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Eating well to help you age well – with Dr Joanna McMillian

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Nutrition plays a key role in helping us age well. It’s not a magic bullet of course, nothing is. However, it’s one of the factors that can make a big difference – and it’s the one under our control. While we can’t change our genes, our age, or some parts of our environment, we can make choices about food and lifestyle.

The benefits of eating healthy in retirement

It’s never too late to make a change. No matter when you make the choice, you’ll experience countless benefits if you begin to live a healthy lifestyle. Paying attention to what, how, and when you eat will help your heart, bones, skin, gut, and general well-being.

The improvements to your heart and vascular system don’t just refer to avoiding or managing cardiovascular diseases. When your vascular system is healthier, it will benefit how you feel, your energy levels, and how much you’re able to do – especially in terms of movement.

Just like your vascular system, bone health relies on good nutrition and exercise. Even your skin and how well it ages is influenced by your nutrition. And of course, your food choices affect your gut health and immune system, helping you to fight off infections and disease.

Tips on healthy eating for seniors

Eating for brain health

Nutrition impacts brain health. Your memory, how sparky you feel, and even your risk of cognitive decline and many forms of dementia – including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases – are impacted by your food choices. That’s why the MIND diet was designed by researchers in the US to address brain health in relation to aging.

What is the MIND diet?

MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than 50%! That’s pretty astounding given that in the past we thought we had little control over this condition.

The diet is essentially a modified Mediterranean diet, so the good news is that it’s delicious! If you’re thinking of lots of salads, fish, and extra virgin olive oil, washed down with a glass of red wine (but only one!), then you’re on the right track.

It’s modified by adding in some features of DASH, a diet designed to help reduce blood pressure. DASH aims to lower sodium (salt) intake and boost the consumption of foods rich in potassium. The balance of these two minerals is key for blood pressure control.

How to follow the MIND diet:

  • Leafy green vegetables: Eat leafy greens like spinach or salad greens at least six times a week. Then include other vegetables in two or more of your daily meals – choose a variety as well.
  • Nuts: Enjoy a handful of nuts most days. If nuts are tricky to eat because of dentures, try having nut butter on toast or in a smoothie or soup.
  • Berries: Snack on berries two or more times a week. Berries are rich in antioxidants and have been found to improve memory.
  • Fish: Have fish a couple of times a week and make sure one of those meals is an oily fish like salmon, trout, sardines, or mackerel. These are rich in the long-chain, omega-3 fats that your brain needs.
  • Legumes: Include a legume such as chickpeas, canned beans, or lentils in your diet every other day. These are terrific in soups and salads, or made into a dip like hummus.
  • Wholegrains: Choose wholemeal options for bread, wraps, and breakfast cereals. Also, include wholegrains such as brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, buckwheat (soba) noodles, or bulgur wheat.
  • Extra virgin olive oil: Use extra virgin olive oil every day for cooking, drizzling, and dressings. You need about 3 tablespoons a day to optimally benefit.
  • Limit or avoid: Fried fast foods, pastries, sweets, and margarine.

A healthy lifestyle for the elderly

Living a healthy lifestyle isn’t just about your diet, hydration also plays a key part in maintaining energy levels and health. Even very minor dehydration can sap your energy and leave you feeling tired and lethargic.

Often people limit their intake of fluids at night as they don’t want to be getting up for the loo, but that means you’ll start the day dehydrated. To counteract this, have a glass of water the minute you get out of bed in the morning. Then drink water regularly throughout the day, aiming for about a glass every hour and more if you are exercising. Other drinks contribute to your hydration, even coffee and tea, as well as water-containing foods such as salad veggies, fruit, and soup – but don’t rely on these alone.

Once you’ve got your food and water intake sorted, then it’s time to focus on staying active. This is crucial for all aspects of health, including mental health, but it can be hard if you have aches and pains or find yourself lacking in energy. This is where food can play a major role.

Eating to fuel physical activity

Food provides your body with energy from two key fuels – fats and carbohydrates in the form of glucose. The big difference between the two is that fat is a slow burner, while glucose burns quickly and is able to provide energy fast. In the human body we are always burning a mixture of both, but that mix will change depending on what we’re doing.

If you’re sitting playing bridge, glucose is fuelling your brain, but fat is the main fuel keeping the rest of your body ticking along. If you then get up and go for a brisk walk, with a few stairs and hills along the route, your need for energy jumps. Your muscles ramp up their uptake of glucose to quickly provide that energy.

Unless you’re underweight and very thin, most people have plenty of fat stored and so it’s rarely fat that’s the limiting fuel. Carbohydrates on the other hand can only be stored in limited amounts in the body. You could burn through those carb stores in only a few hours, particularly if you’re on the go.

So, if you want to have the energy for your daily physical activities, you need to feed your body carbohydrates. But you want the most nutritious, wholefood carbs and not the highly processed ones. There’s a big difference between a slice of wholegrain bread and a doughnut! Choose whole plant foods such as wholegrains, legumes, fruit, and starchy vegetables in their skins (so potatoes with the skin rather than fries). Spread these good carb sources out over the day without having too much all at once.

Eating for mental health

Mental health is influenced by a variety of lifestyle factors and your diet is one of them. Studies have shown that the MIND diet can reduce your risk of depression and anxiety, so following the tips above will definitely help your mental well-being. However, eating is not just about delivering nutrients to your body, it’s also about the preparation and sharing of food.

Put simply, food should be a social activity. Don’t underestimate the impact that sitting down to enjoy a meal with others can have on your happiness and overall mental health. When we look at the healthiest people in the world, they have this in common: they prioritise mealtimes and rather than eating on the run or skipping a proper meal, they sit down at the table to eat with others.

Think of the Mediterranean region where a meal is often spread out over a leisurely couple of hours. Or in Japan where meals usually involve several courses of small, beautifully presented morsels.

That doesn’t mean you have to make every meal an elaborate affair! Just respect your mealtimes and prioritise them in your day. Conversation and human interaction are just as important for your health as the actual food on the plate.

Summing up

Good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. All you really need to do is choose whole foods – including plenty of plant foods – and limit the rubbish.

Eating well gives your body the nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds it needs to protect body cells as we age. By eating well and staying active, you dramatically reduce your risk of chronic diseases, while also living a fulfilling, happy, social life.

Good food makes you feel better, have more energy, and think more clearly. Give mealtimes the priority they deserve in your life.