What we eat affects how we age; aging affects our nutritional needs. Understanding how is key to better health as we get older, say Tufts experts.
With so much hype in the media about miracle diets and nutritional supplements, one is invariably tempted to look for a single, food-based magic bullet that will increase the likelihood of living a longer, healthier life.
“Unfortunately, the rate and way we age depends on both our genetic makeup and a combination of lifelong lifestyle behaviors,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, the Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
“Our diet, physical activity levels, how much sleep we get, and whether or not we use tobacco products all have an influence,” says Lichtenstein, who is also senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts. “While we can’t control our genes, the data clearly shows that those adhering to a healthy lifestyle do best within each genetic risk category.”
That healthy lifestyle includes a handful of nutritional keys, say Lichtenstein and Diane McKay, assistant professor at the Friedman School, director of Friedman School’s Online Graduate Certificate Programs, and formerly a scientist at the HNRCA.
MyPlate for Older Adults—developed at the HNRCA to correspond with the USDA’s MyPlate, the federal government’s food group recommendations—calls attention to the unique nutritional and physical activity needs associated with advancing years, says Lichtenstein.
For example, she says, older adults tend to need fewer calories to maintain a constant body weight due to shifts in body composition from muscle to fat—yet they need the same, or for some, a bit more of the essential nutrients. That means making smart, nutrient-rich choices within each food category. It is also important, particularly in hot weather, to ensure adequate fluid intake and not only rely on the sensation of thirst, which may be blunted as we age.
Lastly, Lichtenstein says, the solution is unlikely to lie with taking nutrient supplements. Benefits from a healthy dietary pattern can’t be duplicated by popping a pill.
“It’s important to adhere to a dietary pattern that emphasizes vegetables and fruits—specifically those that have dark flesh, whole grain products, legumes, low-and fat-free dairy products, fish, nuts and seeds, and if you want to eat meat, focusing on poultry and lean cuts of meat,” says Lichtenstein. “It is also important to replace major sources of saturated fat, usually from meat and dairy, with unsaturated fat such as soybean and canola oils, and limit salt, added sugar and products made with refined grains.”
“One approach achieving this goal is to prepare as much food as possible at home and avoid highly processed foods which tend to be high in salt, sugar and/or refined grains,” she adds. “At any stage of life, it is important to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight for the best health outcomes.”
“Excess body fat is associated with higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers,” says Lichtenstein. “Important lifestyle behaviors that can minimize chronic diseases risk include engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding exposure to tobacco products, getting adequate sleep and managing daily stress.”