Life changes a lot as you get older—so why would you expect your nutritional needs to stay the same? Many people who’ve passed the big 5-0 need more of certain vitamins and minerals than they did when they were younger, so if you haven’t changed your diet in recent years, you might be falling short. Here are five essential nutrients you could be lacking.
When you don’t get the calcium you need from food, your body takes it from your bones, says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, author of Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. “As you age, you lose a little bit of calcium each year. When you lose enough calcium, it gets to the point where your bones weaken and you develop osteoporosis and tooth decay.”
Men and women under 50 need 1,000 mg of calcium per day, but after age 51, women need at least 1,200 mg daily to offset bone-density loss and prevent osteoporosis.
To get that much, focus on dairy—at least three servings daily. “If you don’t consume dairy for whatever reason, another top source is any kind of seafood, especially with the bones,” says Sass. Canned sardines, which contain tiny, edible bones, are chock full of calcium (here are 3 seriously tasty ways to give sardines a try).
The “sunshine vitamin” is important for strong bones and so much more. “If you have adequate calcium but not adequate vitamin D, you won’t be able to absorb the calcium,” says Sass. Vitamin D may also help reduce your risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
The average healthy person over 50 needs at least 800 to 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day. But some experts recommend even more, and you can safely take up to 4,000 IUs daily as long your doctor gives you the OK.
While it’s possible to get some vitamin D from food—you’ll find it in milk, salmon, eggs, and mushrooms—it’s hard to get what you need from diet alone. “Few foods have enough natural vitamin D,” says Sass. Getting a little sun should help, because exposing your skin to the sun for just a few minutes a day prompts your body to make D. But people who live in cloudy climates, those with dark skin, and many others are still lacking. Sass’s advice: Ask your doctor for a blood test. If your levels are low, ask your doctor how much to take in a supplement. “A lot of people will get vitamin D from the health food store, but it can have toxic effects if you take too much,” she says.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, up to 30% of adults over age 50 have trouble absorbing B12. The reason? “As you get older, your body can produce less stomach acid,” says Sass, and stomach acid liberates B12 from food sources. People who take medicines that block acid (like antacids or H2 blockers) and those with conditions that impact nutrient absorption (such as celiac or Crohn’s disease) also tend to be deficient.
A healthy adult needs only 2.4 micrograms of B12 daily. But if you don’t get enough, you can develop neurological problems like fatigue and mental confusion. (Here are 9 signs you’re not getting enough B12.) “Every animal product has some B12,” says Sass. She recommends fish, poultry, and eggs to bulk up your stores. But if you take a drug that decreases stomach acid or have a disease that interferes with absorption, you may need a pill or shot to supplement.
If there’s one vitamin you don’t want to be deficient in, it’s magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 bodily functions, and if you don’t get enough, it can lead to an abnormal heart rate, high blood sugar, and a slew of other problems.
To make sure you’re getting enough—women need 320 mg per day and men need 420 mg—Sass suggests eating a varied diet and cutting back on sugar (it can reduce magnesium absorption). “If you’re not eating a diverse diet and you’re eating a lot of excess sugar, you’re more likely to be deficient,” Sass says. Some magnesium-rich foods include avocado, seeds, beets, and nuts. A handful of dry-roasted almonds and cashews will supply you with nearly 40% of the recommended daily amount.
You’ve probably heard that zinc might help you kick a cold faster, but it turns out that you don’t want to get too little or too much. “A lot of people load up on zinc thinking it will boost immunity,” Sass says. “But too much has actually been shown to decrease immunity. It’s important to make sure you don’t go above 40 mg per day, unless you’re told to by a doctor.”
That said, many older adults are lacking (as are many people with diabetes and liver and kidney conditions), and if you’re deficient your immune system could suffer—plus your appetite might be suppressed, and you could have a hard time recovering from surgeries or even minor injuries.
On average, men and women over 50 need around 10 mg of zinc per day. You’ll find zinc in lean red meat, beans, and oysters.