Ask An Expert: What Nutrients Do We Need As We Age?

With Georgia Houston

We know that for good health—as well as glowing skin—our diet and the way we eat plays a major role. 

Not only do our nutrition practices directly impact and influence the balance and diversity of our gut microbiome—but at various stages in our lives, we can also support our health and wellbeing by choosing to eat in a certain way and/or include specific nutrients that we may require more (or less!) of. Given that as we age this is particularly true, we spoke to Accredited Practising Dietitian, Georgia Houston, to help better understand why we need to take note of our dietary needs as we age and what some of the key nutrients we should be incorporating into our daily diet, especially if we’re over 50…

We all understand that eating healthily is important for our overall health (as well as our skin!)—but how do our nutrition practices impact our gut health specifically and why is eating well so integral?

“Looking after our gut health, and the trillions of microorganisms that live inside our gut, can play a major role in our physical, mental and emotional health. Poor gut health is not only linked to gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and diarrhoea but also serious diseases like diabetes, obesity and cancer.  

Nutrition tips for good gut health:

Increase fibre-rich foods: Fibre is the part of plant foods (found in wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and legumes and lentils) that stay undigested.  Aside from keeping us feeling fuller for longer, a key role of fibre is providing prebiotics to ferment and feed the good bacteria in our guts.  Fibre = feeds and grows the good bacteria in your gut.

Nourish with probiotics: Probiotics are living bacteria that exist throughout the intestinal tract that help to restore and grow the good bacteria in your gut. They can help with bloating, gas and discomfort caused by ‘bad’ bacteria and also help to keep the cells within the gut healthy, boosting our immunity.  Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso are all natural food sources rich in probiotics! 

Limit discretionary foods
Discretionary foods, such as sweet biscuits, processed meats, deep-fried foods and alcohol, are often low in fibre and high in sugar. These foods encourage the ‘bad’ bacteria to grow in our gut and slow down the digestion process. For a healthy and balanced diet, limit these foods to small quantities and special occasions.” 

How does our gut health and nutrient needs change over time?

“As we age, we typically have lower calorie needs but similar or even increased nutrient needs to our younger selves. This is often due to changes in hormones and metabolism, reduced physical activity and age-related bone and muscle loss. For example, as females age their requirements for calcium and vitamin D increase to assist in bone loss associated with decreased oestrogen in menopause.   

Similarly, we now know our microbiome also changes as we age and that we are at increased risk of imbalance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in our gut. Factors that increase the ‘bad’ bacteria as we age include taking multiple medications, poor diet, reduced physical activity and diseases such as obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.” 

There are also certain health and wellbeing concerns that are fairly universal as we age—things like bone health, hormonal health and gut health—so what are some signs that we may need to pay attention to?

“Many people don’t know they have poor bone density (i.e. osteoporosis) until they are diagnosed with a broken or fractured bone. Therefore, the most common symptom of poor bone health is breaking or fracturing a bone with a mild injury, such as falling over. Poor bone health is also linked with changes in hormones, as reduced oestrogen levels result in increased bone loss. A change in hormones, mainly oestrogen, may also influence body fat distribution, with many women in perimenopause and early post menopause finding it difficult to lose weight.” 

As we head into our late forties and fifties in particular, are there certain nutrients we require more of?

“As you pass through late forties and into your fifties your nutritional concerns may change.  Whilst nutritional needs stay the same or increase, you may find that your calorie needs and appetite decrease. The best way to stay well-nourished is to eat a variety of foods from the main food groups, daily. For example, aim for:

  • Iron/protein rich foods such as meat/chicken/fish/lentils or eggs in 1-2 meals per day.
  • Aim for 3 serves of dairy foods each day for increased calcium and protein needs.  
  • Include vegetables with lunch and dinner and aim for 2 pieces fruit during the day for vitamins and fibre.  
  • Pick a source of carbohydrate for each meal for energy i.e. bread/pasta/cereal."

How else can we support our health and wellbeing—and ensure we maintain a robust microbiome—as we age?

“There are simple day-to-day practices that you can be implementing to also help improve your digestive health as you age. These include:

Getting enough sleep: 

If you are sleeping poorly, you are more likely to eat poorly and rely on quick and convenient processed/sugary foods. You are also more likely to skip exercise, which has a flow on effect to food choices and stress management, all impacting the gut. One tip for a better night's sleep: Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time.  

Stress management: 

Prolonged and chronic stress can significantly impact our health and digestive health. When we are stressed, our body protects us by diverting all energy to adrenaline and cortisol production.  A downside of this is that the energy to assist in digestion slows right down. When this happens, gastrointestinal disturbances such as constipation, diarrhoea, nausea and bloating can increase.  Tip for reduced stress: Schedule in relaxation time. Sometimes it’s the only way it will find way into our day!  

Limit alcohol: 

Alcohol is unfortunately inflammatory to our digestive system, meaning it becomes an irritant. If you choose to drink, drink in moderation. The Australian guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks a week for healthy men and women and no more than 4 standard drinks in any one day."

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