Nutritional Needs for Healthy Aging
Updated: May 10
“Food isn’t like medicine, it is medicine, and it’s our number one tool for creating the vibrant health we deserve.” ~Mark Hyman, M.D.
Our food choices affect our health—today, tomorrow, and as we age. Proper nutrition can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of chronic diseases, and promote your overall health. A balanced diet provides your body with the fuel it needs for energy, the raw materials it needs to build and maintain tissues, organs and other structures such as bones and teeth, as well as what the body needs to regulate various body functions such as digestion, sweating, temperature, metabolism, blood pressure, and thyroid function, along with many others.
According to the World Health Organization, a majority of the diseases older persons suffer with are a result of dietary factors compounded by natural changes in the aging process. “Degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer, which are among the most common diseases affecting older persons, are all diet- affected.” Developing healthier eating habits doesn’t necessarily mean counting calories or restricting food intake....it’s really about our food choices and finding balance.
With our goal of healthy aging in mind, let’s explore a few simple ways to make healthier food choices a part of your everyday life:
Look for locally sourced fresh fruits and vegetables, making approximately 95% of your daily intake from a plant or plant product. According to research done with the Blue Zones, include mostly beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds in your daily intake. The best of the longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beet and turnip tops, chard, and collards. Explore a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them. Find what you enjoy, rather than forcing yourself to eat something simply because “it’s healthy.”
Protein is still an essential part of healthy nutrition as we age. Although there is some disagreement about how much total protein we need daily, what is most important is to select protein-rich sources like salmon, beans, or legumes. Dairy, meat, and eggs can also be sources of protein, but they can be high in fat and cholesterol. Limit your weekly intake of dairy, meat, and eggs and experiment with learning how to pair certain plant-based foods together to increase the absorption of available protein.
Age-related changes in the GI system can lead to constipation, increasing the importance of fiber in our diets more than ever. Consume nuts, brown rice, beans, fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water each day.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help prevent inflammation, slow the progression of Macular Degeneration, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and improve brain health. Found in fish (mainly sardines, tuna, mackerel, and salmon), flaxseed, soybeans, canola oil, and walnuts, nutritionists recommend serving foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids twice a week.
Antioxidants are molecules that may protect your cells against free radicals. Our bodies need to maintain a certain balance of free radicals and antioxidants, as free radicals do have important roles to play in fighting infection. Left unchecked, though, free radicals can accelerate the aging process and are linked to multiple diseases and certain types of cancer. Some antioxidant-rich foods include almonds, bell peppers, blueberries, dark green leafy vegetables, strawberries, and tomatoes.
Use oils derived from plants rather than animal-based fats. Olive oil is a good choice for cooking as well as for drizzling on freshly cooked vegetables or dipping whole-grain bread (opt for authentic sourdough, sprouted grain, whole-grain rye, pumpernickel, or 100% whole-wheat bread).
Hydration can often fall by the wayside as our sensation of thirst decreases as we age. Most healthy adults should drink about half their body weight in ounces each day. This will vary depending on the weather, your level of activity, and more so be sure to listen to your body. Focus primarily on drinking water, avoiding added sugars, artificial ingredients, or excessive caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.
The use of dietary supplements is somewhat controversial. The bottom line is that whole food is always the best source of nutrients, yet it is nearly impossible to consistently eat a perfectly balanced diet of nutrient-dense, high-quality foods. Also, depending on our individual levels of overall health and chronic mental stress, as well as possible decreased absorption of some nutrients as we age, supplementation may be necessary to counteract the heightened nutrient needs of our bodies. Consult with a reliable health care professional to learn if nutritional supplements may be right for you. Also discuss with your provider specific brands they recommend, and the optimal way to use the dietary supplements recommended. Calcium and Vitamin D are two most commonly advised, so consider food sources such as leafy green vegetables, almond milk, certain fish (salmon and tuna), and occasionally dairy products.
Rather than following traditional dieting rules to restrict and avoid certain foods, find joy in exploring the plethora of healthy, whole food options that are available to fuel and energize your body, minimize your risk of disease, and even slow the aging process. Be open-minded to new foods, as well as new ways of preparing and seasoning foods. And almost as important as making healthy food choices, find the opportunity to enjoy food with others and celebrate together this life we’ve been given.
~Nicole Hutchison, Owner and CEO, Physical Therapist, CSCS, Health Coach, and Integrative Nutrition Coach