Diet and lifestyle changes play a big role in how well you age and how long you live. Even if you have a genetic predisposition for serious illness, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer or Alzheimer’s, it will not manifest if the gene is not expressed. How does that happen or not happen? Gene expression, again, is affected by diet and lifestyle choices. So, the sooner you introduce healthy habits, the better. It’s never too late to make impactful changes!
The role of nutrition is often underestimated. But did you know that nutritional interventions have shown amazing results? We now know that the right diet can reverse not just type 2 diabetes, but also cognitive decline.
Provide enough energy (i.e. calories) and the right nutrients, and your symptoms and quality of life could be significantly improved, even if you are of advancing age. With the right diet, some of the meds might even become obsolete. In later life, eating a really good diet is more important than ever.
Real food – more important than ever
As you age, you lose lean body mass – muscle – which leads to a reduced metabolic rate. That means you burn (and need) fewer calories than before. The loss of muscle tissue can be a sign of less activity. It also means that staying active gets harder – a vicious cycle.
So, older people need fewer calories but have the same nutrient requirements as younger adults. This and the fact that appetite declines with age mean that older adults must take in the same amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as they used to, only with less food. In short, good quality food has never been more important!
Processed foods and ready meals are not nutrient-dense – quite the opposite. They tend to be high in sugar, salt and trans fats or vegetable oils while lacking fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Everyone – of any age – needs real food. For older people there really is no alternative. Real food is the kind of food your grandmother would recognise: meat, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and whole grains. The sooner you switch to real food only, the better the foundation your health depends on is going to be.
What you eat is one thing, whether you absorb it is another. As you age, stomach acid production declines. For a long time, this was thought to be a ‘normal’ symptom of ageing, but it is not. There is no reason why older people should produce less stomach acid. And yet it is a common problem.
Low stomach acid levels can be a result of dehydration, infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, the widespread use of acid-blocking medication or a combination of the above. Also, stomach acid secretion is an energy-intense process, and the diet might just not supply enough calories for adequate stomach acid levels. As a result, folate, vitamin B12, iron, calcium and beta-carotene cannot be adequately absorbed.
5 tips to ageing well
1. Eat real food. Ready meals and fast food just don’t cut it. You need all the nutrients you can get, especially if your appetite is not what it used to be, and your servings are small. Buy ingredients rather than meals and your body will thank you for it. A slow cooker is an inexpensive gadget that makes cooking a doddle, even if you think you can’t cook. It turns even the more affordable, tougher cuts of meat into melt-in-the-mouth stews. Batch cook and freeze a couple of portions. That way, you can stock your freezer with home-made ready meals.
2. Eat enough calories. That is easier said than done, especially if you do not have much of an appetite. The solution is fat. Fat has more than twice the calories of protein and carbohydrates and is a natural flavour enhancer. It is also required to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins vitamin A, D and E. Sadly, fat is unfairly vilified and therefore restricted in official dietary guidelines. The general advice replace saturated fat and cholesterol with man-made vegetable oils has since been found to be detrimental. Vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory, harmful to cognitive health and may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Natural fats that humans have consumed for millennia, such as butter, lard and coconut oil, are preferable. To maintain good cognitive and mental health, you need good amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is predominantly found in oily fish. 2-3 servings per week are sufficient.
3. Avoid refined carbohydrate foods (white bread, white rice, cakes, biscuits, etc.) as these raise blood sugar levels fast and high. Yet, when appetite is waning, sugary foods may still be the most attractive option. Sadly, a high carbohydrate, high sugar diet is detrimental, especially if you are suffering from diabetes and are at risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. To reduce the sugar in your life, follow a diet with a low glycaemic load. It means very little sugar and more carbs from vegetables than grains, but because it consists of real food and allows healthy fats, meals are tasty and filling.
4. Green smoothies are a delicious way to benefit from the vitamin C, antioxidants and enzymes of raw plants, without having to chew them. They are easy to prepare and consume.
5. Consider supplementation. Vitamin D is a nutrient of concern for all ages. You make most of your vitamin D within your skin under the influence of sunlight. Anyone living far from the equator, where sunlight is scarce in winter, is likely deficient. If you are older and perhaps less mobile, you may have even fewer opportunities to enjoy the sun. Yet, vitamin D is a crucial nutrient for bone health. It is needed for the absorption calcium – which may already be limited if stomach acid levels are low. Vitamin D is also essential for a healthy heart, cholesterol metabolism, the brain and more. Unfortunately, there are not many good food sources for it, but oily fish, red meat, liver and egg yolks do contain some. It is possible to get tested and supplement accordingly. Good quality dietary supplements may also help improve the absorption of vitamins and minerals or top up nutrient levels from food. Just make sure to get advice from someone who is trained in the use of dietary supplements. They can interact with medication, and different products are not absorbed in the same way.
Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean that you have to put up with illness. Healthy ageing is possible and achievable. If you’re still young, start now. If you are already of an advanced age, start now. It’s never too late to get healthy.
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