Grains give nutrient density to older Americans – Make sure you are getting enough in your diet

by Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN

“There are more people on the planet over the age of 65 than ever before in human history.”1

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the U.S. population 65 years or older will double in 25 years to approximately 72 million.2 For those reaching 65 years of age, life expectancy is an additional 19.4 years—20.6 years for women and 18 years for men.3 Keeping older adults healthy and functionally fit will benefit the entire American population by keeping older adults a vibrant and vital part of society and by reducing health care costs.

Nutrition is a key determinant of optimal aging yet the diets of many older adults fall short in several nutrients needed for healthy aging. Under-consumed nutrients are referred to as “shortfall nutrients” and include vitamins A, D, E, C, folate, calcium, magnesium, fiber, potassium, and iron. These key nutrients are needed to keep many body systems in good health, including skeletal muscles, bone, blood pressure, immunity, and heart function. Several of these nutrients also work in concert with the body’s own natural antioxidant systems. Therefore, under-consumption of these nutrients has been linked to adverse health outcomes.

Many older adults are interested in nutrition, yet many are confused and are challenged separating science from science fiction. As a registered dietitian nutritionist who writes about nutrition and healthy aging and talks to many older adults, one enduring myth is that bread is fattening and carbohydrates, specifically grain foods, should be limited. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A new study, published in the journal Nutrients, shows that grain foods contribute only 14 percent of total energy (calories) to the diets of older adults, yet grain foods provide a greater percentage of key nutrients than calories. 4 That is important because as we age we need fewer calories yet the same or even more of some nutrients. Nutritionists use the term “nutrient-density” to describe foods that are lower in calories yet are full of needed nutrients. Dr. Julie Miller Jones, a professor and researcher from St. Paul, Minnesota, prefers the term, “nutrient-intensity” to describe foods rich in nutrients and grains certainly fits this description.

The current research study presents data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from adults over the age of 50 and finds that while grain foods represent less than 10 percent of the total diet, grain foods contribute a whopping amount of under-consumed shortfall nutrients and nutrients of public health concern such as dietary fiber, folate, magnesium, calcium and iron, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin B12, niacin, and thiamin. Specifically, bread, rolls, and tortillas are contributors to the daily need for thiamin, niacin, dietary fiber, folate, and iron; ready-to-eat cereals contribute iron, folate, thiamin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. 4

In addition, many older adults hear the message that only whole grains contain needed nutrients, but this study found the entire grain food category, including whole grains, refined grains, and enriched grains, is the first, second, or third-ranking category delivering dietary fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D.4 If you think that refined grain foods lack that “nutrient intensity,” think again. While certain grains foods, such as sweet bakery items, may contain higher levels of nutrients that adults should limit, including added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, many grain foods contribute positive nutrition to the American diet and are important contributors of shortfall nutrients.

There is no need to sacrifice the bread you love – grain foods are an essential part of the journey to a healthier you at any age. Know your stuff before you cut. Bread, rolls, tortillas, and ready-to-eat cereals are meaningful contributors of key nutrients to the diet of older adults. So, there is no need to eliminate grains from your diet. Grains, as part of a healthy diet, provide nutrients needed for healthy aging, and they taste great!

1 National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Nutrition Across the Lifespan for Healthy Aging: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press. doi:
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The State of Aging and Health in America 2013. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services; 2013.
3 A Profile of Older Americans: 2016. Administration on Aging. Administration for Community Living. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
4 Papanilolaou Y & Fulgoni VL. Grains contribute shortfall nutrients and nutrient density to older US adults: data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2011–2014. Nutrients. 2018;