Heading for your 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s?

As your total energy needs naturally start to decrease and your body starts to lose its ability to effectively absorb key nutrients from food, malnutrition becomes a risk. Add to this the possibility of chronic disease, resultant use of medication (which may interact with nutrients), poor dentition and changes in taste and odour perception, and you're faced with a very real problem.

But, according to Prof David Richardson, scientific advisor to the UK Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), it is possible to prevent malnutrition as you live to a ripe old age. You simply need to acknowledge the fact that your nutrient needs are changing, and then make sure you eat more of the right foods and supplement where necessary*.

This is important, as Australia’s ageing population is growing.Between 1991 and 2011, the proportion of Australia's population aged 65 years and over increased from 11.3% to 13.7%, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (www.abs.gov.au) reports. During the same time, the proportion of the population aged 85 years and over has more than doubled – from 0.9% to 1.8% of the total population.

When it comes to good nutrition beyond your 60s, Richardson recommends the following:

1. Protein

Your body composition changes as you age. Interestingly, the lean muscle mass of normal men decreases from about 24kg in their 20s to about 13kg in their 70s.

This process (also referred to as "sarcopenia") can be slowed down by sufficient intake of protein, and more specifically the branched-chain amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of protein).

Dairy, red meat and eggs are good sources of these amino acids.

2. Calcium and other bone-boosting nutrients

Osteoporosis affects one in three women and one in 12 men over the age of 50.

To preserve bone health throughout old age, it's important to include the following in your diet:

    • Calcium, found in milk, cheese, yoghurt, spinach and sardines.

    • Vitamin D, found in egg yolk, cod liver oil, mackerel and salmon. Daily sun exposure also increases levels of this vitamin in your body.

    • Vitamin K2, which is found in:

        • green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnip greens and the dark green leaves of lettuce (about 100 micrograms/100g)

        • dairy products, meat, eggs (about 50 micrograms/100g)

        • fruit and cereals (about 15 micrograms/100g)

    • Zinc, found in dairy products, red meat, eggs, poultry and soya beans.

    • Phosphorus, found in whole grains (especially oats), dairy products, red meat, poultry and seafood.

    • Magnesium, found in whole grains, spinach, whole-wheat bread, bran flakes and red meat.

3. Nutrients for healthy joints

Osteoarthritis, which affects many people over the age of 50, can result in loss of joint mobility and can significantly decrease quality of life. It's a major cause of disability, affecting 37% of the adult population and 85% of those over 80.

The following nutrients are thought to be beneficial to people with osteoarthritis:

    • Glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, which are best taken in supplement form.

    • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and fresh tuna. If you don't eat fatty fish at least twice a week, consider taking an omega-3 supplement.

4. Immune-boosting vitamins and minerals

As you get older, your body becomes more susceptible to disease. So, now more than ever, it's important to give your immunity a boost.

Science suggests that the following nutrients could help:

    • Vitamin B6, found in potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, chicken and mackerel.

    • Folic acid, found in sweetcorn, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and fresh green vegetables.

    • Vitamin A, found in sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin and spinach.

    • Vitamin C, found in asparagus, citrus fruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and peppers.

    • Vitamin E, found in wheat germ, prawns, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds.

    • Zinc, found in dairy products, red meat, eggs, poultry and soya beans.

    • Iron, found in spinach, dried fruit, red meat, egg yolks and tuna.

    • Selenium, found in brown rice, wheat germ, whole-wheat bread, poultry and tuna.

5. Probiotics for a healthy gut

The composition of your gut flora changes with age. There’s a reduction in the levels of friendly bacteria and the small intestine's ability to absorb nutrients from food gradually decreases.

Prebiotics and probiotics can, however, help counteract these problems. Prebiotics are non-digestible food products that stimulate the growth of "good" bacteria (probiotics) already present in the colon. In other words, prebiotics act as food for probiotics.

To give your body a pre/probiotic boost, be on the lookout for yoghurts that contain live AB cultures and prebiotics in the form of inulin or oligosaccharides. Good supplements are also available, many of which are formulated with specific probiotics to treat specific conditions.

6. Good nutrition for brain and cognitive function

Mental impairment, confusion and dementia can have a severe impact on your quality of life and independence as you grow older.

Keep your mind sharp by ensuring an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids and protein (fatty fishes such as salmon or tuna are a good source of both). If you are not getting at least 2 serves of fatty fish a week, it may be a good idea to top up your omega-3 levels with a fish oil or calamari oil supplement. It is also important you supply your brain with a good balance of vitamins and minerals, particularly the B vitamins. Ideally, these should be consumed through your food by increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. Including so-called 'Superfoods' in your diet is another way to dramatically increase your dietary intake through the food you eat.

7. Antioxidants for heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia. As you grow older, your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke increases. What you eat can make a difference: limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol, eat less salt, eat more wholegrains, go for low-fat protein foods, and eat more fruit and vegetables.

Also make a point of including dietary antioxidants in your diet – all of which will help protect you against oxidation, which contributes to heart disease. Examples include:

    • Anthocyanins, found in grapes, berries and cherries

    • Resveratrol, found in grapes and red wine.

    • Lycopene, found in tomatoes

    • Lutein in spinach, kale and broccoli

    • Catechins in green tea

    • Quercetin in apples, onions and tea

    • Hesperidin in oranges

    • Sulforaphanes in broccoli, cabbage and kale

    • Diallyl sulphides in garlic

    • Isoflavones in soy beans

*Health365 advises that you seek professional assistance from a registered dietician. To find a dietician in your area, visit www.daa.asn.au.

Hark, L. Deen, Darwin. (2006) Nutrition for Life: The Definitive Guide to Eating Well for Good Health. Dorling Kindersley (UK).