As you age, chances are you can’t eat and drink quite the way you did when you were 20.
That extra slice of pizza shows up on the scale. Your favorite jeans are tight around the middle. And having a drink after work puts you to sleep.
“Things change as you get older,” said Sheah Rarback, a dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a Miami Herald columnist. “If you want to stay as vital and active as you can, you want to take a hard look at what you’re eating.”
The core recommendations aren’t surprising: Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables plus beans, nuts and whole grains, healthy fats and good sources of calcium and Vitamin D.
Eating a healthy diet when you’re young prevents health problems later, the experts stressed, but it’s still important to choose the most nutritious ingredients — and avoid junk food.
“Our bodies are not burning up as much calories as when we were younger,” said Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida.
Sugar-laden foods are not only fattening; they’re inflammatory.
“You don’t want your carbs coming from cake and doughnuts and candy,” said Rarback. “They’re worthless calories.
“When people gain weight, it’s not going to their arms and legs,” she said. “They’re usually gaining abdominal fat around their middle, which is related to an increase risk of heart disease,” a crucial matter for both men and women.
“Mistakenly, some women thought that the heart issue was more of concern for men and that’s not the truth,” Rarback said. “Heart disease is a primary cause of death for women.”
It’s just one of the reasons that maintaining a healthy weight, before and after age 55, “is one of the key drivers for overall health,” Talamas said. “Once you are obese, you’re at a higher risk for more conditions.”
Those conditions include heart disease, stroke, some cancers and diabetes.
“Sadly, some people aren’t motivated to change their diet until they’re diagnosed with multiple conditions,” Talamas said. “Maybe they had high blood pressure and now they have diabetes type 2. That can be the trigger for change.”
For women, the trigger is often menopause and hormonal changes.
A decline in estrogen levels can accelerate the loss of calcium from the bones, which increases the risk of osteoporosis. Along with diet, weight-bearing activities can help stimulate the bones to grow stronger and denser, which can protect against bone fractures.
“Age is just a number but our body does have changes, decade by decade,” Talamas said.
“The issues at 55 and 75 can be different,” said Monique Biddle, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Memorial Healthcare.
Some of those differences involve a change in lifestyle and economic status as you age.
“Someone who’s 55 could still be working and not have the budget constraints of someone who’s 75 or older,” said Biddle. “Some people have to go to the grocery store on a bus or a van and they can’t carry much.”
She advises many of her older patients to buy canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, without fattening sauces, since they last longer. Rinse the food in the can to eliminate added sodium. And stay away from pricey supplements. If you need iron, for example, eat iron-rich foods: Spinach, whole grains, dried fruits, eggs, beans, tofu, meat and fish.
Here are important components for a healthy diet, especially for older adults:
▪ Calcium and Vitamin D: Essential for bone health, calcium and Vitamin D are found in milk, cheese and plain yogurt (avoid sugar-laden choices). Orange juice, almond milk (and other alternative milks) and some cereals are among products often fortified with calcium. Some dark green vegetables like spinach, kale, mustard greens and broccoli contain calcium but in a smaller amount than dairy products.
“Another good source of calcium is canned salmon,” said Rarback. “If you eat the soft bones, you’re getting calcium.”
Women over 50 and men over 70 need 1,200 milligrams of calcium (including food and supplements) daily, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. It’s recommended men under 70 get 1,000 milligrams daily.
You’ll also need Vitamin D so your body can absorb the calcium. “Calcium and Vitamin D work together,” Biddle said.
Vitamin D is found in sunlight and certain foods — including mackerel, salmon and tuna. Vitamin D is usually added to dairy products, orange juice, soy milk and fortified cereals. Check with your physician to see if you need a calcium or Vitamin D supplement before taking one.
▪ Fiber: “Fiber is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for older adults to improve cholesterol levels and regularity, which can become an issue when you get older,” Talamas said.
Dietary fiber may also help improve blood sugar levels, and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Eating at least three or more ounces of whole grains can reduce the risk of several chronic diseases and help maintain your weight, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Options include whole wheat, oats or oatmeal, rye, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and sorghum. Popcorn has fiber, but avoid the greasy movie theater variety.
Fruits and vegetables are also fiber-rich, but don’t underestimate legumes either.
“Black beans, red beans, white beans and lentils are great sources of fiber,” Rarback said. “Beans have folic acid and they’re a good source of protein. They’re reasonably priced if you’re on a budget and they’re an easy add-on to salads, rice or pasta. You can also mash them up for a dip.”
▪ Protein: One challenge as you age is losing muscle mass, Rarback said. To prevent loss, it’s important to get enough protein, but not overdo it. She recommends low-fat options like lean meats, chicken, fish, beans and plain yogurt.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from protein — roughly 46 grams of protein for adult women and 56 grams for adult men.
Consider these dietary tips to help you age well:
▪ Thirst decreases as you get older so be sure to drink more water, Talamas said. Low-sodium soups and water-rich fruits and vegetables can help keep you hydrated. Coffee is dehydrating so pair it with a glass of water, Biddle said.
▪ Cooked tomatoes, cooked red peppers, watermelon and guava contain lycopene that might improve prostate health, studies show.
▪ Yellow, orange and green foods can help prevent cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Green pistachios are also good.
▪ Reach for the spice rack instead of the salt shaker, as sodium leads to high blood pressure. Many spices have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers, Rarback said. Some of the most beneficial spices include cinnamon, turmeric (use with black pepper), ginger, cumin and coriander.
▪ Inflammation is at the root of a lot of diseases. Fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory. Eat more of them.
▪ Omega 3 fatty acids can reduce risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Sources include fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), avocados and walnuts.
▪ Watch out for mindless snacking. Some snack ideas: apples and peanut butter, carrots and hummus, plain yogurt or an ounce of cheese with a whole wheat cracker.
▪ Cooking at home gives you more control over ingredients. When you do dine out, split meals with your companions or set aside food for take-out before you start. “Practice mindfulness when you’re eating,” Talamas said. “Pay attention to whether you’re really hungry.”
▪ Get moderate or aerobic exercise at least 150 minutes a week (30 minutes a day for five days) and strength-training exercises two days a week. Work on balance, especially as you get older.