The science is clear: Eating the right foods can lead to a longer, healthier life.
Yet some people, as they get older, find it harder to eat right. This can happen for many reasons: Maybe they don’t feel like eating. Maybe they have trouble cooking or eating. Maybe they don’t know what’s healthy.
Maybe they do and they just don’t like the idea of kale.
“You know what? You can live a long, healthy life and never eat a piece of kale,” says Cheryl Rock, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
She’s all for finding food that you like -- healthy food -- and building on that.
“If you’re eating foods you like, then you’re more likely to stick with it. You won’t force it down for four days and then go out for a double cheeseburger,” Rock says.
It’s more than just finding the right foods. Michele Bellantoni, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that you need to eat them in the right amounts, too.
“It looks like the optimal calories [for most older adults] will be 1,800 [a day],” she says. “And for successful aging, we think about the entire body, rather than just specific organs.”
Many foods are especially good for certain parts of your body. Bellantoni suggests starting with 1,800 calories, then splitting that up with proteins for your muscles, calcium for your bones, and a basic heart-healthy diet.
That approach can do a lot of things for you:
It Can Help Your Heart
A basic heart-healthy diet can help you control your weight. That’s important because more than a third of people 65 and older are obese. That can lead to diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease.
Foods that are good for your ticker also help you control your cholesterol and blood pressure. That can help keep heart disease at bay.
So what is a heart-healthy diet? One that includes:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products like yogurt and cheese
- Skinless poultry
- Lots of fish
- Nuts and beans
- Nontropical vegetable oils (like olive, corn, peanut, and safflower oils)
Make sure you have salmon and other fish like trout and herring. They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of heart disease and slightly lower blood pressure, among other benefits. Shoot for two servings a week.
You should also know that the fiber in veggies -- also found in whole grains -- helps lower your odds of cardiovascular disease. It also helps digestion and regularity, which often are a problem for older adults.
Remember that no one food is going to help your heart, any more than just one would help your brain or your bones or your muscles or any other part of your anatomy.
You need a complete, healthy diet.
“If you’re eating a lot of fish but, in addition to that, you’re living on ice cream and candy and stuff like that,” Rock says, “it’s not going to save you.”
It Can Help Your Brain
A loss of memory, a big worry among some older adults, has been linked to, among other things, a lack of vitamin B12. You can get that in:
- Milk products
- Some breakfast cereals
Alzheimer’s disease has been linked to chronic inflammation, which can be caused by foods like white bread, french fries, red meat, sugary beverages, and margarine.
The science is still emerging on the relationship between some foods and brain health. Check with your doctor or dietitian.
“There was some issue with the Food and Drug Administration disallowing food claims for memory loss,” says Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington.
“I would not want to identify a specific food that prevents memory loss. I probably would tell someone that if you want to be functioning well, then some fruits and antioxidants will do better for you than another slice of cake.”
Antioxidants, found in many vegetables and in fruits like blueberries, help reduce inflammation. They also help you get rid of damaging stuff created when you convert food into energy.
Again, though, it’s important to realize that good brain function may be as much about what you don’t eat as what you do.
“Your brain runs on blood flow, just like your heart,” says Rock. “So if you’re eating a lot of saturated fats, it makes it less likely that you’ll have those nice clean arteries to supply that brain tissue with blood.”
Make sure you have tomatoes, blueberries, green leafy veggies like spinach and kale, turmeric, and nuts (especially walnuts).
You should also know that those omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and other oily fish, are inflammation fighters.
It Can Help Your Muscles
They’re always breaking down and getting built back up again. That’s just the way your body works. As you get older, you need more protein for that rebuilding process.
“So if you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll be breaking down more than you’re rebuilding,” Rock says.
Make sure you have low-fat or fat-free yogurt, cheese, milk, lean meats, fish, other seafood, and beans.
You should also know that eggs are an excellent source of protein and don’t have the saturated fats that meat have. Don’t worry about the cholesterol in your eggs, Rock says. It’s not absorbed well by your body, anyway.
It Can Help Your Bones
Older adults need calcium, because it promotes healthy bone growth. Getting enough vitamin D is important, too, because that helps you absorb calcium.
It’s not always easy.
“The risk for low vitamin D in older adults, that’s kind of a challenge, because it’s not like there’s lots of foods that are high in vitamin D,” says Stephen Anton, from the Department of Aging and Geriatric Research at the University of Florida.
Calcium is also difficult for many older people to absorb, yet too much can cause constipation. It’s something you need to discuss with your doctor or dietitian.
Make sure you have yogurt, low-fat cheeses, and milk for calcium. Few foods naturally carry vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D are in fortified foods.
You should also know that in addition to being a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, canned salmon is full of calcium and has some vitamin D.