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Old age diet
Older people naturally eat less and this would mean that they get less nutrition. This was not an issue in the past. From a lifetime of eating nutrient-rich, natural foods, our ancestors stayed healthy and continued to function effectively in old age.
Today, an older person is likely to be ill with one or more of the major degenerative diseases from malnutrition. Even if they are "healthy", older people today tend to be less efficient in many body functions such as digestion, absorption and utilisation. As a result, many of them require more nutrients. Yet it is not practical to have them eat more. What older people need, are good quality natural foods called functional foods that are rich in nutrients and healthy fats to nourish their brain and maintain their energy.
Still, that may not be good enough. Old people tend to have difficulty either assimilating certain nutrients, or converting them into bioactive grades that they body can use. Old people therefore face a bigger problem of malnutrition. If this is not compensated, the body shrinks and they become increasingly frail and demented.
Reasons for this include:
Eating less: Apart from naturally wanting less food, old people - especially those who live on their own - may also eat less due to difficulty in purchasing, preparing, chewing, seeing, smelling and tasting food. Progressive dementia and emotional factors like loneliness and depression aggravate the situation.
Poorer digestion and absorption: Older people tend to have poorer digestive and absorptive capacity. So even if they eat nutrient-rich foods, the nutrients may not be well-absorbed.
Poorer nutrient assimilation: Ageing cells are less efficient in assimilating nutrients. When this is coupled with reduced nutrient intake, ageing people inevitably progress into a wasting state.
Less competent metabolism: Ageing cells gradually lose their capability to convert inactive nutrients to their bioactive forms that the body can use.
Vitamin D3: The skin is less able to convert cholesterol into vitamin D3. This problem is worsened when old people stay indoors, as adequate exposure to sunlight is needed for this conversion.
- Vitamin B12: Degeneration of the stomach mucus lining in old people reduces the production of hydrochloric acid and this affects the absorption of vitamin B12. Moreover, the body loses its limited ability to convert cyanocobalamin B12 (cB12) from plant sources to methylcobalamin B12 (mB12), which is the bioactive form of vitamin B12 that the brain critically needs. Vegans or pure vegetarians are most at risk as vitamin mB12 is found mainly in animal foods like shellfish, meat, milk and eggs.
- Omega-3: Old people also lose their ability to convert plant-based omega-3, which comes in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two bioactive forms of omega-3 that the body and brain can utilise. Humans are poor at converting ALA into EPA and DHA to begin with, achieving only about to percent conversion. Most people completely lose this capacity by about age 50. Unless older people consume DHA from animal or seafood sources, this deficiency will accelerate the loss of mental and visual functions.
Since old people are unable to convert nutrients into their bioactive forms, supplementation of these nutrients are critical for their wellbeing. In addition to natural foods, older people are they are strongly advised to take the following supplements: vitamin D3, methyl B12 and krill oil containing EPA, DHA and phospholipids.
Food poisoning risks
One is their poorer sense of smell and taste, which means that they often cannot detect food that has gone bad.
Also, the stomachs of old people produce much less hydrochloric acid. This removes an important line of defence as hydrochloric acid destroys many harmful microorganisms. To minimise such risks, old people should take the following steps:
Date the foods they put inside the refrigerator to remind them of foods that might have been kept too long. If there is any doubt, discard the food. It is better to "waste" food than to risk food poisoning. Better still, do not consume any leftovers.
Cook foods well - especially protein-rich food like eggs, meat, fish, shelfish, poultry and sausages.
Avoid high-risk foods like raw sprouts, deli meats like cured hams or smoked fish, and unpasteurised dairy foods, including some soft cheeses.
This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.