New Food Pyramid Supports Seniors Nutrition

Healthnotes Newswire (February 14, 2008)—To address the special nutritional needs of older adults, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has now created a graphic representation of an age-modified food pyramid, which highlights the importance of some easy-to-miss nutrients.

The USDA issued a revised Food Guide Pyramid in 2005—the “MyPyramid”—which is customizable through an Internet-based program that takes a person’s body size, gender, and physical activity level into account. While the Internet program has helped many people identify and reach their dietary goals, it hasn’t been as effective for the less computer-savvy 70-and-over crowd.

“The greater than 70-year-old group can be vulnerable to compromised nutritional status,” says Alice Lichtenstein, nutrition expert at Tufts University and codeveloper of the new MyPyramid graphic published in the Journal of Nutrition.

The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults graphic helps seniors better understand their complex nutritional needs by highlighting several “potential shortfall nutrients” for people over 70. A flag at the top of the pyramid emphasizes that extra calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 might be needed.

Nutrients needed in a senior diet

• Calcium: Low-fat dairy and fortified foods are emphasized as rich sources of this bone-healthy nutrient.

• Vitamin D: Most elderly people don’t get enough of the sunshine vitamin. The skin’s ability to convert vitamin D to its active form diminishes with age, and many seniors shun the sun for fear of skin damage. Older people can increase their vitamin D intake by eating fortified foods; some people may also need to take a vitamin D supplement to ensure adequate intake.

• Vitamin E, vitamin K, and potassium: To help decrease the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, the pyramid emphasizes eating a variety of deeply colored fruits and vegetables such as carrots, spinach, and peppers—which are good sources of potassium and vitamins E and K, as well as other protective nutrients. Icons depict bags of frozen veggies that make preparing and storing these foods easier for older people. Canola and soybean oils are also pictured as rich sources of vitamin E and K; saturated and trans fats are discouraged.

• Fiber: Foods that are high in fiber also tend to be more nutrient-rich. The pyramid shows legumes, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables as great fiber sources.

• Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 deficiency becomes more common with increasing age, as many people lose the capacity to produce stomach acid, which is necessary for its absorption. It might be wise to take a B12 supplement or talk with your doctor to determine if B12 injections would be beneficial.

• Fluids: The “thirsty cues” also diminish with advancing age, leaving seniors vulnerable to dehydration. As a reminder to stay hydrated, the pyramid shows a row of water glasses. A good rule of thumb is to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day.

The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults also emphasizes the importance of staying physically active in later years.

It is important to consider that while many nutrients might be lacking in a senior diet, others could be too plentiful. With fortification of foods and widespread use of multivitamin preparations, some seniors may get too much folic acid, which can mask the laboratory diagnosis of vitamin B12 deficiency, potentially leading to neurological damage. “It is preferable to get essential nutrients from food rather than supplements,” Lichtenstein says; this can decrease the risk of overdoing certain nutrients.

“On the other hand, elderly people with low stomach acid may need to take a vitamin B12 supplement,” said Alan R. Gaby, MD, chief science editor for Healthnotes. “Food-derived vitamin B12 is poorly absorbed by people with low stomach acid, whereas vitamin B12 in supplement form is well absorbed.”

Since many seniors take medications that may be impacted—positively or negatively—by adding supplements to the mix, seniors should look for a healthcare practitioner knowledgeable in nutritional medicine to help them be aware of potential nutrient and drug interactions and make appropriate recommendations for nutrient supplementation.

(J Nutr 2008;138:5–11)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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