Eating healthfully is an important part of ensuring longevity throughout our lives, and this requirement is no less important as we enter old age. Physical, emotional, and hormonal changes are all informed by the makeup of our diets; monitoring and adhering to a healthy eating regimen can make a difference in how these changes impact us. While there’s little promise that the right diet will halt or reverse the aging process, attention to certain factors can keep us healthy and vital for years to come.
Sadly, some of the joys of eating are challenged by the aging process. The days of being able to eat and quickly metabolize are behind us, as the metabolism slows down, and we have to work harder to maintain a healthy weight. Some medications that are assisting in the management of conditions affect the appetite and our desire to eat. And the emotional changes, often triggered by medications, hormonal, or mood changes, may leave us uninterested in foods we once enjoyed.
All of these factors may make it challenging to eat well, but also underscore its importance; the more dedicated we are to eating the right foods, the better we’ll feel, and the more we’ll be able to enjoy and participate in the world around us.
The recommendations for a balanced, varied, and as “whole” as possible diet (derived from minimally processed foods) remain important, and in fact gain importance, once we enter our later years. Some of these recommendations include:
- Consumption of multi-colored fruits and vegetables, including berries, rich leafy greens, and carrots and squash.
- Choosing whole grain sources of carbohydrates, as opposed to white flours or other sources with less fiber. Constipation in seniors is common, and whole grains (as well as the aforementioned fruits and vegetables) can assist in easing those symptoms.
- Incorporating lean protein to counteract waning muscle mass and to keep you feeling fuller for longer; this protein can come from lean meats, beans, or dairy sources.
- Being thoughtful about consumption of fats; some are needed to help maintain a better weight and to absorb fat-soluble nutrients, but care should be taken to choose the right ones and to not overdo it.
- Staying hydrated is important for a number of reasons; liquid consumption from water, decaffeinated tea, or even high-water foods like watermelon or cucumber can help keep painful or stiff joints lubricated, elevate the metabolism, and help counteract constipation – a common side effect from many medications.
In addition to the guidelines set forth for the general population that should be noted for seniors, there are additional nutrients and supplements that should be considered. What the body needs can change throughout the seasons of our lives, and our diets can adjust accordingly.
For example, changing brain chemistry may mean that dietary changes must be made to protect our brain health. Seek to incorporate natural (that is to say, through food rather than through supplements) vitamins and minerals that will feed the brain what it needs to stay sharp. B6, B12, biotin, vitamins C and D, omega-3 fatty acids, and folate all contribute to a high-functioning brain and can be found naturally in leafy green vegetables, salmon and other cold-water fish, berries and other antioxidant-rich dark fruits, and coffee and chocolate.
The other significant dietary concern that often arises with seniors is bone health. Deteriorating bone and muscle mass over time, combined with an increased risk and danger of falls, means that attention to bone health is crucial. Calcium and vitamin D work together to combat this threat and can be obtained through leafy green vegetables and low-fat dairy. Here again, while these vitamins and minerals can be obtained through supplements, the body uses them best when they come through our food naturally.
And lastly, a healthy diet is best deployed when accompanied by low-impact exercise, to keep the body agile and the metabolism moving. Walking, yoga, tai chi, swimming, or water aerobics are all excellent examples of ways to keep the body moving, and can often be done with minimal risk of injury.
Some of these recommendations may feel daunting, particularly when you are facing limited time, financial resources, or assistance if you have limited mobility or dexterity. In the event that you find yourself struggling to meet these recommendations, there are a variety of resources available to assist you.
For example, do you worry about being able to shop for these items on a regular basis? Consult the manager at your grocery store about assistance shopping, or even a home delivery service. Similarly, Meals on Wheels or other volunteer programs can assist you in getting nutritious and well-rounded meals to your home.
Tap into the resources of your community by inquiring about help from a neighbor or student in the area who might be willing to help. They may have the energy and ability to complete elements of the process that might feel out of your reach.
Remember, these recommendations are designed to prolong your vitality and vigor. They may seem restrictive at first but could be viewed as the opposite – when followed faithfully, they help to facilitate a freer and more independent lifestyle, a healthier one, making illness easier to manage and mobility easier to maintain.
Aim to make this diet a cornerstone of your lifestyle – your body, mind, and loved ones will all thank you for the difference it will make in keeping you healthy and sharp for many years to come.