We’ve all heard the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”…
No matter which way you slice it—both the saying and the apple—just like exercise, nutrition is vital to healthy aging (1;2)!
One area that nutrition can have an impact on is ‘body composition’ or more simply, the make-up of our bodies. Body composition refers to the proportion of fat, bone, and muscle in the body (1). As you can imagine, like with most things, having too much or too little of certain aspects of body composition can lead to a variety of health issues. Take for example having an excess amount of body fat—as is the case with obesity. Individuals who are obese are at a greater risk of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease (1;3;4). On the other hand, people with low bone mass are more likely to break a bone (5-7).
Unfortunately, it’s hard to clearly define what optimal body composition looks like for everyone. This is because various factors such as sex and age impact the make-up of our bodies. With that said, we can certainly still engage in practices or implement strategies that help us enhance aspects of our body composition (1), and as a result our health.
What the research tells us
One umbrella review explored whether nutritional strategies for weight gain in underweight older adults and weight loss in overweight older adults could help those living in the community improve their body composition. Here, nutritional strategies included diets, nutritional counselling, oral nutritional supplements (e.g., amino acids, creatine, alpha-linoleic acid, beta-methylbutyrate, leucin, or protein), or any combination of the three. Although not a nutritional strategy, exercise was also looked at in some cases. Body composition was measured using nutritional status (e.g., proportion of underweight or overweight people), fat mass, lean mass (body mass consisting of organs, muscle, and bone, but excluding fat), body mass index (BMI) or weight, and bone mass.
The results were promising—with several strategies appearing to help enhance body composition in older adults!
For underweight older adults, results showed that oral nutritional supplements alone or in combination with resistance training could increase lean body mass and weight. Nutritional supplements on their own may also increase bone mineral density, while nutritional counselling on its own may improve nutritional status (e.g., reduce the proportion of underweight people). What’s more, in cases where it was necessary to use counselling as a first-line strategy and add supplements as a secondary strategy—for instance, to meet certain standards for protein or calorie consumption—an increase in weight could be seen. Despite the potential benefits of taking supplements, their long-term use may be limited, as some people found them hard to stick with because of the taste or nausea and stomach discomfort that they occasionally caused.
For overweight adults, results showed that diet changes in combination with exercise could help achieve weight loss. Dietary strategies included things like lowering fat or caloric intake or attending cooking classes. Similar effects were seen when nutritional counselling was added to the mix. However, the weight loss that occurred from the combination of these three strategies was associated with decreases in bone mineral density that could be harmful in very old individuals. Nutritional counselling on its own also appeared to lead to weight loss in this population.
So, there you have it, several nutritional strategies—including nutritional counselling, supplements, and dietary changes—can help those with different body types improve aspects of their body composition. Furthermore, combining multiple strategies may provide greater benefits than using a single strategy (1). Start a conversation with your health care provider about your individual body composition. Ask whether any changes are needed, and which combination of nutritional strategies (e.g., specific supplements, diets, etc.) could be of help to you.