A healthy diet is as important during your twilight years as it is when you’re young. But if you’re like most of the aging population, you can’t eat like you once could. Your appetite might be less robust and your metabolism has probably slowed down some, which means that you’re more likely to gain weight even if you’ve maintained the same diet for years. Additionally, good senior care must focus on a healthy diet to support certain aging-related conditions and risks, especially the health of the heart, lungs, joints and bones. Making a few small adjustments to your diet will help make the natural effects of aging less stressful on the body.
What Happens to Our Bodies When We Age?
Of course, everyone is different, but most people will experience some age-related health concerns within their lives. As we get older, harmful molecules, including free radicals and glucose, attack the body’s cells and cause permanent damage to our organs, skin, bones and muscles. When we were young, our bodies could ward off such molecules or quickly repair the damage, but they become less capable as we age. Here are some of the ways this damages healthy body function.
- Our Metabolism Slows Down—Learning to adjust to a slower metabolism is important; it can cause you to store more weight and burn fewer calories. Maintaining a healthy body weight is key to preventing type 2 diabetes and keeping the heart in good shape. A high body mass index (BMI) is also linked to hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and even some cancers, so weight maintenance is definitely something to prioritize.
- Our Appetites Diminish—When you were young, you probably couldn’t get enough to eat and maybe even had trouble with portion control. But many aging adults experience a diminishment in appetite, sometimes due to natural hereditary factors and sometimes due to external factors, like certain medications, depression and some medical conditions.
- Diabetes Becomes a Serious Risk—Middle-aged and older adults are often at a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a condition that occurs when the body doesn’t use insulin properly. Of course, certain foods affect glucose levels in certain ways, and very high or very low levels can be dangerous. There are some things you can do to prevent developing type 2 diabetes with age.
- Heart Disease Becomes a Serious Risk—You often hear that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., but interestingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 80 percent of deaths from coronary artery disease—a type of heart disease that causes the narrowing of the arteries—can be prevented. Diet is an important factor in heart disease prevention.
What to Eat as You Age: Quick Tips
As you can tell, the aging body isn’t exactly like the body you’ve lived in for most of your life; it needs a little bit of special care. Developing a healthy diet is one way that you can diminish your risk of certain diseases—especially type 2 diabetes and heart disease—but it can also help you feel better by improving your overall well-being and boosting your energy levels. Still, keep in mind that diet isn’t everything. Physical activity, the right medications and a solid care continuum— your family members, in-home caregivers, nursing home staff or doctors—will help you physically thrive.
- Ditch the Salt—The USDA recommends that senior citizens consume a low-sodium diet and flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of salt. Sadly, the dinner table staple can cause you to retain body weight, which causes your blood pressure to rise.
- Drink Milk—Drinking three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk per day or getting the equivalent through yogurt, butter, cheese or lactose-free foods can help you rebuild your calcium supply. Calcium helps support healthy bones and teeth.
- Eat Foods with Vitamin B12—Many seniors develop a deficiency in vitamin B12 because their bodies lose the ability to absorb it. But vitamin B12 is important; if you don’t have enough, you risk developing anemia, neuropathy and cognitive impairment. You’ll get vitamin B12 through fish, beef, milk, eggs and other foods.
- Go “Heart-Healthy”—The American Heart Association (AHA) emphasizes the importance of a healthy diet for overall heart health. It recommends plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry and fish, legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils, such as olive oil and canola oil.
- Plan Your Meals—When you pre-plan your meals, you’ll find that you’re less likely to skip out on eating healthy because you’re faced with fewer choices on a day-to-day basis. For advice, we recommend checking out the resources available from the National Institute on Aging, including meal-planning tips and sample menus for older adults.
- Don’t Forget the Vitamin D—Much like vitamin B12, vitamin D is vital for health but harder for the aging body to absorb. You can get more vitamin D through sunlight, supplements and foods such as cod liver oil, salmon, tuna, cheese and egg yolks. A vitamin D deficiency is dangerous and can lead to osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis, muscle weakness, heart disease and other dangerous health conditions.
- Fiber is Your Friend—Another thing that happens when we age is that our cholesterol levels rise. This can be addressed by eating high-fiber foods such as beans, almonds, oats, lentils, artichokes and fruits and veggies. Fiber also plays a role in controlling your blood glucose levels, which can help to prevent your risk of diabetes.
Taking care of your body during its most vulnerable time is a multi-step process. It requires close attention and self-care in every facet—from your mental health to the foods you eat—but it shouldn’t be burdensome or stressful. So long as you understand the very basic nutritional needs for aging, you’ll be well on your way to a diet that supports your body’s demands at every age.