A healthy diet can decrease the risk of disease and disability.
As you get older, you need to pay even closer attention to the foods you eat. Eating a healthy diet can help you reduce your risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, certain cancers and other chronic health problems that occur more frequently with age. In addition, a healthy diet will help you feel more vibrant and keep your mind sharp.
By choosing certain foods over others, you have the power to impact your physical, mental and emotional health on a daily basis. The old adage, you are what you eat, applies as much now as it ever did. The library, bookstore, television, and Internet are full of cookbooks, cooking shows and recipe sites to help you create delicious and creative meals that pack a nutritional punch and leave you feeling energized.
You are probably not aware that your dietary needs change as you age. And while you may need fewer calories than you did when you were younger, you need more of certain nutrients. That’s why it’s critical that you concentrate on feeding your body as many nutrient-rich foods as possible.
By consuming the right foods in the right proportions, you lower your risk of many conditions that can compromise your health and independence. Remember, healthy eating can be enjoyable especially when you realize the rewards are immediate and long-lasting. Even if you have never paid attention to your diet before you can start making healthy choices today to positively impact your future.
Food provides the energy and nutrients you need to be healthy. Nutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. A well-balanced and healthy diet should contain all of these. It certainly won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that we should be filling our plates with fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, while ditching items with empty calories and zero nutritional value such as soda, chips, cookies, and donuts.
Even if you’ve never followed a nutrition-based diet before, healthy eating isn’t difficult. The National Institute on Aging suggests two options for seniors:
The first option is The USDA Food Guide MyPlate Plan. This plan offers tips for building a healthy, balanced diet, including:
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Make at least half your grains whole grains.
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.
Another option is The DASH Diet. The DASH eating plan includes all the key food groups, but is designed to help reduce blood pressure and emphasize foods that are heart healthy. The daily recommended serving amounts include:
- 7 to 8 ounces of grains.
- 6 ounces or less of chicken, meat, and fish plus 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds, and/or dried beans per week.
- 2 to 3 cups of the milk group.
- 2 to 2.5 cups of vegetables.
- 2 to 2.5 cups of fruit.
- 2 teaspoons of oil.
Of course, you should always talk to your health care provider before starting any sort of dietary program, especially if you have a chronic condition or disease. For example, if you have diabetes, your doctor may restrict the amount of carbohydrates you consume. Or, if you have heart disease, you may be put on a special low-salt diet.
In general, are you consuming the proper amount of foods from each food group? Let’s take a look:
Vegetables and Fruits
A majority of the food you eat should be vegetables and fruits, which contain needed vitamins and minerals that fight disease. Try to include a fruit or vegetable at every meal. For breakfast, have a veggie omelet, or berries with yogurt. Keep in mind that food can be healthy and taste delicious. Add a side salad to your dinner, for example, or substitute unhealthy fries with baked sweet potato fries, or have a fruit salad for dessert. Fruit smoothies are popular especially if you have difficult chewing. Throw in some protein powder to make a more nutritionally balanced meal. Steaming or lightly sautéing your vegetables will preserve their nutrients and make them easier to digest. Also, if fresh fruit isn’t available, opt for frozen or even canned.
The next group of foods to include in your diet is whole grains. I encourage you to make the switch from refined grains (such as white bread) to whole grains (such as whole-grain cereals, breads, rice, pasta, oatmeal, and quinoa). Whole grains, along with those fruits and vegetables we just mentioned, provide your body with needed fiber. A diet rich in fiber promotes heart health, helps ensure normal bowel function, aids in weight management and assists in blood glucose control, according to the LiveStrong Foundation.
Another food group, and one which seniors often leave behind as they age, is the protein group. Older bodies are just as good as young ones at turning protein-rich food into muscle, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This suggests that a moderate amount of protein-rich food may help slow the deterioration of your muscles as you age. Sufficient muscle is fundamental for the activities of daily living, movement and independence. The problem, however, is that many seniors simply reduce the amount of protein in their diet. It may be a cost issue, a decline in appetite, difficulty chewing or because they have lost the taste for it. Whatever the reason, the result is a decline in muscle mass that could easily be avoided. So be sure to incorporate protein in your diet every day to help slow down muscle loss. Choose from lean meats, seafood, nuts, beans, dairy products, and eggs.
Finally, it’s time to examine the fat you consume. Your body needs fat to function properly. Ditch unhealthy trans or saturated fats in favor of the healthier oil alternative (such as canola, olive, corn, safflower, peanut, and vegetable). Avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish are other great sources of healthy fat.
No diet is complete without a healthy dose of fluids, particularly in the form of water. It’s not uncommon to lose the ability to feel thirst and consequently become dehydrated as you get older. Signs of dehydration include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, and difficulty concentrating. Severe dehydration can have lethal consequences. If you find yourself not drinking as much water as you used to, experiment with drinking from a straw or find a drink that you enjoy but that doesn’t have a lot of sugar, such as herb teas, fat-free milk, or water mixed with fresh squeezed lemon or a few tablespoons of a natural fruit juice. In addition, try to incorporate more soups and broths into your eating plan.
Age-Related Nutritional Deficiencies
You may experience nutritional deficiencies associated with aging, which will impact the types of foods, as well as supplements, you should be including in your diet. For instance, an older person becomes less efficient at making or absorbing some vitamins and minerals, in particular the B vitamins, vitamin D and calcium.
*Let’s look at the B vitamins. Many people lose the ability to make stomach acid as they age, which interferes with the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 and folate (or folic acid). Another common age-related deficiency is vitamin B6, which can cause neurological problems affecting memory and alertness. These three B vitamins in particular are needed for the brain to function normally. Without adequate amounts of these vitamins, you increase the risk of coronary vascular disease, stroke or a blood clot, which can lead to cognitive dysfunction and dementia.
You should be aware of what foods provide these nutrients. Leafy greens, such as spinach and turnip greens, and other fresh fruits and vegetables are all excellent sources of folate, as are grain products such as breads, pastas and rice that are fortified with folic acid. Some of the best sources of vitamin B6 are poultry, seafood, bananas, leafy green vegetables, potatoes and fortified cereals. Animal foods are the only natural source of vitamin B12, but many products, including soy products and cereals, are fortified with B12.
*Now let’s look at the impact of aging on your vitamin D and calcium intake. When you are young, your body makes vitamin D in your skin whenever you are exposed to sunlight. However, older skin is not very efficient at producing vitamin D from the sun. Also, vitamin D is found in some foods, like milk and oily fish, but if your diet is deficient in these foods, you may not have enough vitamin D in your body. Low vitamin D levels are especially problematic for older people who do not go outside very much, and who are malnourished. If you are over 65 years of age or older, your doctor may wish to order a blood test to check up on your vitamin D levels. Most guidelines recommend at least 800 to 1,000 international units of vitamin D every day for older adults, reports the American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging.
Without vitamin D, your bones cannot absorb calcium. This puts you at high risk of developing osteoporosis, or fragile bones. Even with plenty of calcium in your diet, your bones may weaken as you age due to decreased activity, medication side effects, and lower hormone levels (especially in women after menopause). That’s why it’s imperative to get plenty of vitamin D and calcium in your diet. Seniors need about 1,200 mg of calcium a day through servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese. You can also get your calcium requirement through non-dairy foods such as tofu, broccoli, almonds, and kale.
To get plenty of B vitamins, vitamin D, and calcium in your diet, your health care provider may recommend you take vitamin supplements.
Metabolism and Aging
At about the age of 40, your metabolism starts to slow. Be sure to consume moderate portions of all the food groups and exercise to keep your weight in check. According to the National Institute of Aging, a woman over the age of 50 needs between 1,600 and 2,000 calories a day depending on her activity level, while a man over the age of 50 needs between 2,000 and 2,800 calories a day.
Although many seniors may find they have to cut back on their calories to watch their weight, there are some elderly people who, due to a variety of reasons, aren’t consuming enough calories. It may be that they are taking one or more medications for health conditions that cause side effects such as lack of appetite or stomach upset. Also, the senses of taste and smell decline with age, which makes food lose its appeal. In addition, seniors who feel depressed or lonely may lose interest in eating. If you think your emotional health is affecting your dietary needs, speak to a health care professional right away.
Good nutrition keeps muscles, bones, organs, and other body parts strong throughout your stages of life. Eating the right foods affects your physical body as well as your emotional health. When you make the choice to adopt a healthy eating plan, you are giving yourself the tools to fight disease, improve your mood, and enjoy independence and quality of life.