Why You Should Adjust Your Diet as You Age
To feel your best as you age, certain habits may need some slight modification. Taking stock almost always seems to equal diet and exercise, since those are the two things in your control that have the greatest impact on well-being. Understanding the whys makes it easier to see how subtle changes can improve your health.
“As much as we would love to keep the metabolism of our teens and 20s, it’s a fact that as we age, our metabolism progressively slows,” says Alisha Landes, executive director at The Lantern at Morning Pointe. “This is because our hormone levels change, and we aren’t as active as we once were.”
In order to maintain a healthy weight, you’ll need to eat fewer calories, and those calories need to be nutrient-rich. Dr. Alycia Cleinman, a geriatrician with CHI Memorial Center for Healthy Aging, explains, “It is important for your weight to remain stable as you age, since weight loss and weight gain in older adults have been associated with shorter life expectancies.”
But a slower metabolism is not the only change you’ll see. You’ll likely notice changes in your digestive system over time too, like constipation or gas. These digestive changes can cause your body to have trouble absorbing vital nutrients like folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12.
Additionally, you may be taking medications that affect your appetite. “Many older adults have had to start taking medications for various health conditions, and they can alter appetite greatly. Some may change the taste of food; some dry up saliva, making the act of eating unappealing; and others zap your hunger pains entirely,” says Landes.
Physical issues can create difficulty as well, whether it’s dental problems that restrict choices or functional limitations that affect your ability to open jars, lift heavy things, or grocery shop.
The side effects of those bodily changes can make you more vulnerable to malnutrition. Malnutrition, or undernutrition, is fairly common in older adults, and one of the key issues is that it leads to an overall decline in health. “Unintentional weight loss should be a red flag in an older adult that they are not meeting their nutritional requirements,” shares Dr. Cleinman. Not having enough of needed nutrients like potassium, calcium, vitamins D and B12, fiber, and minerals can lead to developing chronic illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes.
Older adult malnutrition is estimated to cost Americans $51.3 billion each year, and it adds 300% to health care costs annually. One-third of hospital patients enter malnourished, and the issue tends to increase the length of hospital stays by four to six days on average. Malnutrition can also lead to loss of muscle mass, which is a risk factor for falls in older adults.
Figuring out how to eat well is vital to feeling good and achieving a better quality of life. MyPlate.gov is a great resource that offers helpful hints. According to the organization, half your plate should be filled with raw fruits and vegetables, especially leafy green ones, which provide you with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to help you feel better and maintain a healthy weight.
You also need protein for energy, so one-fourth of your meal should be comprised of healthy proteins like beans, eggs, fish, and lean meats. Small amounts of healthy fats are beneficial too, like those found in nuts and seeds, or in avocados, which are rich in omega-3.
The last fourth of your plate should contain whole grains like brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain cereal, or oatmeal. Wash it down with low-fat milk, because calcium is a must for strong bones. Not a fan of milk? Low-fat or fat-free yogurt or hard cheeses in small amounts will help, along with a calcium supplement.
When cooking proteins, experiment with flavorful herbs and spices instead of overdoing it on the salt, since excess salt intake can lead to the development of high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and more. There are many excellent salt-free spice mixes that don’t require culinary experimentation – just shake them on and enjoy. Use vegetable oil or olive oil for cooking rather than saturated fats or trans fats, and limit these oils to two teaspoons to stay within a heart-healthy serving size.
“It’s also important to drink an adequate amount of water each day,” reminds Landes. As you get older, you may notice that you don’t feel thirst as often, but your body still needs the same amount of water as it always has.
Try to avoid carbonated drinks and overly processed foods, since they contain excess sugar and sodium that your body doesn’t need. Remember, while it is key to eat the right number of calories, you also need to make sure your food choices provide you with all the nutrients and vitamins your body requires. It may also be helpful to take additional supplements, as your body’s ability to absorb enough nutrients and vitamins through food alone can decrease over time.
If you care for an older friend or family member who doesn’t enjoy healthy food, you can pack a lot of nutrients into a smoothie. A blender filled with carrots, fruit, and wheat germ for protein can make an excellent drink that includes a day’s worth of vitamins and doesn’t taste bland.
Another option for fulfilling nutritional requirements is to use meal enhancements, typically available in liquid form. Dr. Cleinman explains, “Shakes should be used as a snack (in between meals) twice a day. They should not be taken with meals, since that could lead to consuming less food during the meal.”
There are many good reasons to change your eating habits as you age, including mental and physical quality of life. Undernutrition is related to reduced cognition, lowered immunity, depression, increased falls, more hospital stays, and premature institutionalization.
A healthy diet can help reverse those trends and keep you feeling fit and happy for a long time.
While it may seem hard to make the changes to your diet, once you begin, the improvement in your health, energy level, mobility, and outlook should be enough to convince you to continue long into your golden years.