As you get older, good nutrition plays an increasingly important role in how well you age. Eating a low-salt, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fiber can actually reduce your age-related risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases. By eating a wide variety of foods, you can pretty easily get what your body needs, including:
- Protein, which is needed to maintain and rebuild muscles. You can get low-fat, quality protein from poultry, fish, eggs or egg substitutes, soy, and limited amounts of nuts and low-fat meat and dairy.
- Carbohydrate, which is the body's preferred source of energy. There are two main sources of dietary carbohydrates: simple sugars, such as sucrose (the refined white sugar added to sweets and desserts), fructose (the sugar contained in fruit), and lactose (milk sugar); and complex carbohydrates, which come from vegetables and grains. Unlike refined sugars, fruits contain vitamins and fiber, dairy products contain nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, and complex carbohydrates contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Get most of your carbohydrate calories from vegetables, grains, and fruits. Limit drinks and foods with added sugar. And try to replace fat calories with complex carbohydrates in your diet.
- Fat, which also provides energy. To help keep your blood cholesterol levels low, get most of your limited fat intake from the polyunsaturated fats (as in liquid corn oil or soybean oil) and monounsaturated fats (in olive oil, avocados, and nuts). Limit saturated fats (beef, pork, veal, butter, shortening, and cheese). You can do this by eating these foods less often, having smaller servings, choosing less fatty cuts of meat, and by using stronger tasting cheeses so you can use just a little and still get the cheese flavor. Try to avoid the trans fats (hydrogenated fats) found in stick (hard) margarine and in many processed foods such as crackers and cookies. Trans fats are now shown on the nutrition facts labels found on most packaged foods.
- Water, to replace water lost through activity. Be sure to drink plenty of water each day.
As you take a look at your daily diet, remember that as you age:
- Your body's daily energy needs slowly decrease. So you need fewer calories a day than when you were younger. Your doctor or a registered dietitian (RD) can help you calculate your ideal calorie intake.
- Natural hormone changes make your body prone to depositing more body fat (especially around your middle ) and less muscle. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and limiting your intake of saturated fat, along with increased activity and muscle strengthening (muscle cells are the major calorie burners in your body), can help you stay at a healthy weight.
- Your bones lose mineral content more rapidly than before, especially if you are a postmenopausal woman, because having less estrogen increases bone loss. As a result, you need to have calcium and vitamin D in your diet to help prevent osteoporosis. Your doctor may recommend that you take a calcium and vitamin D supplement.
- Plaque buildup (atherosclerosis) can naturally occur on the inside of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and brain. You can help slow this plaque buildup by eating heart-healthy foods such as lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A healthy diet can help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure and prevent heart disease and stroke.
Help for managing underweight or poor nutrition
People who are underweight or frail have low reserves for bouncing back after an illness or injury. In the later years, this can lead to permanent ill health or disability. If you have trouble keeping your weight up, it's critical that you take special measures to build your weight, energy, and resilience. Every day, follow your doctor's recommendations and:
- Eat three meals plus three snacks, and never miss a meal.
- Choose higher-calorie foods from each food group, such as whole milk instead of skim milk. But try to keep your overall saturated fat intake low-high cholesterol can affect anyone.
- Eat the highest-calorie foods in a meal first.
- Use liquid supplements, such as Ensure or Boost, between meals.
If you are having trouble getting the food you need because of transportation, financial, or health problems, ask your doctor about local meal programs. Most communities have Meals on Wheels programs that can deliver food to your door. And there are meals at churches and community centers that can nourish your needs for both food and social time.