Whole Grains and Vitamin D, Too
New food pyramid emphasizes nutrition needs of older adults

The official food pyramid for older Americans developed by Tufts researchers now has a new look—and new information—that should help seniors made better nutrition decisions.

The Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults, which was published in January in the Journal of Nutrition, stresses the importance for the 70-plus age group to obtain essential nutrients from food rather than supplements, to eat more whole grains and less fat, and to consume a few key nutrients that are often missing from their diets.

The first modified food guide pyramid for older adults was produced in 1999. Since then, various additions to the overall pyramid have been made, including Web-based tools that supplement the printed materials. But the team at Tufts, led by Alice Lichtenstein, the Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at the Friedman School and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, points out that many older Americans do not have Internet access, and so they sought to develop print-based materials that reflect newer nutrition recommendations for elders.

Topping the list of nutrients needed are calcium and vitamins D, E and K, as well as potassium. To ensure greater calcium intake, the researchers recommend consuming low-fat and nonfat dairy products, as well calcium-fortified orange juice. Vitamin D deficiencies are often reported among elderly populations, in part because few get it from food sources, and the ability to synthesize it through the skin declines with age. The new pyramid highlights the need for vitamin D supplements, one of the few areas where supplements are preferable to food sources for nutrients.

The researchers also suggest that older adults increase fiber consumption through whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, but not through supplements. They emphasize that frozen fruits and vegetables are ideal for this population.

Overall, food consumption tends to go down with age, as metabolic functioning and physical movement slows, so it’s especially important to make sure adults over age 70 are aware of their nutritional needs.

That’s not to say physical activity isn’t important. In fact, the foundation of the pyramid is a panel showing many kinds of physical activity, from swimming and other sports to raking leaves and walking.

All this said, Lichtenstein and her colleagues write that it “is important to older adults that eating should remain an enjoyable experience.”

This story ran in the February 2008 issue of the Tufts Journal.