Are you getting the nutrients you need? Nutrient deficiencies can affect everything from nerve and muscle function to cognitive processes. Madelyn Wilcox, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition with Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, shares common nutrients you may be lacking. Plus, she suggests several things that can affect how your body processes nutrients (they might surprise you).

As we age, do our bodies have a harder time absorbing and utilizing nutrients?

As we age, yes, we can run into problems with digestion and absorption. Most notably, I think of dentition. For instance, if a patient of mine was just recently fitted for dentures, they might not be as comfortable with certain fiber-rich foods, which could affect their intakes of fiber, magnesium, etc. In addition, if they are not chewing thoroughly, they may be missing the first major step to breaking down the nutrients in our food—mastication. That is why I encourage texture modification wherever needed—roasting, pureeing, blending or mashing are all still very viable ways to get those lovely fiber-rich foods into our bodies even with a large change such as getting dentures when we get older.

What about medications? Can they affect nutrition requirements?

Certain medications can absolutely affect the way our bodies process various foods. For instance, certain medications can irritate our gastrointestinal tract and make it a bit more sensitive to items, which, in part, can then result in loose stools. This quicker-than-desired emptying out, if repeated over time, could indicate that our body isn’t fully able to break down all the wonderful components of our foods.

So, what are the most common nutrient deficiencies for people age 55+?

In my practice, I would say vitamin D, fiber, calcium, magnesium and Omega 3 fatty acids.

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What role do those nutrients play in keeping our bodies healthy?

The human body works in a very intricate manner and requires adequate amounts of a variety of nutrients to function properly and carry out its duties. This is why evidence-based organizations, such as the American Institute for Cancer Research, recommend focusing on the optimization of diet vs. individual supplements to achieve proper nutrition. Consuming a variety of whole foods ensures our body is receiving a consistent dose in a routine format to operate at its prime. These nutrients, in particular, assist with everything from promoting a consistent bowel movement schedule (i.e. a route of detoxification for the body) to optimum cognition, nerve and muscle function, to name a few.

Woman holding an apple.

Photo by Madelyn Wilcox

And what foods are they found in?

For starters, any whole, plant-based food item such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, lentils, legumes, etc. will have fiber to them. “Greens, beans and grains” as I like to say are those hard-hitting magnesium-rich foods. As for vitamin D and calcium, these nutrients are found in dairy products and fortified foods. However, if you follow certain dietary practices or have medical history predisposing you to osteoporosis (i.e. breast radiation), you will want to talk with your physician if additional supplementation is warranted outside of food intake. Plant-based options for vitamin D and calcium include mushrooms and dark leafy greens, respectively speaking. And lastly, Omega 3s are found in a variety of plant and animal foods such as fatty fish, seeds (hemp, chia and flax), walnuts, seaweed/nori and various algae (spirulina). Again, if you follow a diet that restricts particular food groups, let’s say fish/seafood for instance, further supplementation may be encouraged by your physician.

How would someone find out what nutrients they’re lacking?

From my experience, annual lab checks at one’s wellness visit are limited to as- sessing blood counts and organ system function. Further nutrient checks should be discussed on an individual basis with your physician if you have concerns that your diet may not be covering that broad-spectrum, as we discussed earlier. The most common scenarios that come to mind would be if you are following a dietary pattern that restricts full food groups or live in a region, such as Northern Michigan, where we have a limited time of the year exposed to sunlight, which helps our bodies synthesize ad- equate vitamin D levels.

Is there anything you want to add?

To summarize, meeting one’s nutritional needs through diet optimization is doable and preferred vs. large doses of single nutrients. Chew your food thoroughly and adjust the textures of more fibrous food groups, if needed, in order to keep them a regular part of your consumption and dietary pattern. There is great power that comes from a diverse, nutrient-dense approach to food intake. Furthermore, if you’re not already working with a healthcare team member, here is your inspiration to do so, throughout all ages of life.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski