March is National Nutrition Month—what better time for seniors to get serious about eating healthy? A health-conscious diet can help stave off the effects of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other ailments that hamper the quality of life for seniors. Follow these dos and don’ts to help kick-start a new, healthier you.
Do eat more fruits and vegetables
You must remember your parents telling you eat your veggies at the dinner table as a child. Well, fruits and vegetables are just as important for seniors are they are for children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend that fruits and vegetables make up the majority of your diet. Fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients and fiber, as well as low in calories. Fruits and vegetables with deeply colored flesh such as romaine lettuce, spinach, peaches and berries are much more beneficial to you than iceberg lettuce, cucumbers or apples.
Don’t eat too much dairy
Milk, cheese, and yogurt are an important source for the calcium needed for bone health, and they fight against osteoporosis. Dairy products are also an important source of vitamin D, which is vital for skin health. However, many dairy products contain unhealthy fats. The USDA and the HHS recommend that dairy products only make up a small portion of a healthy diet. Try substituting nonfat yogurt and 1% milk rather than whole milk alternatives.
Do avoid fats and sugars
Eating foods with high levels of saturated fats—or even worse, trans fats—can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Simple sugars should be avoided as well. Though sweets are hard to give up—especially for seniors whose sense of taste for some foods has diminished with age—simple sugars increase your chances of diabetes. For those already suffering from diabetes, it can make maintaining healthy blood sugar levels virtually impossible. These kinds of sugars aren’t just found in candy and soda, either; they’re also found in white rice, white flour, and pasta sauce.
Don’t eliminate all fats
Surprisingly, there are some healthy fats that our body actually needs. Monounsaturated fats—found in olive oil, avocados, and almonds—as well as polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acid—found in fish such as salmon and herring—can protect the body against disease and support brain function as well as help combat the effects of Alzheimer’s.
Do choose your proteins wisely
Fish is not just a good source for healthy fats; it is one of the best sources of healthy protein. The body needs protein to repair cells and create new ones, a vital function as you age. Other great sources of protein are nut butters, lean meats and poultry. Red meats and other fatty meats should be avoided as their bad fat content outweigh the benefit of the protein they contain.
Do eat the right kinds of grains
Grains are our primary source of fiber. These days, it is not difficult to choose the right kind of grain for a healthy lifestyle, as almost every grain product we grew up with comes in a whole grain variety. As you age, your metabolism begins to slow at a rapid rate. Your body can no longer break down food like it once could, often leading to unhealthy weight gain. Grains help us feel full and stop us from over eating. Since white flour contains bad sugars, it’s important to choose whole grain products such as rye and wheat breads. Brown rice is a much healthier alternative to white rice. Other healthy grains are flaxseed, oats and barley.
Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids
Almost two-thirds of your body is water. The older you get, the more important it is to drink liquids throughout your day. According to the National Institute on Aging, as you get older, your sense of thirst may start to dull. Water helps you digest food and get rid of unused waste, while helping certain medicines work properly. It is important to drink a full glass of water every time you take a pill, as well as drink liquids with every meal.
Do read nutrition labels
Keeping track of what you eat is the key for a healthy diet, and the easiest way to keep track is by reading the nutrition labels on the side of the products you buy. The first thing you should check when you read a nutrition label is the serving size, as this can be deceptive. All nutritional facts are based on whatever the serving size is—not what is in the whole container, which may be three or four times what one serving size would be. According to the FDA, recommended daily percentages are listed on the right side of the nutrition label. The groups you should eat less of are listed first: total fat, cholesterol and sodium. The groups we need more of, vitamins and fibers, are listed below the first group.
Do choose a healthy diet plan
Almost every reputable diet is built on some combination of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy protein. An established diet plan can make eating right easier. One of the most recommend diets for seniors is known as the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is based primarily on plant-based foods, while replacing red meats with healthier proteins like fish and poultry. The name is no coincidence—the tiny Greek island of Ikaria, located in the Mediterranean, has a fascinating claim to fame, as one-third of all its residents live well into their nineties, according to a study conducted by AARP and National Geographic. Along with the active lifestyle the islanders enjoy, their diet has shown to be a major factor, producing 20% lower documented rates of cancer, 50% lower rates of heart disease and almost no cases of dementia.
Do eat with friends and family
Most importantly, try to eat in the company of friends and family. A healthy diet and lifestyle is something to be shared. Eating alone can cause loneliness and depression which in turn can lead to not eating or over eating (Helpguide.org, 2016). Try to eat with others as many nights of the week as you can. Eating with a friend or loved one will encourage you to continue living a healthy lifestyle for many years to come.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015-2020) Dietary Guildlines for Americans. 8th Editions. December 2015. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
Tufts University. (2017) MyPlate for Older Adults. http://hnrca.tufts.edy/myplate/myplaceforseniors
Robinson, Lawrence and Jeanne Segal. (2016). Eating well as You Age: Nutrition and Diet tips for Healthy Eating as You Age. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/eating-weel-as-you-age.htm
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017). Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov
National Institute on Aging. (2017). What’s on your plate? https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/whats-your-plate/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2017). How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm
NPR. (2009). The Island Where People Live Longer: Interview with Dan Buettner for Weeked Edition Saturday. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103744881
AARP (2009). Longevity Quest. http://www.aarp.org/magazine//health/longevityquest
Mayo Clinic. (2015). Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801
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