Getting Enough Nutrients? What You Need To Prioritize By Age

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Our bodies need carbohydrates, fat and protein to function. They need vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and phytonutrients to build, repair and thrive. Ideally, we meet these nutrient needs  with carefully planned meals and snacks. Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all prescription for nutrients.

"Nutrient requirements vary depending on where you are in the life cycle," says Kimberly Snodgrass, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Henry Ford Health System. So while you'll always need a combination of essential amino acids and fatty acids, carbohydrates, and 28 vitamins and minerals, your specific needs will change as you age.

Nutrient Needs According To Life Stage

The National Academy of Sciences has published recommendations for Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) to provide people with rough nutrient guidelines. Those DRIs change based on gender, age and health status. "DRIs are not designed for people who are chronically ill, or who are at high risk of illness due to age, genetics and lifestyle factors," Snodgrass notes.

Just how does the mix of nutrients you need to grow and thrive in infancy compare to those you require during your golden years? Here's how it breaks down:

Infancy

Nutrient requirements per kilogram of body weight are greater during infancy than at any other developmental stage. Babies' cells are rapidly dividing, and they need protein, carbohydrates and fat to support growth and development (though it's best to avoid saturated and trans fats). Energy needs remain high through the early years, then decline in early adolescence.

"Total water requirements are also higher in infants and children than for adults," Snodgrass says. "Children have larger body surface area per unit of body weight and a reduced capacity for sweating compared to adults, so they're at higher risk of dehydration." If you're a parent, make sure your kids are getting enough fluid, especially if they experience fever, diarrhea or exposure to extreme temperatures.

Adolescents And Young Adults

Tweens, teens and young adults require more protein and energy than adults to support growth (and all of those puberty hormones). While most of their micronutrient recommendations are the same as for adults of all ages, young adults may require more nutrients linked to bone growth, such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.

"Micronutrient needs in adults 19 to 50 years of age differ slightly according to gender, Snodgrass says. "Men need more of vitamins C; K; B1, B2 and B3; choline; magnesium; zinc; chromium; and manganese. Menstruating women require more iron compared to males of similar age."

Adults

Once you pass age 25, hanging on to your bone mineral density and reducing your risk of chronic diseases tend to climb up the priority list. To reduce the risk for age-related bone loss and fracture, the DRI for vitamin D increases from 200 IUs per day to 400 IUs per day in individuals 51-70 years of age. At the same time, women's iron needs change along with their menstrual cycle, dropping from 18 mg per day for women ages 19 to 50 to only 8 mg per day after age 50.

Seniors

Unfortunately, as we age our bodies become less efficient at absorbing nutrients. Many seniors are deficient in selenium and vitamins B6, B12 and D — all of which are critical for optimal immune function.

"While supplementary doses of micronutrients can both prevent deficiency and support immune function, excessive supplementation (for example, high-dose zinc) may have the opposite effect," Snodgrass says. "For example, high calcium intake has been associated with increased prostate cancer risk."

Getting The Right Nutrient Mix

It's important to remember that the biggest dietary problem facing Americans isn't a lack of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but overnutrition. Getting too many nutrients — especially macronutrients like carbohydrates, proteins and fats — has led to unprecedented epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases.

To be at your best, commit to eating a largely plant-based diet featuring plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. Following this dietary pattern can help prevent weight problems and chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

A bonus: "Plant-based diets meet or exceed recommended intakes of most nutrients and have the advantage of being lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than typical Western diets with measurable health benefits," Snodgrass says.

Still not sure how to get your due? Schedule a visit with a registered dietitian nutritionist to help you select foods that keep energy intake within reasonable bounds while maximizing intakes of nutrient-rich foods.

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To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Kimberly Snodgrass, RDN, specializes in nutrition counseling and health coaching for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion.

Categories: EatWell