Not so fast
Before you rush to give the steak you were planning to eat tonight to the first dog you see, consider that being a vegetarian, and especially following a vegan diet, can pose challenges specific to boomers. In particular, such regimes, if poorly planned, may be relatively low in protein, calcium, Vitamin B12 and zinc. “These nutrients are especially important in aging to support wound-healing and to keep a healthy immune system,” says Sylvia Escott-Stump, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association).
As we get older, many of our mineral and vitamin requirements increase, and we need fewer calories to maintain our weight. For this reason, it might be harder to go vegetarian at the age of 50 than it was earlier.
“You have to make sure the calories you eat are very nutrient-rich per bite; otherwise your health might suffer more, and faster, than that of a younger person,” advises Boston University’s Salge Blake. “For example, an eight-ounce glass of skim milk is not only lower in calories than a soft drink but also contains calcium, Vitamin D and potassium, which are nutrients many older adults are falling short of in their diets.” This, though, can be true for meat-eaters as well as vegetarians.
One of the most common deficiencies in people over the age of 50 is that of Vitamin B12, the main sources of which are meat, fish, milk and eggs. “At this stage of life, 10 to 30 percent of individuals malabsorb this vitamin because they have less acidic juices in the stomach,” explains Salge Blake. Research suggests that if your diet is poor in this nutrient, you may be at increased risk of anemia, hearing loss, dementia or Alz-
A study published in 2000 in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism showed that about 50 percent of vegans have below-normal levels of B12. Some vegans suggest that it is possible to get B12 from seaweed or spirulina, but that type of algae contains only ineffective analogs, according to studies of the vitamin, which may even block its metabolism. The only solution is supplementation (which is recommended by many nutritionists to all people older than 50).
From anemia to zinc
Also, anemia is much more common after age 50. Boomers should therefore be careful to ensure they are getting enough iron, which can be hard with a plant-only diet.
“Animal foods provide ‘heme’ sources of iron [a form of dietary iron from animals], which are more readily digested than ‘non-heme’ plant sources” says Escott-Stump. “People eating only plant foods may need to increase their total intake of iron-rich products along with a source of Vitamin C to use the iron better.”