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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Nutrition and Aging


August 28, 2012

By Robin H. Abourizk, M.A., M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Numerous products from lotions and creams to dietary supplements are promoted as ways to prevent or slow down the aging process. Yet there is no hard scientific evidence that any of these items are effective.

Gerontologists (experts in aging) advocate instead that people focus on staying healthy and well so they can enjoy their favorite activities into middle age and beyond. Eating a balanced diet, which supplies all the necessary nutrients for health, is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Here are the key factors that influence your nutritional health as you age.

CALORIE NEEDS

As we get older, our resting metabolic rate declines. This can lead to unwanted weight gain, which can increase your risk for certain chronic diseases. This decrease in metabolic rate is related to the loss of lean body mass as we age. To help lessen this effect:

  • Increase your physical activity so you burn more calories.
  • Begin resistance training to strengthen your muscles and add muscle mass, which raises your metabolic rate.
  • Improve the quality of your diet by including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and nonfat or low-fat dairy.
  • Enjoy your favorite foods in moderation; practice portion control to manage your caloric intake.

PROTEIN

Protein is necessary for tissue growth, repair and maintenance. Despite the need for fewer calories as we age, it's important to eat an adequate amount of protein each day.

  • The average adult needs 45 to 60 grams.
  • Choose high-quality protein foods, like 3 ounces of chicken (21 grams), 8 ounces of nonfat or low-fat milk (8 grams), 1 cup cooked lentils (18 grams).
  • Legumes, eggs, nonfat or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry and lean meat are good choices.

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DENTAL HEALTH

It is estimated that 80% of adult Americans have periodontal disease. Good dental hygiene practices can help prevent it. If left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to problems with your teeth and chewing. As a result, you may avoid foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. To prevent periodontal disease:

  • Have yearly dental exams and cleanings.
  • Brush your teeth after meals or after consuming high sugar foods.
  • Floss on a regular basis.

TASTE

The senses of taste and smell are sometimes dulled by the aging process. Smoking and some medications can also alter your sense of taste. To preserve taste and smell:

  • Stay hydrated; adequate saliva is necessary to fully taste food.
  • Resist overusing the salt shaker.
  • Use herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of food.

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ANTIOXIDANTS

There's no definitive data that antioxidant supplements, like vitamin C or E, can help prevent chronic diseases or delay the aging process. In fact, the known health benefits occur from eating foods rich in antioxidants (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) not from taking supplements. Include more of these in your diet:

  • Almonds
  • Bell peppers (especially red and orange)
  • Blueberries
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes

CALCIUM AND VITAMIN D

The majority of our bodies' calcium is in our bones. This mineral is needed for the proper function of the nervous system, muscle contractions and blood clotting. Adequate calcium intake is crucial for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis; vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium. New evidence indicates that adults need more than the current recommendations, especially those who live in northern climates where there is less sunlight. (The body makes vitamin D from exposure to sunlight.)

  • Dairy foods are still the best source of calcium because the body can easily absorb the calcium in them.
  • Experts debate the optimal amount of calcium for healthy adults. When possible, try to get all your calcium from dietary sources.
  • Vitamin D is not widely found in foods except for fortified dairy products. So you may need to take a supplement.
  • New recommendations for vitamin D intake may be closer to 1,000 international units rather than the current recommendation of 200 to 600 international units depending on age.

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DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS

Health care professionals generally do not recommend dietary supplements unless a person has a vitamin or mineral deficiency or a malabsorption problem. More and more research is showing that food, not pills or commercial drinks, is the best source of nutrients. Keep in mind:

  • With vitamins, more is not always better; a multivitamin and mineral supplement should be be all you need to make up for any shortfalls in your diet.
  • Vitamin D and, in some cases, calcium are the only supplements you need when consuming a healthy diet.
  • There is insufficient evidence to promote antioxidant supplements for health.

WATER

Water is often the forgotten nutrient. But getting enough fluid is needed for almost all bodily functions.

  • Healthy adults need about 1.5 to 2 liters or 48 to 64 ounces of fluid per day.
  • The sensation of thirst decreases as we age, which leaves us vulnerable to dehydration.
  • Focus on fluids that are not diuretics, such as decaffeinated beverages, fruit juices, nonfat or low-fat milk and, of course, water.

When it comes to aging well in terms of nutrition, Hippocrates said it best: "Let food be your medicine."

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Robin H. Abourizk, M.A., M.S., R.D., L.D.N. is the Associate Director of the Dietetic Internship in the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She is a Registered Dietitian and licensed in the state of Massachusetts. She holds masters degrees in Human Development and Gerontology from Saint Joseph College (CT) and in Clinical Nutrition from Boston University.

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