Nutrition and Aging
By Joel Peacock, MD
Every day, the choices we make about the foods we eat affect everything in our bodies and have a significant influence on our health. This is especially true as we age. And, as we get older, the way our bodies process and use food can change. There are some key factors related to diet and health that I want all of my patients to know.
Eat “real” foods as much as possible. Fresh food is always better than packaged food loaded with chemicals and preservatives. Shop the outside perimeter of the grocery store where you’ll find fresh produce, meats, and dairy products. Avoid the inner aisles that generally contain highly processed canned and packaged foods. Read labels, and don’t eat things you can’t pronounce!
If your living situation makes it challenging to shop for groceries frequently, you may have to supplement with some foods that will last longer. In that case, frozen foods are generally preferable to canned foods.
Eat a wide variety of colorful foods. I had a patient come in to see me because he was losing weight. I asked him how much he was eating, and he assured me he was getting three hot meals a day. When I queried further, I discovered that he was eating oatmeal. Hot and three times a day, but just oatmeal!
Your body needs a variety of meats, vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy products to function properly. Generally speaking, the most colorful foods have some of the highest nutritional values. Think dark leafy greens, beets, squashes, and berries, to name a few. Try to get a rainbow of colors on your plate.
Make dinner your lightest meal. Contrary to what’s “normal” in our culture, it’s much healthier to have a big, hearty breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a light dinner versus the opposite (most Americans eat their largest meal of the day in the evening). A light evening meal will minimize the possible symptoms of GERD (gastroesophoageal reflux disease), or acid reflux, which is common in older adults and may prevent you from sleeping well. I’ve noticed that seniors tend to make this shift naturally—they adjust their eating habits because they simply feel better this way.
Drink water. This is so simple and so important. I frequently find that my patients are not taking in enough water and are dehydrated. You can become dehydrated without ever feeling thirsty. Adequate water intake is vital to every function of your body. Because it can be bothersome to count glasses, I recommend that my patients fill a 1-2 quart pitcher of water each morning and drink at least 1 quart (more is even better) over the course of the day. Try to drink more water earlier in the day so you don’t have sleep interruptions to urinate. And remember that coffee, tea, and sodas are NOT equivalent to water. They are actually diuretics that can dehydrate you further.
Note: this may not apply to people who have Hyponatremia, a low sodium level in the body. Please ask your physician if you are concerned or unsure about this.
Protein is key. Most people don’t get nearly enough protein, which is essential to maintaining muscle strength, blood count, and the immune system. Now, it’s true that, as you age, your body is not doing as much re-building as when you were younger. That means you don’t need as much protein in your diet as you used to. However, you should have a good portion of protein in your meals at least 4 times a week. If you’re not getting enough through your foods, you may need a supplement such as Ensure.
Good sources of protein: all meats, poultry, and fish, as well as beans (the darker in color the better), nuts (but not for folks with diverticulitis), tofu and soybeans.
Avoid fried and fast foods. Fried foods are inherently unhealthy, especially for anyone who has gallbladder or cholesterol problems. And fast foods are generally loaded with fat, sodium, and chemicals.
Cook your foods. Some folks begin to have trouble digesting vegetables (and, less often, fruits) as they age. This manifests in symptoms such as upset stomach, bloating and diarrhea. Cooking vegetables instead of eating them raw can often alleviate this problem. If cooking doesn’t help, your physician may prescribe an enzyme to support your digestive system.
Consider supplements. If you are not getting the nutrition you require through your food, you may need a vitamin supplement. Use caution, however; vitamins and supplements are inconsistently digested from person to person, and there is very little research about how much they truly help. It is always better to get your nutrition through your food than through a pill!
Sweets are a treat. A little bit of dessert or an occasional ice cream cone can certainly enhance life, and that’s fantastic. But too much sugar is counterproductive to your happiness! Sweet foods are a treat, not a staple. And look for reasonable alternatives like fruit, yogurt, or healthy dessert recipes. (When I was a kid, my mom used to make a squash pudding from the Weight Watcher’s cookbook that was absolutely delicious!)
Spice it up. Many spices have been found to have beneficial properties. Turmeric, for example, a yellow spice that is typically used in Indian cuisine, can alleviate symptoms of arthritis by reducing inflammation. Chili peppers, garlic, cinnamon, and many others are also proclaimed to have health benefits.
Drink your milk. Dairy products are a significant source of calcium, which is essential for aging bones. If you are concerned about the fat content, you can choose lowfat milk or other lowfat dairy products. Whole milk, however, is fine unless you drink more than six glasses per day.
Some people become lactose intolerant as they age, which creates discomforts such as bloating, abdominal cramps, and gas. Often, an over-the-counter remedy like Lactaid will help with these symptoms.
It’s never too late to learn how to cook. I often see widowers in my practice who have never had to cook in their lives. Well, this is the time to learn! It’s important to be able to care for yourself in this fundamental way. Who knows? That cooking class could be a great way to meet new people, too.
Some random tips:
- If you’re on Coumadin, be consistent in your intake of darker green vegetables. They contain Vitamin K, which will affect the medication. Don’t eat too much all of a sudden or abruptly cut back your consumption of dark green veggies. Just stay consistent, and the Coumadin will also remain consistent.
- If you have diverticulitis (a rather common inflammation of the intestinal wall), avoid fruits with small seeds (such as raspberries) and nuts that fracture into small shards. These can irritate your condition.
- If you are anemic, dark green vegetables and red meats are good sources of iron.
- If you live in a setting where meals are prepared for you, your food choices may be limited. In that case, you must take the initiative to select the healthiest foods from those that are offered to you.
Need to lose weight? Maintaining a proper body weight is essential to good health, and there are many diet fads that come and go. Low fat. Low carb. Atkins. South Beach. No this, no that. In my opinion, short-term weight loss programs don’t work because they are, well…short term. Most people who lose weight in this way just gain it back again. One of the safest and most sensible things to do is to implement a Weight-Watcher’s type plan, which teaches you a different way to think about food and helps you integrate new, healthier lifestyle habits.
And let’s not forget exercise. We all need exercise, and even those into their 90’s can benefit. Do an aerobic activity that suits your ability, such as walking, swimming, or bicycling several times a week, and supplement with light weight lifting if you are able. (Always be sure to talk to your medical provider before beginning any exercise program!)
Remember, wise food choices result in good health. Take care of yourself by eating well.