Key to staying healthy into old age is eating well and advice for healthy ageing includes eating a balanced diet, getting enough vitamin D (through sun exposure and eating vitamin D-rich foods such as oily fish) and taking it easy with alcohol. New evidence from the second year of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) indicates that people aged 65 and over in the UK eat more fruit, vegetables and oily fish than the rest of the adult population (19-64 year olds). The survey is run by NatCen in collaboration with MRC Human Nutrition Research and the Joint Surveys team at University College London (UCL).
Results from last year’s NDNS report didn’t include the over 65s as numbers were too small, so this is the first time we’ve been able to look at the diet of this age group since 1994/95. Older adults are consuming, on average, 4.4 portions of fruit and vegetables per day and more than a third (37%) are meeting the five-a-day recommendation. Whilst consumption of oily fish, which is the main source of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, is below the recommendation of at least one portion (140g) per week, older adults are eating the most, on average 85g per week. They’re also eating less red and processed meat than younger adults.
The NDNS rolling programme is a continuous cross-sectional survey of the food consumption, nutrient intakes and nutritional status of people aged 1.5 years and over living in private households in the UK. It’s carried out in all parts of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and is designed to be representative of the whole UK population. Results from the first year, published in February 2010, showed that people were eating less saturated fat and less added sugar than they were ten years ago, but still more than recommended. The additional data from the second year has reinforced this, and older adults are also failing to meet these particular recommendations. And people aren’t eating enough fibre, essential for healthy digestion, although fibre intakes for older adults have improved, another positive step for this age group.
It’s not all bad news for everyone else though. Younger children aged 4-10 years are eating more fruit and less sugar and chocolate confectionery than they were over ten years ago. And our trans fat intakes are now at 0.8% of food energy, which is well within recommended levels.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advise that the UK population average intake of red and processed meat, which is linked with colorectal cancer risk, shouldn’t be above 70g/day. Findings from NDNS show older adults eat, on average, 65g of red and processed meat a day compared with 74g for younger adults.
Wine has become more popular especially with the over 65s, although, in general, they are less likely to drink alcohol than younger adults: 53% drank during the four day study period compared with 63% of 19-64 year olds. And among those that consumed alcohol, older adults drank less than younger adults.
Whilst vitamin intakes from food (so not including any dietary supplements) generally met recommendations for everyone, mineral intakes didn’t, with older adults again showing the greatest improvement. Though eating a varied diet is the best way of getting the nutrients we need, more than a third of adults aged 65 years and over and a quarter of adults aged 19 to 64 years reported taking at least one dietary supplement during the four day study period, with fish oils (including cod liver oil) and multivitamins with or without minerals the most common.
There are circumstances where taking supplements is encouraged: those over the age of 65 years are advised to take a supplement of vitamin D containing 10 µg daily, as low levels of vitamin D increase the risk of poor bone health. NDNS found that older adults still had low intakes even when supplements were taken into account.
As the NDNS programme continues, we will build on the numbers of participants and be able to make more comparisons between age groups and males and females. But these are promising results as increasing numbers of us will live longer, and suggest older people in the UK are aware of the importance of a healthy diet.