Nutritional needs change as our bodies age. Gone are the days of eating as much as you want whenever you want. Instead, aging adults need smaller meals packed with nutrition.
Here’s why nutrition matters, and how to make the most of every meal you eat.
Support the Natural Slow-Down
The human body is built to last, but at some point, age hampers important organs, causing us to slow down.
“The body’s key systems such as the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, musculoskeletal system, neurological system, and other functions all go through a degenerative process as we age. It’s just how our bodies work,” said Certified Physician Assistant Emily Webber with Samaritan Albany Surgical Associates.
You may notice this slow-down by a difference in bowel movements, a stiffness in your joints, or you may forget more things than usual.
“When you begin to notice changes in how your body functions, that is a clue to make alterations to your diet to better support your changing body,” Webber said.
Good nutrition can influence the rate at which our bodies change and how impactful those changes can be, she noted.
“That’s the cool part – while we cannot control our genetics or the fact that we are aging, we can control the food we eat,” Webber said.
Make Meals Count
“For many of us as kids, we could eat as much as we wanted, without much consequence. With aging, our appetite tends to decrease, which makes what we eat all that more important,” explained Webber. “We need to eat foods that are packed with critical nutrients.”
Foods that are sometimes called “superfoods” are these types of foods, Webber said.
“The definition of a superfood really means nutritionally dense foods that contain high amounts of antioxidants, fiber and essential fatty acids the body needs to keep functioning optimally,” Webber said.
Add Superfoods to Your Diet
There are many nutrient-rich foods, but here are a few that Webber recommends adding to your diet:
- Nuts. Nuts are high in fat and calories, but when eaten in moderation, offer a healthy source of protein and can help lower “bad” cholesterol. Almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts are especially good choices. Aim for no more than a handful of nuts per day, or three tablespoons, for healthful benefits, and try to choose unsalted or lightly salted varieties to cut down on added sodium.
- Avocados. Avocados also contain healthy fats to help lower “bad” cholesterol and have been shown to reduce inflammation, which can lead to chronic illness. Try adding avocado to salads or scrambled eggs, or mash it up and spread on toast with a bit of salt and pepper.
- Eggs. “Eggs are a great source of protein, fats, selenium, which protects our cells, iron and vitamin A,” Webber noted. They do tend to be a bit high in cholesterol though. “If your doctor is monitoring your cholesterol, it may be wise to eat eggs in moderation. Talk with your doctor about how many eggs per week are right for you,” Webber noted.
- Kale. This dark, leafy vegetable contains a lot of important vitamins such as A, K, B6 and C, as well as fiber. Kale is easy to chop up and eat raw in salads or add to stir-fries and casseroles. Steamed with a little olive oil and garlic, kale makes a great side dish.
- Blueberries. “Any berries are great for you really, but blueberries grow so well in our region that they are easily accessible,” said Webber. Choose fresh or frozen options for the same nutritional boost.
- Broccoli. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, bok choy and cabbage, are rich in fiber and vitamins, and because of their bulky nature, can also be more filling.
- Ancient Grains. “Ancient grains are grains that have not been refined, meaning they are closer to the way they grow naturally. In this state, they are complex carbohydrates, containing a great deal of fiber and vitamins,” said Webber.
“The more a grain is processed, the more it is stripped of its nutritional content. So, white flour, for example, is highly processed wheat, and foods containing white flour are not good choices for health.” Instead, choose a grain such as quinoa, buckwheat, barley, oats and flax.
Don’t Ignore These Basics
Pay attention to your overall diet by remembering these three suggestions, too, Webber notes:
- Go for lean protein. While protein is critical to healing the body, especially after surgery and injury, choose lean options, such as chicken, fish or soybeans. Limit the amount of meat you eat to no more than 3 to 4 ounces a day, or the size of a deck of cards.
- Choose carbohydrates carefully. “Try to opt for complex carbohydrates, such as starchy vegetables and whole grains, which have fiber, protein and other nutrients. Avoid simple carbohydrates like refined sugars and white flour that have little nutritional value,” she said.
- Limit sweets. Avoid products like grocery store baked goods, boxed cookies and candies that are heavily processed and highly sweetened. Instead, treat your sweet tooth to the natural sweetness of fruit or products with small amounts of natural sweeteners like honey or 100% maple syrup.
There will always be challenges to eating well, but don’t let them become barriers to doing what is best for your body.
You may be thinking, why cook only for myself? But remember, your body deserves a delicious, nutritious meal and will function better because of it. Try to make cooking fun. Explore new recipes or experiment with different food combinations. Play music while cooking and add in a few dance steps. Vary where you eat – on the front porch or in front of the fireplace, for instance, or take a picnic to the park. Consider inviting a friend or neighbor to dinner, or someone you just met; you’ll help them feel less isolated and yourself too. Start a supper club with simple, healthy meals and rotate eating at each other’s homes.
To avoid having more leftovers than you can manage, buy the smallest portions possible of meats or produce, for example, or freeze into small containers for single use. Use frozen vegetables and fruit and take out only what you for the recipe. Search online for recipes that contain the key ingredient you have too much of, such as produce going bad or extra rice. Consider immediately freezing leftovers after dinner in small containers to have a quick, healthy meal another day.
No Appetite? You Still Need to Eat
On days when you don’t feel like eating, you still need to eat. Try to combine a protein with a complex carbohydrate in the simplest form possible. Make a smoothie with fruit and yogurt or milk. Eat nut butter on half an apple or a piece of whole grain toast. Because our sense of smell diminishes with age, so does taste, so you may want to season foods more strongly with herbs and experiment with flavors you may not have tried before. If you really can’t eat, a protein shake, such as Ensure, could help. “Protein shakes are a good, compact source of calories if you’re having trouble getting someone to eat,” Webber noted. “It’s always best to get our nutrition from a variety of foods, but if you don’t have the appetite, these can be a fine food source alternative.”
Curb the Costs of Eating Healthy
Eating healthy does not have to be expensive. Many grocery and health food stores stock foods in bulk, such as grains, pasta, nuts, beans and cereals, where you can buy as much or as little as you need. Choose frozen fruits and vegetables, which have the same nutritional content as fresh produce, but will keep longer and are often less expensive. Consider making a pot of soup that you can eat on all week.
Webber suggests you may also consider options within your community, such as a food pantry. “There are many good food pantries in our area, in which seniors can shop on a weekly or monthly basis for dried goods and other staples, as well as weekly fresh produce,” she said. “The income level to qualify is often higher than you might think, and it is a good way to extend your purchasing power.”
Think of Nutrition Broadly
While nutritious food is good fuel for the body, it can also be one of life’s pleasures, Webber noted.
“It’s good to think of eating more broadly as we age, thinking of our physical, mental, emotional and social needs for a good meal, rather than only the need for calories,” she said.
She suggests looking for ways to incorporate a meal within community, even if it means you invite people to join you or you eat a few times a week at the community center with others.
“Often, as we age, we go through periods of isolation and lack of social opportunities. But if I make a meal for someone else and eat with them, I am thinking about nutrition in a bigger way -- I’m making a friend and I’m eating well – the meal is working from a lot of different ways.”
And that’s a big boost to both body and soul.
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