We’ve all heard the old saying, “You are what you eat,” but the more accurate saying might be, “You are what you digest!” As we enter the new year, a lot of us are thinking about making changes in our food and beverage choices to achieve a healthier eating pattern — a framework that lets you enjoy food that meets your personal preferences while being more mindful of what you’re putting into your body, and how it fuels your activities.
The benefits of healthy eating as you age
Healthy eating is important at any age, and becomes even more so as we reach midlife and beyond. Every year over the age of 40, our metabolism slows, and often we become less physically active. As well as keeping your body healthy, eating well plays a large part in keeping a positive outlook and staying emotionally balanced. Healthy eating is not about dieting and sacrifice, but about enjoying fresh, wholesome ingredients, and eating in the company of friends and family.
Mindful, healthy eating now can help you:
Feel better. Wholesome meals can give you more energy resulting in a boost to your mood and self-esteem. It’s all connected—when your body feels good, you feel happier inside and out.
Live longer and stronger. Good nutrition can boost immunity, fight illness-causing toxins, keep weight in check, and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, bone loss, and cancer.
Sharpen your mind. People who eat fruit, leafy veggies, and fish and nuts packed with omega-3 fatty acids may be able to improve focus and decrease their risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Antioxidant-rich green tea may also enhance memory and mental alertness.
It’s important to think about how you feel after you eat. Do you feel sluggish and bloated, or energized and light? This is where the mindfulness of eating comes into play.
How to create a healthy diet
The key to healthy eating is to focus on the whole, minimally processed food that your body needs—food that is as close to its natural form as possible.
Vary your sources of protein. As you age, eating enough high-quality protein can improve your mood, boost your resistance to stress, anxiety, and depression, and even help you think more clearly. However, eating too much protein from processed meat products such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami may increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other health problems. Vary your sources of protein by including fish, beans, peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds in your diet.
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Break the apple and banana rut and include berries or melons. Aim for 2-3 servings a day. When it comes to veggies, choose antioxidant-rich dark, leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli as well as colorful vegetables such as carrots and squash. Try for 2-3 cups every day.
Choose calcium for bone health. Maintaining bone health as you age depends on adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. Good sources include milk, yogurt, cheese or non-dairy sources such as tofu, broccoli, almonds, and kale.
Go “good fat” not “no fat”. Rather than trying to cut out fat from your diet, focus on enjoying healthy fats—such as omega-3s—that can protect your body against disease and support your mood and brain function. This includes avocados, salmon and nuts.
Eat more fiber. Dietary fiber can do so much more than keep you regular. It can lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improve the health of your skin, and help you to lose weight. As you age, your digestion becomes less efficient, so it’s important to include enough fiber in your diet.
Be smart about carbs. Choose whole grains over processed white flour for more nutrients and fiber. While our senses of taste and smell diminish with age, we retain the ability to distinguish sweet tastes the longest, leading many older people to consume more sugar and refined carbs than is healthy. Unlike complex carbs that are rich in fiber, refined or simple carbs (such as white rice, white flour, refined sugar) can lead to a dramatic spike in blood sugar, followed by a rapid crash which leaves you feeling hungry and prone to overeating.
Water. As you age, you may be more prone to dehydration because your sense of thirst is not as sharp. Remember to sip water regularly to avoid urinary tract infections, constipation, and even confusion.
Vitamin B. After the age of 50, your stomach produces less gastric acid making it harder to absorb vitamin B-12—needed to help keep blood and nerves healthy. Get the recommended daily intake (2.4 mcg) of B12 from fortified foods or a vitamin supplement.
Vitamin D. With age, your skin is less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D, so consult your doctor about supplementing your diet with fortified foods or a multivitamin, especially if you’re obese or have limited sun exposure.
Commit to keeping an open mind
Just because a food is healthy, it doesn’t mean it can’t be tasty as well. Try new foods with an open mind and you might surprise yourself.
Don’t change everything all at once
Add a side salad to your normal dinner, or substitute unhealthy fries with baked sweet potato fries, or have a smaller portion of dessert and fill up with melon and pineapple slices. You don’t have to change your entire lifestyle at once, easing into things will make it a habit you’re more likely to stick with.
Focus on how you feel after eating well
By being mindful of how you feel after you eat, you’ll begin to foster new habits and tastes. The healthier food you eat, the better you’ll feel afterwards. Eventually, your body will stop craving sugary foods that make you crash, and crave balanced, natural foods that fuel your body properly.
Keep your eye on the prize
Most of us know what’s good for us and what’s not so good for us. A lot of times it’s the temptation or falling out of a routine that stalls us. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer tips to keep top of mind as you embark on healthier eating path to make it easier to break down- or digest- the concepts.
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats, and reduce sodium intake.
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
- Support healthy eating patterns for all. If someone you know is working hard to change their eating or drinking patterns, encourage them and perhaps even change your habits in their presence. The buddy system can help you stay on track!
Healthy eating is about more than just the food we eat, it’s also about mindfulness — how we feel after we eat — either energized or sluggish. By paying attention to how connected our stomach is to our brain, our bodies and our outlook on life, through small changes each day, we can reach our health goals in this new year.