To help age well and maintain vitality, getting the right nutrition should be a top priority. Our need for nutrients changes as our bodies do, underscoring the importance of healthy eating to live our best lives.
“Good nutrition becomes even more important in our later years than it was in our 30s and 40s,” explains Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based dietitian in private practice. “So many chronic health problems are related to what we eat and maintaining energy, but eating well is not just about avoiding or treating them. Eating well throughout the day is also about maintaining energy and our ability to function. It has an impact on mood, too. If blood sugar levels are low, your stress hormones are higher. And if you’re being told it’s important to exercise regularly, you need to fuel yourself up and have the energy to be active.”
The research is clear, she explains. If you’re making good food choices, you’ll feel more energetic and stimulate your metabolism, meaning you’ll be hungry when it’s appropriate. When you’re not eating well or regularly, you may feel tired.
It may require a shift in attitude. The focus for many older people has been what not to eat, instead of what they should eat. “People have looked more at all the foods they’re supposed to cut out of their diet whether it’s sugar to manage diabetes, fat intake to control cholesterol or sodium to address high blood pressure,” says Schwartz. “We’ve become more accustomed to eliminating foods as opposed to adding foods.”
Eating adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables daily is just one recommendation of the new Canada Food Guide, updated in January 2019. It pays off according to Healthy Aging in Canada: A New Vision, A Vital Investment,1 a nation-wide background paper published in 2006 by the Public Health Agency of Canada.The report revealed 62 per cent of older adults who reported consuming fruits and vegetables at least five times a day were in good health, compared with 52 per cent who consumed less.
Nutrient-dense foods should be the cornerstone in the diet of older people. That includes upping the intake of protein and letting go of the traditional way North Americans eat – consuming the majority of their protein during their evening meal. “All the research is pointing to adding more protein, especially starting at breakfast, and throughout the day,” she says.
“People are realizing that enough good-quality protein in your diet will help you keep the muscle you have and keep you independent for as long as you need to be,” says Heather Keller, a registered dietitian and research chair, Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging. “The new thinking is focusing on better quality nutrition and not just calories.”
With aging, there’s a gradual loss of muscle and sometimes bone mass as well. The metabolic need for calories may decrease, so we need to pack as much nutrition in every calorie we consume, according to Keller. Research has shown that a nutrient-rich diet with sufficient amounts of good-quality protein – that which includes all essential amino acids – will help maintain our health longer as we grow older.
While there is no magic bullet to halt the aging process, Keller notes that the latest
studies underscore the vital part good nutrition plays. “While I say we can’t totally retard the hormonal changes in the body behind the aging process, we know that eating well and exercise could slow it down.”
Poor nutrition may mean an increased risk of health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes among older individuals. It’s also tied to mental health. People who eat well have a better mood and tend to have fewer issues with depression. “Nutrition risk does predict health outcomes that we’re concerned about,” Keller notes.
That underscores the need for increased education and screening for nutrition risk in an aging population. It’s a key focus of Keller’s work. She has been developing tools to help healthcare professionals identify older adults who are malnourished or at nutrition risk. The results can flag potential problems. “It helps them to think about how to make some changes,” she says.
“When you exercise, eat well and sleep well, and pay attention to those habits, you can really impact your health.” – Heather Keller, registered dietitian
Living dynamically in later years is within reach when the body and mind is fueled by good nutrition. It’s an empowering goal worth adopting. As Keller explains, “When you exercise, eat well and sleep well, and pay attention to those habits, you can really impact your health. The reward is a sense of well-being.”
Her views were echoed in the Healthy Aging in Canada report.1 It identified healthy eating as one of the five key pillars for ensuring continued vitality later in life and it noted: “Today, older Canadians are living longer and with fewer disabilities than the generations before them.” That’s good news well worth celebrating.
Independently produced by YouAreUNLTD with support from Nestlé Health Sciences.
- Healthy Aging in Canada: A New Vision, A Vital Investment, published by the Public Health Agency of Canada, September 2006. Retrieved from http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/seniors-aines/alt-formats/pdf/publications/public/healthy-sante/vision/vision-eng.pdf [Accessed August 14, 2019.]