Eating a healthy diet is an important pillar of maintaining our wellbeing. This includes consuming nutrient-rich foods and avoiding foods that contain empty calories. In general, this means eating less processed foods and focusing on foods such as fruits and vegetables, healthy and lean protein sources, and taking in adequate fiber. This goes a long way in ensuring we are taking in the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other compounds that our body needs to function adequately.
However, a healthy diet for someone in their 20s doesn’t necessarily serve the needs of our bodies as we enter our 40s, 50s and 60s. There are numerous factors that lead to changes in our nutrient needs. Some of these include health status, total caloric intake, changes in metabolism as we age, as well as general changes in nutritional needs of our body over time. Understanding how nutritional needs change with age is important to maintaining health.
Nutrition for Older Adults
Nutritional needs for younger adults can be significantly different that nutrition for older adults. While nutritional needs for the elderly may require even further fine tuning. Additionally, the presence of health conditions as well as the use of pharmaceutical medications lead to increased nutritional needs over time. Beyond these factors, the nutritional needs of adult males differ from those of females, largely resulting from hormonal and metabolic changes as well as differences in average body weight.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in partnership with the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) conduct periodic surveys known as NHANES to determine nutrient intake across demographic ranges of the US population. They break down nutritional intake by age and gender. The results of the survey for the 2013-2016 dataset reveal interesting findings related to the intake of certain nutrients. Here we will review the intake of a few critical nutrients to compare the data by age and gender.
With respect to the B vitamin folate, NHANES data indicates that, on average, 92% of men aged 19 and older met the EAR (estimated average requirement) for this nutrient from their dietary intake; however, in women aged 19 and over, only 80% met the EAR. Significantly, in women aged 50 or older, this number drops to 76% while in those between 19 and 50 years old, 82% met the EAR for folate. Of course, certain health conditions, as well as women who are pregnant, require substantially higher intakes than the EAR, and those individuals would need to increase folate in the diet as well as from supplements.
As one of the most prevalent antioxidants in food and one of the most essential vitamins for immune health and other bodily functions, the intake of vitamin C is critical for wellbeing. However, a significant number of adult men and women alike fail to get even the minimum amount required from the diet. The EAR for vitamin C for men over 19 is set at 75 mg/day while for women aged 19 and over, it is 60 mg/day. According to NHANES data, 44% of adult women and 52% of adult men fail to consume the EAR for vitamin C from the diet. Being such an important nutrient for immune health and knowing that there is an increased requirement for vitamin C to fight off immune challenges, this finding is surprising, to say the least. Whereas for immune health an adequate amount of vitamin C may be 500 to 1000mg/day, to see that a high percentage of adults consume less than 75 mg from their diet is disappointing.
Vitamin D is critically important for heart, bone, immune and metabolic health, among other essential functions. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the vitamins that is most often deficient in the diet. NHANES data shows that vitamin D intake is severely insufficient across the board. In adult men aged 19 and older, on average 92% fail to get the EAR through dietary intake while greater than 97% of women are falling short of the minimum requirements. These are staggering figures and indicate the importance of making up these differences by supplementing with a vitamin D-containing product.
Vitamin K is crucial for proper blood coagulation but also plays critical roles in heart and bone health (in the form of K2). The NHANES numbers for vitamin K only assess levels of vitamin K1, while levels of vitamin K2 (the more active form of vitamin K for heart and bone health) are not assessed; however, there are critical shortfalls in the intake of vitamin K. Overall, 40% of men fail to meet the minimum requirement for vitamin K on a daily basis while this number jumps to 50% in women. While not assessed here, the percentage of individuals deficient is vitamin K2 is even higher, stressing the need to get this vitamin through dietary supplements.
Magnesium plays a role in over 300 metabolic reactions in the body and is indispensable as a mineral for supporting healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, heart health, muscle function, nerve health, bone health, and promoting an overall calming and relaxing feeling, while facilitating sleep. However, a majority of adults fail to consume adequate amounts of magnesium through the diet. For adult women, 51% consume less than the minimum requirements while in men, this number jumps to 55%. Looking at age differences, the situation is even more dire in those aged 71 and older. In older men, 75% fail to consume an adequate amount while 63% of older women consume less than that which is required for health.
While this article focused on highlighting the intake of selected nutrients in the US population, digging further into the data yields interesting insights across the board. It indicates that a rather low percentage of individuals overall are eating a generally healthy diet. Here, we highlighted key nutrients in which there are significant shortfalls, but the opposite also holds true. For nutrients that we should consume less of from a health standpoint, on average our diets are imbalanced to the point we are consuming excess amounts. A prime example is sodium, where the average intake across adults is more than twice of what is adequate. Perhaps these types of imbalances contribute to our disease burden as a society, especially in conditions such as high blood pressure.
Deficiencies Contributing to Poor Immune Health
The key nutrient deficiencies highlighted here shed a light on the fact that our immune system may not be getting the support that it needs to fight off immune challenges effectively. All the nutrients we discuss here contribute to significant benefits for immune health. The shortfall in critical immune nutrients makes us susceptible to viral and bacterial infections and affects our health overall.
Reassessing our dietary practices and fine-tuning nutritional intakes to address changing needs as we age is important for maintaining health through the lifespan. Keeping in mind increased nutrient requirements that arise from our health status and any medications we are using is also essential. Filling the gaps through modifying the diet and adding dietary supplements can be key pillars to an overall health optimization plan.
- What We Eat in America: NHANES 2013-2016. Accessed at: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400530/pdf/usual/Usual_Intake_gender_WWEIA_2013_2016.pdf
- Reider CA et al. Inadequacy of Immune Health Nutrients: Intakes in US Adults, the 2005–2016 NHANES. Nutrients. 12(6):1735