When it comes to aging, you are what you eat
By: James Rogers, M.D.
It happens to each of us every 24 hours: we grow one day older. September is healthy aging month, and it’s a health topic that pertains to 100 percent the population.
Growing older doesn’t have to mean rocking chairs, canes and a medicine cabinet full of pills. More than ever before, people in their 50’s, 60’s 70’s and beyond are leading active, healthy lifestyles. They are showing us that it’s never too late to learn something new, get in shape and make healthy lifestyle choices.
The topic of healthy aging could fill volumes. There is much information and research on the subject. However, for our purposes, this month we’ll look in detail at one important lifestyle area: eating healthy. Next month we’ll look at why activity levels and cognitive and emotional health are vitally important to healthy aging.
As you get older your body requires fewer calories, which means eating less to maintain your current weight. A decreased need for calories also means that you have less room in your diet for non-nutritional, “empty,” food choices. In other words, what you eat becomes even more important as you age. This is powerful knowledge, because the food choices you make can help you live a longer, healthier life.
Key components to a healthy diet include the foods that you choose to put into your mouth as well as the ones you avoid. Let’s start with the things to avoid.
• Salts. Limit intake. Too much salt in the diet can raise your blood pressure, and reducing sodium can actually lower an elevated blood pressure.
• Fats. Small amounts are needed for a healthy diet, but it’s important to pay attention to the type of fat that you are consuming. Stick with unsaturated fats – polyunsaturated (liquid corn oil, soybean oil) and monounsaturated (olive oil, avocados, nuts). Limit saturated fats. In general, saturated fats are the ones that come from animals (butter, cheese, beef). Avoid trans fats (hydrogenated fats), which are found in stick margarine and many process foods. Both saturated and trans fats can increase your risk for developing hardening of the arteries. They can raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.
• Processed sugars. These simple carbohydrates provide little in the way of nutrition.
The good news is that a healthy-aging diet contains a wide variety of food choices that don’t have to be one bit boring or bland. Some of the key recommendations:
• Water. As you age, your kidneys become less efficient at keeping your body hydrated and water becomes more important than ever before. Sip throughout the day to get to total of 64 ounces (eight cups).
• Protein. Low-fat, lean protein is needed to build muscles. As you age, your body has a tendency to produce more fat and less muscle. Eating healthy protein -- such as poultry, fish, beans and soy – along with muscle-strengthening activities, can help counteract this tendency. Try to eat about five to seven ounces of lean protein each day.
• Fruits and vegetables. These provide you with energy in the form of carbohydrates. They also add vitamins, minerals and fiber to your diet. Finally, they are powerhouses of antioxidants – compounds that help the cells of your body ward off damage from free radicals and lessen the impact of aging. Go colorful with fruits and vegetables whenever you can – bright reds, deep greens and intense yellows. Leave the skins on. Opt for whole fruit over juice. Seniors should strive for at least five one-cup servings each day.
• Whole grains. The key here is “whole.” Read labels to make sure the grains you choose are whole grains. They provide fiber to help lower cholesterol and have antioxidant levels similar to fruits and vegetables. Include three servings a day in your diet.
• Calcium-rich foods. Low-fat or skim milk, yogurt, salmon and sardines all fit the bill. In addition to providing the calcium needed by your aging bones, these foods provide added protein needed by aging adults.
• Vitamin D. It’s called the sunshine vitamin, because you can get your daily dose from exposure to the sun. You can also eat or drink vitamin D fortified foods or take vitamin supplements.
What you eat can and does affect the aging process. As you get older, your nutritional needs change. You’ll probably find that you can’t eat as much as you did when you were younger, and to top it off you’re told to leave the salt in the shaker and the butter off your toast. At the same time, it becomes even more important to get your daily requirements of protein, calcium, fiber, vitamins, minerals and water. Although it may sound complicated at first, it really isn’t too difficult to follow a healthy-aging diet. The results can be lasting and significant. A healthy diet can help you maintain a strong, active lifestyle, and can help your golden years be just that – golden.
Dr. Rogers is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.