Janet Tunks and a platter of good food

A good diet as we age includes protein for muscles and calcium and Vitamin D for bones

There’s a common misconception that as we age we need to eat less – to watch our waistlines and cut our kilojoules. In fact, most of the time, the opposite is true. Adding a bit of extra weight in later life is not necessarily a bad thing; what’s far more important is that we eat healthily – with a diet focused on keeping us strong.

Just ask Janet Tunks. Five years ago, Janet inspired all of her friends when she lost significant weight so she could have a hip replacement. Today, at 60, with a new hip and a new outlook on life, she’s a shining example of nourishing foods and active living – walking six to seven kilometres every day, riding her ‘deadly treadly’ and travelling overseas with husband Ray each year.

The answer, says Janet, was not focusing on kilojoules, as so much as ‘establishing a routine around good foods’ – foods that would keep her muscles and bones strong, her gut healthy and her mind agile.

Our changing dietary needs

As dietary science progresses, advice to seniors is being fine-tuned to reflect the latest wisdom on how our nutrition needs to change as we age.

In a nutshell, the focus of a good diet in our 50s and 60s on limiting unhealthy fats, salt and added sugars; eating across the five ‘core food groups’; and drinking plenty of water – needs further tweaks when we reach our 70s.

Then, in addition to these healthy eating fundamentals, we need to start prioritising a new series of nutrients: protein for our muscles, calcium and Vitamin D for our bones, and fibre and the B-group vitamins for our hearts and guts.

Getting these nutrients from a variety of food and drinks is vital to help us stay active and independent – and, of course, ensures we enjoy all the social benefits that come with good food.

Confusing nutrition messages

‘I’ve often found nutrition advice to be quite confusing,’ admits Janet, who works as a cancer nurse at Latrobe Regional Hospital. ‘But I’ve gradually come to realise that a steak isn’t a sin, and I can have some nuts every day – as long as I don’t eat the whole packet!’

These days, Janet makes an effort to eat at least two pieces of fruit and drink two litres of water every day, as well as avoiding processed foods.

‘I try and have some red meat two or three times a week, with chicken or fish on the other days,’ she says. ‘I have a very sweet tooth, but these days I’ll try and limit it to two squares of chocolate after dinner. It’s become a real treat, which I look forward to – and most days I feel I deserve!’

Osteoperosis and other challenges

Dorothy Bysouth is another senior who’s found that a ‘smart’, conscientious diet can bring multiple health benefits. Now in her early 70s, ‘Dot’ has had long-running battles with osteoporosis, as well as dairy and gluten intolerance.

‘Ironically, my osteoporosis means I need more calcium, but I’m sensitive to dairy products so I buy goats’ cheese and sheep’s milk cheese and yoghurt to make up for my lack of dairy,’ she says. ‘My doctor prescribes me calcium supplements, and I also eat a lot of almonds – which I love – and salmon and tofu, which also contain calcium.’

Dot was diagnosed with osteoporosis back in 2003, but has been able to increase her bone density through her calcium regime and daily medication. ‘I also walk a lot and do Pilates every week, which really seems to help,’ she says.

But Dot doesn’t let her focus on calcium prevent her from getting her fair share of protein and fibre.

‘Like my mother I don’t have a big appetite,’ says Dot. ‘So I need to prioritise foods that provide the right nutrients. I’ve had a few friends who’ve started forgetting to eat as they get older and have had to go into care as a result. But that’s not my plan!’

Essential nutrients that help us age well*

Nutrients Why we need it What provides it
Protein – to maintain your muscles Maintain muscle mass and strength; repair cells in our organs, skin and brain; support an effective immune system and wound repair. Red meats, poultry and fish; eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, legumes and lentils; dairy products.
Calcium – to keep your bones strong Strengthen and build bones; prevent osteoporosis; reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and some cancers. Best source: Cow’s milk, yoghurt, cheese and custard. Other sources: Soy, rice and other cereal drinks enriched with calcium; almonds with skin; canned sardines, salmon and firm tofu.
Vitamin D – to keep you on your feet Strengthen bones; improve muscle strength and function. Sunlight; oily fish, liver, egg yolks; products enriched with Vitamin D including some margarines and breakfast cereals.
Fibre and B-group vitamins – to keep your heart and gut healthy Prevent constipation; reduce risk of heart disease and diabetes. Fruits, vegetables, wholegrain bread, cereals, lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds. Some B-group vitamins are also found in meat and dairy products.
Fluids – to keep your body healthy Counter reduced thirst; prevent constipation; improve physical and mental performance. 6–8 cups of fluid daily, preferably tap water; milk, tea, coffee, juice and hot chocolate.

* Unless otherwise specified by your general practitioner (GP)