DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m in my 80s. These days, I’m not very hungry and I eat a lot less than I used to. My daughter is worried I’m not getting enough nutrients. Is she right?
Of course, I don’t know if you are getting enough nutrients, but your daughter is right to be worried about it. For one thing, you say you’re not eating much. People normally start to have a reduced appetite as they get into their 70s and 80s, but it’s not a dramatic change.
When people of any age who have had a good appetite most of their lives suddenly lose their appetite, I worry that they are ill. I worry most about cancer. In particular, the combination of poor appetite and losing weight without trying always worries a doctor about cancer. So if you’re losing weight, talk to your doctor.
Obviously, not eating much is one way a person doesn’t get enough nutrients. On top of that, getting enough nutrients through diet becomes more challenging as we age. Our bodies don’t absorb nutrients as well as they once did. So it’s important to make the most out of the foods we do eat. One way to do this is by choosing more nutrient-dense foods. These foods provide more nutrition bang for the calorie buck.
I spoke to Liz Moore, a registered dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She described nutrient-dense foods as those that contain an abundance of nutrients and other healthful substances, such as vitamins and minerals, fiber, lean protein, and unsaturated fats, without having an excess of calories. You can contrast nutrient-dense foods with those that have low nutritional value and lots of calories — like chips or soda.
Examples of nutrient-dense foods include leafy greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli; whole grains such as wheat, corn, quinoa, and barley in the form of breads and cereals; fruits such as blueberries, strawberries and pomegranates; oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and sardines; low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt and milk; lean meats; and vegetables such as mushrooms, sweet potatoes and bell peppers.
Foods rich in healthy, plant-based fats — such as nuts, seeds and some oils — also contain a lot of nutrients. But they are higher in calories, so you should be more mindful of portion size. Below, I’ve put examples of nutrient-dense foods, along with their calories per serving and the nutrients they contain.
If you’re not already eating a healthy diet, or you’re not eating enough healthy foods, nutrient-dense foods will help fill in the gaps. For example, one slice of white bread has about 70 calories, but very few vitamins and minerals. One slice of whole-wheat bread also has about 70 calories. But it has four times the amount of potassium and magnesium and three times the zinc.
To boost your nutrient intake, make every calorie count. Use the USDA Nutrient Database to check the nutritional values of foods (ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods). Or work with a dietitian to come up with a plan.
Examples of nutrient-dense foods
|Brussels sprouts||½ cup||28||Vitamins A, C, and K; fiber; calcium; and folate|
|Cantaloupe||1 cup, diced||54||Calcium; magnesium; potassium; vitamins A, C, and K; numerous antioxidants|
|Kale||1 cup||8||Disease-fighting phytonutrients; vitamins A, C, and K; fiber; and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids|
|Quinoa||½ cup, cooked||111||A complete protein rich in fiber, iron, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and calcium|
|Salmon||3 ounces||144||A great source of protein, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamins B12 and D, and omega-3 fatty acids|
|Sweet potato||1 medium||115||Potassium; vitamins A, B6, and C; great source of beta carotene, an antioxidant that fights free radicals|
|Walnuts||¼ cup, chopped||191||Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, iron, potassium, zinc, and also unsaturated fats, which help us absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K|
|Source: USDA National Nutrient Database.|