Are You Getting What You Need?

Just the other day I made a simple dinner I thought was beautiful and delicious- enough to take a picture of it in fact. For a moment I flattered myself with my own cooking. Boasting I am not, but the recognition of the plate before me reminded me of just how beautiful food really is and how the right food is a gift to our health.

I had simply baked a piece of salmon that I brushed with a bit of olive oil to keep it moist and garnished it with sea salt and dried dill to complement its flavor. On my plate next to the salmon where tender steamed asparagus spears and a serving of farro that had been simmered with diced red pepper.

I treasure good simple food, food that requires minimal effort, but that satisfies and above all is nourishing. As a dietitian I have mostly followed this approach to cooking and eating except, of course, when offered a piece of chocolate in any form or a really good cookie.

Day to day food choices across the years can either nourish or chip away at our health. The good news is it’s never too late to change eating habits and the older we get the more important these choices become. For people eating a varied diet and maintaining a healthy weight, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are rare. However, there are a few that need our attention especially if age 50 or older.

Vitamins and minerals are measured several ways.

  • mg – milligram
  • mcg – microgram
  • IU – international unit

Micrograms are used to measure very small amounts.  There are 1,000 micrograms in a milligram.

The size of an international unit varies depending on the vitamin or drug it is used to measure.

Sodium: The recommendation is 2,300 mg or about one teaspoon per day. Most sodium comes from processed foods so keeping it to 2,300 mg means eating more fresh foods and more home cooking. Sprinkling a small amount of salt on your food allows your tongue to catch saltiness as the first sensation of flavor so you need far less salt than when is it processed or cooked in the food. Managing the amount of sodium is important for blood pressure management. People with high blood pressure may need to limit sodium to 1,500 mg per day.

Potassium: The recommendation is 4,700 mg per day. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats are good sources. Potassium supports blood pressure regulation.  Eating fresh, frozen or low sodium canned produce can lower your sodium and up your potassium, a great way to improve blood pressure. Some blood pressure medications can lower potassium so check with your doctor to make sure your potassium level is in normal range.

Magnesium: Women age 51 and older need 320 mg while men need 420 mg. Magnesium is available in almost all foods especially high fiber foods and nuts. People are unlikely to be deficient unless they are seriously malnourished. Magnesium is involved in multiple body functions, but is best known for contributing to bone structure and the regulation of calcium and potassium across cell membranes.

Calcium: Men age 51-70 need 1,000 mg daily. Men age 71 and women over 51 need 1,200 mg daily, but don’t exceed 2,000 mg per day from supplements. There are special recommendations for people at risk for bone loss. Calcium is most available from milk and other dairy foods and calcium-fortified foods.

Vitamin D: People age 51-70 need 15 mcg (600 IU) daily, but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU). Over age 70, the recommendation is 20 mcg (800 IU) but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU). Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin” because sun exposure to the skin stimulates the formation of vitamin D. It is different than dietary or supplemental vitamin D but in the end provides the same benefit. Fortified dairy products are an excellent source, but supplements may be needed especially if your exposure to sunshine is limited. Check with your doctor.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin): You need 2.4 mcg every day. B12 is a water soluble vitamin so isn’t readily stored in the body. It’s available in meat, fish, poultry and milk as well as fortified cereals. Vegetarians may need to take a B12 supplement. B12 is essential for red blood cell formation and neurological function. In older people this vitamin may be less available because digestion can be somewhat impaired. Check with your doctor.

So what about my simple dinner? Except for calcium because the salmon was boneless (salmon bones are soft and can be eaten and are a good source of calcium), my dinner had nice amounts of all these mentioned vitamins and minerals As a bonus, the farro and asparagus offered nice amounts of fiber. The salmon was rich in omega-3-fatty acids.

A Note about Farro:
“Farro” is an Italian word meaning “ancient grain” and was thought to originate in Mesopotamia. It’s a form of wheat so it contains gluten. Farro has a nutty flavor with a chewy texture, making it perfect for stews, soups and salads or simply served by itself. Farro is available three ways so read the label to know what kind you are getting.

  • Whole grain farro (without the bran removed) requires soaking in water overnight to soften the bran husk.
  • Semi-pearled farro has some bran removed, but cooks in 20 to 30 minutes without soaking overnight.
  • Pearled farro has all of the bran removed and cooks in 10 minutes.

To cook, simmer farro in three times as much water until the farro is “al dente.” Drain off extra water.

Cook some farro; you’ll love it.

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.