Worldwide, people are living longer. In 2000, one in 10 people in the U.S. were age 65 and over, and by 2035 the United Nations predicts that one in five will be 65 and older — with over 6% of the U.S. population over 80 years of age. Numerous studies show that what we eat can affect health and longevity, so what’s the best diet for aging and living a longer, healthier life?
“There’s no best diet, but there are a lot of good ones,” says Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, FAND, a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University and co-author of “Food and Fitness After 50.” Rosenbloom says that a good healthy eating plan is flexible, includes foods people like, and addresses an individual’s health concerns. However, in today’s anti-aging culture with headlines and chatter about popular diet trends, how does one determine what makes up a “good” diet?
Following are “red flags” to consider when discerning what is or is not reliable information when it comes to today’s (or tomorrow’s) fad diet.
Nutrient deficiency or excess. Eating plans that limit or restrict foods or food groups make it difficult to get the nutrients needed for healthy aging. For example, eliminating whole grains, beans, legumes, and/or fruit decreases fiber intake necessary for maintaining intestinal health and protecting against heart disease. Food plans that restrict dairy foods make it difficult to meet calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus needs, if not replaced with other foods, therefore compromising bone health. Conversely, very low carbohydrate diets may lead to excessive fat intake, potentially increasing an individual’s risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Poor energy. Diets that encourage skipping meals or restricting carbohydrates can deplete fuel sources in the body, resulting in fatigue. Because glucose is the main energy source for the brain, lack of focus or concentration may increase an older adult’s risk of falls, or for physically active individuals, an increased risk of injury to muscle or bone tissue.
Loss of lean tissue and weight regain. Caloric restriction for weight control (which most diets are) can lead to loss of lean tissue. Consequently, when the dieter “gives in,” stops the diet, or resumes their usual eating pattern, the body restores weight — often in the form of fat tissue. Recent studies have documented the negative effects of repeated cycles of dieting on weight regain, increased fat mass, compromised immune health, and decreased bone density.
Increased risk of disordered eating. The pursuit of weight loss, even in the name of health, can contribute to the emotional and psychological distress of trying to stick to the diet, dealing with weight plateaus, or intense hunger and fatigue that triggers a cycle of undereating and overeating. Moreover, feelings of shame or guilt may contribute to mood disorders or depression when the dieter is unable to achieve expected weight goals or regains the lost weight.
Diet for healthy aging
Principles that support healthy eating for older adults include the following.
Eat a balanced diet. As people age, calorie needs decrease, however many nutrients, such as protein and certain vitamins and minerals remain high. Some older people struggle with loss of appetite, taste changes, teeth or denture issues, side effects from medication, budget concerns, or dependence on institutional meals and may be eating less food or less variety.
To maximize nutrient-dense foods, Rosenbloom encourages older adults to stock up on pantry basics, including canned beans and vegetables. She tries to dispel the myth that only fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy, when packaged foods can be just as healthy, are easier to prepare, and have a longer shelf life.
Improve diet quality. A diet high in plant foods (beans, vegetables, nuts, fruit, whole grains) and low in processed foods is associated with improvements in cardiovascular health measures and is recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research for reducing cancer risk.
For those who want to adopt a plant-based diet, but don’t want to give up meat, Rosenbloom recommends a Mediterranean diet that encourages eating more fish and less red meat or the DASH diet (which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) for individuals with high blood pressure. Both diets emphasize vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy foods, moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts, and they have high-quality studies showing positive health outcomes.
Create a support circle. An observation from the diet literature is that people are successful when they have accountability and support. Therefore, try to choose one or two people who will help you be successful with your goals. Schedule fitness- and nutrition-oriented gatherings to connect, share recipes and learn how to prepare healthy meals.
Finally, remember to start small. Change should come gradually for sustainable behavior modification to take place. For example, add fish or a meatless meal to the menu once a week or add one serving of fruit and vegetables to your daily intake. “Regarding sweets and desserts, I remind people the second half tastes like the first. Keep a watch on the portions and enjoy your food,” says Rosenbloom.