Plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity, worldwide. There are plenty of reasons people switch to a plant-based diet, including ethical and environmental reasons. However, a growing number of people are shunning meat for health reasons. Evidence shows that plant-based diets may help support the immune system, lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, and may be good for overall health.
While a well-planned plant-based diet can support healthy living in people of all ages, our nutritional needs change with different life stages, so people over the age of 65 may need to take more care when opting for a plant-based diet. They may have specific nutritional needs and may need certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals to stay healthy.
Here are some things over-65s may want to consider when switching to a plant-based diet:
1. Eat enough protein
Older adults need more protein compared to the general adult population in order to preserve lean body mass, body function and good health. While most adults only need around 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight a day, it’s recommended that healthy older adults should increase their daily protein intake to 1.0-1.2g per kilogram of body weight. This is even higher for older adults who are malnourished or have a severe illness, as these conditions trigger a hypermetabolic state, where the body needs more energy and protein to function.
To ensure adequate protein intake, make sure meals and snacks contain plant-based proteins, such as chickpeas, tofu, black-eyed beans, kidney beans, lentils, quinoa, wild rice, nuts and seeds, nut butters and soya alternatives to milk and yoghurt. Eggs and dairy products are also good protein sources if you’re including these in your diet.
2. Include calcium and vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D both play an important role in maintaining good bone health, which is extremely important in older age as osteoporosis and associated fractures are a major cause of bone-related diseases and mortality in older adults.
Most adults need 700mg of calcium per day. However, women past menopause and men over 55 should have 1200mg of calcium per day. There’s a wide range of non-dairy food products that contain calcium for those who are plant-based, including calcium fortified soya milk and almond milk, calcium fortified cereals, pitta bread, chapatti and white bread.
For those who include fish in their diet, fish such as whitebait, and sardines and pilchards (with bones) contain good amounts of calcium per serving.
Older adults are also recommended to get 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D daily. Not only is vitamin D important for bone health, it’s also one of the nutrients involved in supporting the immune system and helping it to function properly. Older adults are more vulnerable to deficiency as they may have less sunlight exposure, and their skin is less able to synthesise vitamin D.
Mushrooms grown in sunlight, fortified spreads, breakfast cereals, and dairy alternatives are all good sources of vitamin D.
Having said this, it’s hard to get vitamin D from diet alone, so a supplement of 10mcg a day (especially in the winter for those who may not get outside often), is recommended. It’s worth noting that some vitamin D supplements aren’t suitable for vegans, as they may be derived from an animal source, so vitamin D2 and lichen-derived vitamin D3 may be used instead.
3. Get your vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is essential for making red blood cells, keeping the nervous system healthy, and providing energy. Older adults need 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 per day, similar to younger adults. But many older people may be at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, affecting an estimated one in twenty people aged 65 to 74 and one in ten people over 75.
Those who don’t eat meat, fish or eggs may not be getting enough vitamin B12, as it’s found abundantly in animal-based food sources. Some plant-based sources of vitamin B12 include fortified breakfast cereals, yeast extracts (like Marmite), soya yoghurts, and non-dairy milks. People may consider taking a Vitamin B12 supplement. Taking 2mg or less a day of vitamin B12 in supplements is unlikely to cause any harm. However, they should consult their doctor or registered dietitian first.
4. Eat iron-rich foods
Low iron intake can be an issue for those who don’t have a varied diet, especially for men aged 65 and over living in residential care homes and women over 85.
Iron is essential for making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. It’s also essential for physical performance, wound healing, supporting the immune system, cognitive development and function and thyroid metabolism. Older adults need 8.7mg of iron a day.
Plant sources include wholegrains, green leafy vegetables like spinach, seeds, pulses and dried fruits. Since iron in plant foods is absorbed less efficiently compared to iron in animal proteins, having vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits, green pepper and broccoli can help iron be better absorbed.
5. Make every bite count
Some people find their appetite decreases as they get older. This can be caused by difficulties with chewing and swallowing, constipation, acute illness, impaired taste, vision and smell. But reduced appetite can contribute to unintentional weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. It’s therefore important to find ways to get adequate nutrition in every meal, especially when plant-based, such as:
- Including protein in each meal.
- Eat small meals and snacks in between throughout the day.
- Include plant-based milks (such as soya, almond, or coconut milk) in your tea, coffee or smoothie.
- Add olive, vegetable or sunflower oil to your favourite meals.
- Mix plant creams or vegan cheese in mashed potatoes, soups and stews.
- Add nut butters to bread, dairy-free yoghurt and smoothies.
No matter your age, switching to a plant-based diet may have many health benefits if planned properly. Consulting with a registered dietitian before making the switch may help you develop the best plant-based diet tailored to your specific needs.
By Taibat Ibitoye, registered dietitian and doctoral researcher, University of Reading
10 myths about vegetarians and vegans