can still be a pleasure. Finding delicious ways to eat the macronutrient and micronutrients you need can help stave off chronic disease and keep you feeling your best. If you have questions about the best eating plan for you, talk to a healthcare professional for individualized advice and plans.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does aging affect your nutritional status?

    Your nutritional needs change with every stage of life, from infanthood to teenage years and pregnancy to old age. As you age into later adulthood, your calorie needs drop as muscle mass naturally decreases, and your need for fiber, vitamin D, and calcium becomes more important than ever.

  • What are the main factors that affect older adults’ nutritional needs?

    Changing body composition is a major factor dictating the changing nutritional needs of older adults. Changes in water composition can make you more easily prone to dehydration. The loss of muscle mass affects metabolism and, by extension, the number of calories needed to maintain weight. The effect of age on bones also increases the need for micronutrients like vitamin D and calcium.

11 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  8. Manckoundia P, Konaté A, Hacquin A, et al. Iron in the general population and specificities in older adults: metabolism, causes and consequences of decrease or overload, and biological assessment. Clin Interv Aging. 2020;15:1927-1938. doi:10.2147/CIA.S269379

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Additional Reading

By Sharon Basaraba
Sharon Basaraba is an award-winning reporter and senior scientific communications advisor for Alberta Health Services in Alberta, Canada.