Most of us should get all the vitamins and minerals we need from eating a varied and balanced diet, but some people may need to take extra supplements. And sometimes our diets might not be quite as healthy as we would like. During the lockdown, for example, with people spending more time indoors, there were reports that people might not be getting enough vitamin D.
We are what we eat
Our nutritional requirements also change as we get older. Nutritional therapist and speaker Kirsten Chick, author of Nutrition Brought to Life, says, “As we age, we need more antioxidants to keep our skin, brains and joints in good shape, and protect them from disease and degeneration. Vitamin C and zinc are key antioxidants that can help reduce everything from wrinkles to osteoarthritis. You can get vitamin C from fruit, and also from raw green leafy vegetables such as rocket, watercress and spinach. Zinc is found in nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lamb, chicken and beef.
Nutritional therapists often talk about the importance of “eating the rainbow” in our diets. “Take yourself through the spectrum each week,” says Kirsten. “Purple berries, red radishes, orange carrots and sweet potatoes, yellow pepper, green broccoli and kale... The variety will give you a diverse array of nutrients, as well as feeding your gut bacteria, which are the frontline of your immune system.”
Susan Saunders, co-author of The Age-Well Project, regularly extols the virtues of fruit and vegetables in her blog posts on agewellproject.com, a site “for anyone who wants to make the second half of their life as healthy, happy and disease-free as possible”. She says, “Berries of all types are rich sources of flavonoids, a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables. The beautiful jewel colours of berries owe their pigmentation to these compounds. Flavonoids play a role in signalling between our cells, and appear to reduce inflammation. Two in particular, anthocyanidins and flavan-3-ols, benefit our cardiovascular and metabolic health, reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
Listen to your body
As well as being aware of what additional vitamins you may need to start taking due to your age and your environment, it’s important to listen to your body, and be aware of any changes taking place. Changes in complexion, nails, gum health and hair can all be signs of vitamin deficiency.
Remember that all our bodies are different, which is why it’s important to listen to yours, and note down any changes or problem areas. Of course, how much of a certain vitamin or mineral you need will depend on things such as age, height, weight and diet, as well as any allergies or underlying health conditions. There’s no one-size-fits-all guide when it comes to your health.
A balanced diet is always vital, and being aware of your food intake is really important, but sometimes we can’t get everything we need from our meals.
Apart from vitamin C and zinc, which together have many health benefits, including boosting immunity, reducing the risk of eye disease and helping wounds heal, here are a few more vitamins and minerals that it is worth checking you’re getting enough of…
Calcium is important for bone growth and strength. In later years, our calcium intake tends to decrease, due to a decreased overall calorie intake. There’s also a decrease in the intestinal absorption of calcium, and our kidneys become less efficient at retaining it. Brittle bones can lead to many health issues as we get older, such as osteoporosis, which can particularly affect post-menopausal women.
Calcium-rich foods include cheese, yoghurt, sardines, almonds, chia seeds and kale. If you buy calcium supplements, try to get multivitamins that contain calcium, or get combined calcium and vitamin D tablets.
Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium, which is why it can helpful to take these two supplements together. Most people get vitamin D from sunlight, but when we reach 70 our bodies can lose some of their ability to convert sunlight into vitamin.
Vitamin D deficiency is also a common problem during autumn and winter, when exposure to sunlight is lessened, and in fact the NHS recommends people consider taking 10mcg of vitamin D a day, if they are spending a lot of time indoors.
As well as good bone health, vitamin D has also been proven to boost your immune system and reduce depression. “In the colder months, vitamin D needs to come more from your diet. Deficiency has been linked to low energy, depression and pretty much every disease you can think of,” says Kirsten. Good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as mackerel and sardines, as well as eggs, liver and red meat.
“You could top up with a good supplement,” says Kirsten, “and you can get great vitamin D drops and sprays, if you don't want to take capsules.”
Magnesium often feels like the forgotten mineral, a bit of an unsung hero. But it’s hugely important – for assisting your body in producing protein, and keeping your blood sugar levels stable. It also helps regulate hormones, helps you sleep, keeps your heart beating, has anti-inflammatory properties… it’s got a lot going for it.
Kirsten says, “Green leafy vegetables will up your magnesium levels. Add in some good-quality protein – beans, eggs, fish or meat, for example – for muscle strength and antibodies. Including oily fish alongside all your antioxidant vegetables can also help ease inflammatory conditions, such as joint problems and cardiovascular disease.”
Statistically, older people are more likely to have long-term health conditions and/or take more medications, both of which also lead to a loss of magnesium. If you’re wondering if you could do with more magnesium, deficiency is often demonstrated by muscle cramps and twitching, fatigue, depression, or irregular heartbeat. Although these can also be symptoms of more serious conditions, so always seek proper medical advice.
These fatty acids are essential for our health, but unfortunately our bodies can’t make them. Omega-3s are important for our eyes and brains, and are helpful in assisting against age-related health conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA are also good for heart health, as they improve circulation, help lower blood pressure and prevent blood clots. The best sources of omega-3 fats are oily fish such as sardines and mackerel, and flaxseeds, walnuts and green leafy vegetables.
Don’t forget, if you have any concerns about your health, make sure you speak to your GP. And always check with your GP before drastically changing your diet, or taking supplements alongside other medications.