diet & aging

Nutrition Plays A Key Role In Aging Gracefully

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Frequently Asked Questions

The Role of Diet in Healthy Aging

Like it or not, we're all getting older. Better for us if we can do it gracefully. Good nutrition can help us do just that!

Bioactive compounds in fruits and vegetables promote healthy aging. Flavonoids reduce oxidative stress. Healthy fats decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. All of these are part of a healthy diet, and a healthy diet can determine how well you age and whether you will suffer from and/or die prematurely from chronic disease.

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Answers to
Frequently Asked Questions

1. What diet-related diseases are you at risk for as you age?

As you age, many things come into play when determining the risk factors for disease. According to the Center For Science In The Public Interest, the number one factor in determining your risk of death from disease is diet,

Diet can play an important role in the prevention and management of many age-related diseases, including but not limited to:

  • heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Cancers (cervical, colon, gallbladder, kidney, liver, ovarian, uterine, postmenopausal breast cancer and others unrelated to smoking)

2. What are the best food choices to improve aging?

To some degree, the choice of foods for better aging is personal depending on what you consider an improvement. Pomegranates and blueberries contain free radical fighting antioxidants that may help with fine lines and making your skin smooth, that may not be your priority. The antioxidants  in these foods can also help fight inflammation throughout your body -- even more important than fighting wrinkles!

Your smartest choice is to eat a wide variety of whole real foods, rather than processed junk. That will provide you with an assortment of nutrients that can help prevent many diseases and provide many health benefits. At the same time avoiding, or at least limiting processed and junk foods, which are typically lacking in nutrients, will keep away unnecessary added fats, sugars and calories.

3. Is diet important for health and vitality in agi​​​​ng?

Definitely! Diet can control many aspects of how you feel and how much energy you have, no matter your age. Many foods give you a burst of energy and help you feel especially full of vitality even as you age, including nuts, lean meats, salmon, leafy greens, colorful vegetables and foods high in fiber.

That extra energy boost may not seem like a big deal when you're young, but as you age diet becomes key to maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. 

4. Why is it important to maintain a healthy weight as you get older?

Currently the #1 cause of preventable death in the United States is.....obesity. 

About 1/3 of all US adults are overweight or obese. These numbers represent an epidemic level of the weight problem in America, and further highlight the need for vigilance in diet, and the need for regular exercise.

Obesity is also the culprit in many lifestyle diseases that prematurely kill thousands of people around the world. Overweight and obesity related health problems include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type
2 diabetes, joint-related conditions, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, etc.  The list goes on and on. According to The National Heart Lung And Blood Institute, being overweight and obese, along with age, increases your risks for these diseases.

The last thing you want to do is give yourself a double dose of risk for these serious but, in many cases, preventable conditions. Aging gracefully and living with vitality in your golden years means maintaining a healthy weight to reduce the risks of many preventable diseases, and maintaining a high quality of life.

5. Is portion control important as you age?

Your body needs less food as you age because metabolism begins to naturaly slow as you get older. Unfortunately many of us miss this memo, which is why we see a 5 to 10% weight gain each year after age 50.

6. What does nutrient dense mean?

Nutrient dense foods have the most nutrients with the fewest calories. A food that is nutrient dense will provide you with a high amount of vitamins, minerals, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and/or healthy fats with the
smallest amount of calories. For example, broccoli is nutrient dense, as a serving of it is very high in nutrients, but very low in calories. Conversely a chocolate chip cookie is high in calories, but has very little nutrients so is not considered nutrient dense.

It is important to focus on nutrient dense foods as you age because metabolism naturally declines. Every calorie counts so each food you eat needs to be of value. Additionally, appetite drops as we get older. This means that may not take in as many nutrients as you should because you are eating less food.

Eating nutrient dense food means that you are focused on the quality of the food rather than the quantity of the calories. That way you can ensure that your body will have everything it needs to keep functioning properly throughout your senior years.

7. What are the best heart health foods?

Heart healthy foods help to reduce inflammation, and maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

These foods are considered heart healthy and can help reduce your risk for heart disease and improve your chances of living a longer and healthier life:

  • Fatty cold-water fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Berries that give you fiber and antioxidants
  • Low-fat dairy containing calcium and vitamin D
  • Whole-grain oats contain high amounts of fiber that have been shown to reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol
  • Olive oil instead of butter because it contains heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids
  • Dark chocolate for its antioxidants which helps keep bad cholesterol levels down

8. What are the best fats to support heart health?

Choose healthy fats in the right amounts is key for optimal heart health.

  • Trans fats – 0% or less than 2%

  • Saturated Fats – less than 10% of total daily caloric intake

  • Monounsaturated Fats – between 15% and 20% of total daily caloric intake

  • Polyunsaturated Fats – between 5% and 10% of total daily caloric intake

  • Best --UNSATURATED FATS -- These include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids). These are your healthiest choices for heart and brain health with the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish (wild salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel), nuts, and flaxseed.

    In Moderation --SATURATED FATS -- Saturated fats are typically found in dairy and meat products. They are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and must be moderated.

    Avoid --TRANS FATS -- Trans fats are heart killers and should be avoided at all costs. Most manufacturers have moved away from using trans fats in their foods because of the risks associated with heart disease, though many packaged foods still have them. Check labels for hydrogenated oils.

    9. What role do omega-3 fatty acids play?

    Omega-3’s are monosaturated fats, which are responsible for many heart healthy effects within the body. They reduce inflammation, promote good HDL cholesterol, and keep you healthy as you age. The University of Maryland reports that omega-3 fatty acids can help you reduce the risk and even reverse the effects of damage from the following conditions:

    • High cholesterol

    • High blood pressure

    • Heart disease

    • Diabetes

    • Rheumatoid arthritis

    • Lupus

    • Osteoporosis

    • Depression and bipolar disorder

    • ADHD

    • Cognitive decline

    • Skin disorders

    • IBS

    Marine forms of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are found in oily fish. Plant forms of omega-3 fatty acids offer ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is found in plant foods, oils, seeds and nuts. ALA is not as potent as the marine sources of omega-3s, EPA and DHA.

    Good sources of EPA and DHA (Experts recommend two servings of fish each week)

    • Mackerel
    • Wild caught salmon
    • Anchovies
    • Bluefish
    • Herring
    • Sardines
    • Sturgeon
    • Lake trout
    • Tuna

    Good plant sources of ALA (Enjoy these healthy fats in moderation daily)

    • Walnuts and walnut oil
    • Avocados and avocado oil
    • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
    • Canola oil
    • Soybean oil

    (Enjoy these vegetables liberally)

    • Brussels sprouts
    • Kale
    • Mint
    • Parsley
    • Spinach
    • Watercress

    10. Does diet put women at higher risk for heart disease?

    Diet is the leading cause of heart disease for both men and women. If you are worried about heart disease, there are a few things that you can do to reduce your risk.

    1. Eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day
    2. Eat whole grains
    3. Choose lean healthy protein and cold water fish
    4. Limit high intakes of saturated fats
    5. Choose heart healthy monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats
    6. Avoid trans fats completely
    7. Sodium intake plays a significant role in heart disease, so limiting salt intake and cutting out processed foods that are high in salt can help reduce your risk for heart disease

    11. What role do antioxidants play in the aging process?

    Oxidative stress, caused by free radicals, is thought to contribute to aging. Antioxidants help reduce free radicals in the body. Free radicals are atomic reactions within the mitochondria of cells. These reactions cause damage to the cells. This is oxidative damage. Free radicals are thought to cause inflammation and premature and accelerated aging.

    Foods high in antioxidants have been shown to reduce risks for many age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and others. Our bodies can produce some antioxidants on their own but not in sufficient amounts to keep free radicals in check. This makes it important to eat foods that contain them, especially fresh fruits and vegetables of all colors.

    12. Which foods reduce cancer risk?

    Many of the causes of cancer remain unknown but antioxidants play a role in cancer prevention. 

    Antioxidants are substances in food that provide protection to the body's cells from damage caused by free radicals that can lead to cancer. Numerous studies have shown that when antioxidants interact with free radicals they have the power to prevent some of this damage, thereby possibly reducing risks for the development of cancer.

    Looking for foods high in antioxidants?

    Foods Highest In Antioxidants

    • Purple, red and blue grapes
    • Wild blueberries
    • Cranberries
    • Blackberries
    • Raspberries
    • Strawberries
    • Plums
    • Black plums
    • Prunes
    • Sweet cherries
    • Red delicious, gala and granny smith apples
    • Pecans
    • Small red, kidney and pinto beans
    • Black beans, dried
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Orange vegetables
    • Artichokes, cooked
    • Russet potatoes, cooked

    13. Does diet play a role in stroke risk?

    If you've spent any time reading the information here on the Say No To Stroke website, you know the answer to this one -- Definitely!

    One of the most common age-related diseases and perhaps the most devastating is stroke. A stroke can change the course of your life. But it will also affect everyone around you. Knowing the role that diet plays in reducing your risk for stroke can help you avoid this dangerous medical condition.

    Here's what your diet should include:

    • A variety of vegetables and fruits high in fiber, vitamins and minerals
    • Fish twice each week
    • Unrefined whole grains
    • Avoiding foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol
    • Avoiding refined sugars
    • Limiting salt

    14. Are there key nutrients for aging women?

    Women need to focus on specific nutritional elements because of the risk of certain age-related diseases, eg. osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin D intake is of utmost importance to keep bones strong and reduce risks for osteoporosis. 

    Menopause also presents the need for certain nutrients. While menopausal women need less iron, they need increased vitamin B12 to reduce the risk of becoming anemic. Foods that are high in vitamin B12 include fish, shellfish, fortified cereals, dairy products, and eggs.
    Discuss your body’s changes with your physician to help you identify other nutritional deficiencies you might have after menopause.

    15. Are there key nutrients for aging men?

    Men also need to focus on specific nutritional needs to remain healthy and active. 

    Here is what is recommended for men to enjoy a healthy and active senior life:

    Potassium: Older men need more potassium and need to decrease their salt intake. Potassium rich foods include fruits like bananas, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt.

    Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Men need a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats. At the same time, as they age they need to reduce their fat intake to 20 to 35% of their diet. Try replacing butter with canola or olive oil.

    Be sure to speak with your doctor to determine whether you have other nutritional needs.

    16. Is junk food putting you at risk?

    Maybe, if you're eating it too much and/or too often. Eating “bad foods” occasionally and in moderation may not significantly increase your risk for age-related and diet-related diseases unless you have a pre-existing condition like diabetes or heart disease.

    But what is "moderation", because that is the key. Splurging on occasion and in small amounts allows you to enjoy the occasional indulgence with little risk to your health.

    Alternatively, if you indulge too much or, even worse, all the time, then yes you are most certainly putting yourself at very high risk for various lifestyle diseases, including heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and possibly premature death.

    17. Is a plant diet good for healthy aging?

    Plant diets can be wonderful at any age, but you need to ensure that you get enough protein.

    Plant diets are good for your waistline. They provide you with ample vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The only real concern when eating a plant- based diet is whether you are getting enough protein.

    Essential proteins are proteins that cannot be produced by your body. Most complete essential proteins are found only in meat products. While plants may have a portion of a complete protein on their own, they do not have the entire protein chain. So when eating a plant-based diet, make sure to eat certain foods.

    Plant-based complete proteins:

    • Quinoa
    • Quorn
    • Buckwheat
    • Soy

    Combined Proteins:

    • Beans and rice
    • Ezekiel bread
    • Seitan
    • Hummus and pita
    • Spirulina with grains or nuts

    Assuming that you get your daily allowance of protein, there is no reason not to enjoy a protein based diet.

    18. Can a good diet reduce wrinkles?

    Many foods can help you reduce wrinkles. 

    Keep your face looking younger by eating these foods:

    • Cold water fish for omega-3 fatty acids
    • Fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C which promotes collagen production
    • Drink hot cocoa or eat at least 60% cacao chocolate which contain key antioxidants with anti-aging properties for your skin

    These foods help fight  age-related collagen reduction and elasticity loss.

    19. Are there specific foods for optimal energy as you age?

    Yes. As you get older, your nutritional profile changes. The nutritional needs of a two-year-old are different from that of a 15-year-old. In your 30s you don't need the same number of calories you needed when you were 15. And a 60, 70 or 80-year-old has far different nutritional needs than a 30-year-old.

    Key nutritional staples as you get older:

    • Lots of fruits and vegetables: These are high energy foods that offer you important nutrients to help your body function and perform at its best.
    • Increased protein intake: 15 to 20% of your calories should come from protein. This will help your body repair age related muscle loss.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids: They will help reduce your risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's and other age-related degenerative diseases. Eat oily fish at least twice a week.
    • Calcium and vitamin D: They help maintain strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. You can't absorb calcium without vitamin D, so you need both in adequate amounts. If you are unable to spend time in the sun, you may need a vitamin D supplement. Strong bones will allow you to be more active in your older years.

    20. Are there joint health-friendly foods?

    Yes. Diet can help improve joint health and joint pain. 

    Achy joints seem to come with the territory of aging, don't they? That's partly due to the high prevalence of arthritis. Learning how to fight the aches and pains that can come with aging can help to greatly improve your quality of life.

    Joint pain can be debilitating and lead to inactivity and obesity. It can also have an impact on your mental health. Luckily, diet can help improve joint pain. According to the Arthritis Foundation there are many foods that will help you fight joint inflammation and pain.

    • Turmeric is an all natural anti-inflammatory
    • Cherries have anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to reduce the risk of gout 
    • Fish for omega-3 fatty acids
    • Swap butter for cooking oils high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnut oil

    If you suffer from joint pain due to arthritis, check with the Arthritis Foundation for good information and resources to improve your joint health and mobility.

    21. Are there foods that support bone health?

    Yes, and building bone health as you age, should be a top priority.

    The risk of falls combined with brittle bones caused by osteoporosis can create disaster and lead to hospitalization or worse. Knowing how to support bone health through nutrition is one of the best ways to prevent broken bones and fractures in your golden years.

    The National Osteoporosis Foundation has published a list of  foods that have either calcium or vitamin D to help you build strong,
    healthy bones. Remember that your body needs both calcium and vitamin D to absorb any amount of calcium. Thirty minutes in the sun between the hours of 8 AM and 3 PM will give you enough
    vitamin D, but many of us now wear sunscreen. This blocks our bodies' absorption of vitamin D, so get it from diet with these foods that support bone health...

    • Dairy products: calcium and fortified with vitamin D
    • Deep green vegetables: calcium 
    • Fatty fish like salmon: vitamin D
    • Fortified foods including breakfast cereals, soy milk and juices: calcium and vitamin D

    Be sure to ask your doctor about your vitamin D level, which can be checked with a blood test.

    22. What are the best workout fuel foods for ages 50+?

    It's best to stay active and healthy throughout your life and learning how to properly fuel your workouts in important. If you’ve stayed active and healthy up to age 50, your nutritional profile pre-workout probably won’t change much. You should still eat a small amount of carbohydrates 30 minutes to an hour before your workout.

    The following foods will give you bonus effects such as reducing your risk of heart disease and lowering your LDL-cholesterol. Eating after age 50 is all about reducing the risk of age-related disease, even before a workout.

    • Whole grain oats
    • Bananas
    • Apples
    • Berries
    • Beans

    23. Should you cut back on sugar?

    No matter how old or young you are, you should probably reduce your sugar intake. There are multiple reasons to be concerned about sugar intake. As you get older, age-related disease becomes an increasing concern. Because many of these age-related diseases can be linked to obesity, you should closely monitor your sugar intake.

    The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 150 calories of added sugar each day, and that women eat no more than 100 calories a day.

    Other reasons to limit your sugar intake are that sugar has been linked to inflammation in the body, it may cause heart disease, the risk for type 2 diabetes is increased, and it causes weight gain. Refined sugar is at best a useless food, and at worst a harmful indulgence with zero nutritional value.

    24. Are there ways to make vegetables more enjoyable?

    Fresh vegetables can be delicious. It's often a case of getting yourself accustomed to a vegetable-rich diet and finding the right recipes. 

    If you’re not used to eating a vegetable-rich diet, they can taste bland and flavorless. Incorporating vegetables into your diet may be a slow process at first, but there are things you can do to make them taste better, (without adding a pile of sugar!)...

    • Reduce your sugar and junk intake. High amounts of sugar and fat can make whole food taste flavorless. As you decrease the amount of junk food in your diet, you will begin to appreciate the taste of real food.
    • Roast vegetables with herbs and spices. Steamed bland vegetables tend to be tasteless. Try roasting your vegetables with some extra virgin olive oil and your favorite blend of salt-free spices. That should give you great tasting dishes.
    • Grill them on the barbecue! Barbecued vegetables are amazing, and even better if you marinade them first. You can marinade vegetables just as you would marinade meat. It gives them an amazing flavor, especially after being cooked over an open flame.

    25. What are the best foods to boost immunity?

    Preventing illness is one of the most important things you can do, especially as you age. Proper nutrition is one of the best ways to boost your immune system and build-up your illness protection response.

    Here are some immunity boosting foods:

    • Yogurt contains probiotics which can help natural bacteria in your digestive system helping you fight infection and illness
    • Oats and barley contain beta-glucans that give your body antimicrobial and antioxidant capabilities to help fight off the flu and other commonly contracted illnesses
    • Garlic is one of the best foods for fighting infection and bacteria. Garlic is even known as an anti-parasitic food. For garlic's immune boosting effect, you need to eat one or two whole cloves of fresh raw garlic daily.
    • Tea can help you produce virus-fighting interferon. In a Harvard study people who drank 5 cups of black tea every day for two weeks, had 10 times more interferon in their blood than those who drank a placebo. Amazing that tea can have that much of an effect on your body, isn't it? 

    There are even more foods that will help boost your body's immune system, but following a healthy diet year-round with a high intake of fresh vegetables is your best bet for leading a healthy life.

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