By Lindsey Hall
Yet, as we age and stand the risk of developing one of the thousands of health issues that plague the elderly, the very same tenets taught in our youth can help alleviate or prevent the deteriorating process entirely.
According to many dietitians, nutritionists and health gurus alike, eating a variety of healthy foods in moderation stands as the key to maintaining a healthy body, particularly for seniors.
“As our population ages, the functionality of the body definitely declines a little bit,” said Brian Higginson, a clinical nutrition specialist at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.
Noting how the needs of the body change over time, he cited the fact that as we grow older, the overall number of calories we need decreases, while our intake of vitamins, minerals and protein don’t budge. As a result, weight gain may occur over time due to the excess calories, which opens the door to an extensive list of other health concerns.
“For people who haven’t had problems before, like cholesterol or high blood sugar, as they age, they suddenly hear their doctors saying they’re at risk for a number of issues.”
The Mediterranean way
It’s a reality that to many — especially those who have eaten the same way for 50, 60 or 70 years — can seem quite shocking. Whether varying the type of foods consumed or lowering caloric intake, the biggest difficulty seniors face stems from the inability to shake their engrained eating habits.
Yet, the benefits are worth the hardship.
Timi Gustafson recommends a plant-based diet to all of her clients, including the elderly.
“I believe it’s best to eat a heart-healthy diet,” she said, “which includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and lean protein.”
Gustafson considers the diet to fall under the Mediterranean category, which also emphasizes healthy fats, such as olive oil, canola oil and those from fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
For seniors in particular, she considers this way of eating the most beneficial to stave off health ailments associated with aging.
“For many of my elderly clients, there are three main concerns: forgetfulness or the onset of dementia, macular degeneration in the eyes and overall bone health,” she said. “But with the Mediterranean diet, along with eating a minimal amount of processed food, we can address all three issues.”
“Not to sound like a clichéd dietitian, but eating foods with high nutritional value is a great way to stay healthy,” Brian Higginson said.
Tailoring balanced diets
For individuals who have already developed health problems, diets can be tailored to match individual needs. In the case of diabetes, eating a diet low in sugar is critical to proper functioning.
Meanwhile, fending off heart disease and high cholesterol require decreasing the amount of “bad” fats, such as those from animals and processed foods, and increasing the amount of “good” fats.
Yet, no matter the disease, it’s important to keep an overall balance of healthy foods in mind.
“Generally, when I counsel people, I recommend a diet of 80 percent and 20 percent,” Higginson said. “Eighty percent of the time, we should make the healthiest food choices possible, and the other 20 percent is more flexible to eat less nutritious foods.”
For instance, he advises seniors cut down on sweets, reasoning that “they taste good going down, but definitely don’t have much nutritional benefit.”
Most importantly, seniors should remember that eating healthfully to ward off health issues trumps yo-yo dieting for the sole purpose of losing weight.
“I am absolutely against fad diets. I believe they’re just that: a fad,” Gustafson said. “A healthy diet is a lifestyle that lasts for the rest of our life. With diets, every year, there is something new coming out, and they never last.”
With the proper information, persistence and, in many cases, professional guidance, eating healthfully as we age is as real as the diseases it can prevent. Whether eating more fruits and vegetables or cooking fish once a week, the most vital piece to remember is that every effort pays off.
Copyright Pacific Publishing Company, Inc. 2010
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