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Nutrition Tips for Healthier Aging

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Most of the dramatic changes in our bodies happen in the first few decades of life. We don’t always see the slower changes in our bodies as adults, and they don’t happen at the same rate for everyone.

However, staying healthy means planning for the effects of aging before we see them. Nutrition is one of the best tools for combatting the major health issues that many face in the latter part of life. Practicing good nutrition and embracing good health habits as early as possible can prolong middle age and make the golden years a little brighter.

Below are some tips for healthier aging, focused on five key areas.

Brain Function

The health of your brain determines your movements, memories, thoughts, and feelings. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common from of dementia, is the 5th leading cause of death for those 65 and over in the United States. It occurs when the signals that your brain uses to communicate with your body are interrupted, or when the pathways on which those signals travel become unhealthy. The National Institute on Aging has reviewed research that indicates that diet can dramatically reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.

  • Eat one daily serving of leafy green vegetables such as spinach or kale; it can be as easy as having a mostly green salad every day.
  • Make fish and seafood (or walnuts, chia, and flaxseed if you don’t eat seafood) part of your weekly shopping list. The Omega-3 fatty acids in these foods are important to brain function.
  • Limit red meat (beef, pork, game), sweets, and fried foods.
  • For a diet that shows promising results for lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s, read more about the MIND diet.

Bone Strength

We lose bone density with age, because our bones have trouble maintaining the calcium and other minerals that make them hard. Spinal health, arthritis (inflammation of the joints), and easily broken bones are consequences of this change. But again, we can reduce the rate of bone density loss through better nutrition. Calcium is the most important mineral to bones, but the body needs vitamin D and magnesium to use calcium properly.

  • Get some vitamin D in your diet by eating fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, or mackerel; by eating whole eggs; and by choosing “fortified” foods (with added vitamin D) such as dairy or cereal.
  • Eat outdoors a few times a week. Brief sun exposure stimulates your body’s natural production of vitamin D – just don’t stay out long enough to burn.
  • You may need a vitamin D supplement if your doctor determines that you are unable to produce enough as you age.
  • Choose low-fat, high-calcium dairy products such as milk or yogurt for a snack.

Muscle Maintenance

Those bones won’t move themselves. Age-related loss in muscle tissue, known as sarcopenia, is normal. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimate a 1% per year decline in muscle from age 45 onward.

But you can slow this loss with diet and exercise. Muscle is made of protein and cannot be maintained with other nutrients. You may need even more protein than when you were younger to maintain current muscle tissue, and newer research suggests that we may need slightly more protein than current recommendations call for. It is important to eat in a way that maintains muscle without increasing your risk for other conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

  • Choose protein sources low in saturated fats, such as tuna, chicken breast, yogurt (regular or Greek), and eggs.
  • When you can’t measure precise amounts, eat a serving of protein roughly the size of your palm.
  • Get protein from plant sources such as quinoa, beans, and soy.
  • If you are having trouble keeping weight on, consider a high-protein nutritional shake between meals.

Blood Sugar Levels

Diabetes is consistently a top ten cause of death for those over 65 in the United States. Your body depends on a hormone called insulin to move sugar from blood into the cells, where it can be burned for energy. Diabetes occurs when your body stops making enough insulin or does not use insulin well; the result is a dangerous buildup of sugar in the blood. Diabetes damages blood vessels and can result in heart disease, kidney disease, and loss of eyesight. Type 2 diabetes can be avoided or managed by maintaining a healthy weight and by good nutrition.

Choose these:

  • Non-starchy vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, and spinach
  • Fruits
  • Lean protein found in seafood and fish, chicken, turkey, tofu, eggs, and yogurt
  • Whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, and oatmeal
  • Water and unsweetened beverages

Avoid these:

  • Processed foods such as packaged snacks, packaged meat, chips, sweets, and fast food
  • Sugary drinks such as fruit juice, sports drinks, and soda
  • Alcohol

Heart Health

Heart disease refers to a variety of conditions related to the heart’s ability to circulate blood. Heart disease can originate in the heart itself, the heart valves, or the body’s arteries. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the United States. Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity can lead to heart disease. Your risk can be reduced by a diet low in saturated fat and high in vegetables and fibrous carbohydrates.

  • Choose whole fruits and vegetables over processed foods, so that you can get the benefits of cholesterol-reducing fiber.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to one drink a day, to help avoid spikes in blood pressure.
  • Limit saturated fats, such as red meat, butter, and bacon.
  • Choose foods with healthy fats, that is, monounsaturated and Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e. seafood of any kind, walnuts, avocados, olive oil). These fats improve heart health.
The UAB Medicine Diabetes & Nutrition Education Clinic is staffed by registered dietitians and certified diabetes care and education specialists who create manageable nutrition strategies for patients with a wide range of risks and conditions. Click here to learn more.