Age is just a number if you eat a varied healthy diet

Berna Harmse explains why diet needs to change as the autumn years approach.

Society uses the age of 65 years to define the transition point of middle age to old age. The maximum number of years of life recorded is around 115 years.

A healthy lifestyle (physical activity and eating healthy foods) can slow down the aging process and improve the quality of life in later years. As aging progresses, changes happen to the body and contribute to the body’s declining function.

Body composition

As you get older, there may be less muscle fat and higher fat percentages and you’ll present with a decreased metabolism; some experts suggest a decline of 5% per decade, leading to higher body weights.

Your body will also present with decreased insulin sensitivity, increasing diabetes risk. A decline in the immune system, and chronic disease can lead to malabsorption, heart disease and a decline in kidney function.

The mineral content of bones decreases over time, making them less dense and more fragile. Osteoporosis can develop in both men and women.

With regards to skin, changes in the connective tissue reduce the skin’s strength and elasticity. Two skin components, collagen and elastindegenarate, set the stage for the appearance of wrinkles and creases.

Key aspects to optimise nutrition in the autumn years:
  • Water: Dehydration can be a real problem. The elderly have a decreased sense of thirst and can become dehydrated easily. The effect of dehydration includes urinary tract infections, pneumonia, pressure ulcers, confusion and disorientation. Aim for six to eight cups per day.
  • Energy: Kilojoules usually decrease with age, so make sure your food sources are nutrient dense. Thus, even as you need lower kilojoules, include foods rich in nutrients, like fibre and antioxidants.
  • Fibre: Constipation becomes problematic in mature adults and is twice as common in women compared to men. There are two types of fibre: insoluble and soluble.
  • Insoluble: Cereals, whole-wheat bread, brown rice and pasta. These help prevent constipation if eaten in the right quantity. But note that too much can make you feel bloated.
  • Soluble: Fruit, vegetables, oats, beans and lentils. These slow down the rate of glucose absorption by the blood and reduces cholesterol.
  • Protein: The mechanism for absorbing protein changes. Studies show that spreading out protein intake during the day improves the absorption and utilisation of protein. This is especially necessary because older persons’ muscle weight reduces so it is imperative to preserve.


Mature people with a low appetite and poor food intake may need supplementation. Those aged 65 or older are recommended to take a vitamin D supplement, especially if they’re predominantly housebound.

However, supplements can’t be used to replace a normal healthy diet, and supplements that contain high dosages of single nutrients are not advised, unless prescribed by a health professional.

Calcium and vitamin D

As you age you may need calcium and vitamin D; calcium helps build and maintain healthy bones while vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Dark green leafy vegetables, fish with bones and dairy products are sources of calcium. Fish (salmon, sardines and herring) and sunlight contain vitamin D.

Vitamin B12

Aging increases the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Older adults can especially benefit from consuming foods higher in vitamin B12, such as eggs, milk, cheese, milk products, meat, fish, shellfish and poultry.


Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower blood pressure and triglycerides. Eat sardines, salmon and walnuts.


Iron-deficiency is common in older individuals and may cause anaemia. Eat dried fruits, fish and lean meats.

Note: this is general information on nutrition and aging. For individualised advice, please visit a registered dietitian in your area.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian. She holds a MSc in Dietetics, and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Berna Harmse

Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian. She holds a MSc in Dietetics,
and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.