Nutrition’s Role in Functional Aging

Nutrition. What is it? It is nourishment for our bodies and we obtain it from the food that we eat and it is critical for our health.  However, do you give it enough thought?  I’m pretty sure we all think about Food; how it tastes and what we like to eat, but I’m afraid that way too often we don’t think about the nutrients that our food supplies us (or not).  Our bodies are amazing and they can survive on pretty much anything we feed them, but can they Thrive?  Sadly, most individuals don’t think about their Health until their Health forces them to think about it. Now is the time.  Now is when we should be focused on what we are feeding our bodies, what we are giving our bodies as nourishment to Thrive, not just Survive.  Don’t wait until something goes wrong – do it Now.

What do our bodies need?  Food with nutrients: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, phytonutrients, omega 3 fatty acids, and fiber.  These are substances that our bodies need to thrive, not just survive.  We find these nutrients in vegetables, fruit, unbroken whole grains, healthy fat from whole food sources and lean protein (animal & plant-based).  We should base our diet (the way we eat) on these whole foods. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is an across-the-board great dietary habit to get into since produce is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. The more colorful the better; Think dark green, orange, purple, yellow and red.

When it comes to your food, keep your food choices as close to their natural state as possible. For example: a  baked white potato has excellent nutrition while deep fat fried French fries are not such a great choice. Both choices are indeed potatoes, but the nutrition is vastly different.  French fries are an example of a treat food, not a regular staple of our diet.

Throughout life, we need to have a good foundation of nutrient dense foods in our diet. As we age (& especially if we want to age well) our nutrition needs are even more important and there are some specific nutrients we should be mindful of to keep our bodies thriving.  We are all aging every single day.  These guidelines are for everyone, but are especially critical after age 50 when bone density and muscle fiber density and strength decrease dramatically and we need to take extra effort with nutrition and exercise to push against the tide.

Calcium

We must get enough dietary calcium to maintain bone health as well as our muscles, nerves, heart, and blood clotting.  Low calcium levels cause bone to break down; post-menopausal women are at greatest risk and that risk increases 5 years after menopause.  In general: Women 50+ need 1200 mg/day; Men up to age 70 need 1000 mg/day; Men over 70 need 1200 mg/day.

Vitamin D enhances calcium absorption and supports bone health. As we age, we lose the ability to synthesize Vitamin D and we often need to supplement; ask your doctor to routinely screen your Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D-rich foods:  Oily fish (trout, salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, halibut, swordfish). Portabella mushrooms. Cod liver oil. Beef liver. Hard-boiled eggs (the D is in the yolks).  Oily fish is also rich in very beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids.

Dietary calcium, what are the richest sources?  Low fat dairy products (milk, cheese, Greek yogurt).  Beans (white beans & black-eyed peas are the richest sources). Dark Leafy greens.

The vegetables with the highest amount of calcium: Collard greens; Kale; Turnip greens; Mustard greens; Spinach; Okra; Sun-dried Tomatoes; Bok Choy; Broccoli Rabe; Beet greens. Other foods rich in calcium: canned salmon (be sure to eat the bones); almonds; dried figs; oranges; tangerines; kiwi; rhubarb; dried apricots; dates; prunes; kumquats; mulberries; seaweed; sesame seeds;  black-strap molasses.

Don’t depend on calcium supplements which may not be well-absorbed by your body. Instead:  incorporate more of these foods that are rich in Calcium and Vitamin D to your daily diet.

Protein

Protein is present in every cell of the body and is needed to perform a variety of functions from muscle repair to immune function to fluid balance.  Our bodies don’t store or manufacture the protein we need, so we must get it from the food we eat. Older adults have an increased need for protein to improve bone health, strength, function and muscle mass – all of which decline with age. In general, older adults need between 1 – 1.5 g per 1 kg of body weight.  To keep it simple: 100 lbs. of bodyweight = 50 – 75 grams of protein. Protein is found in a variety of animal and plant based foods; ensuring you are getting in a good amount of protein isn’t difficult.  Aim to have protein with each meal and snack.

Hydration

Older adults have lower sensitivity to dehydration due to a lower thirst sensation which in turn decreases kidney function.  Being mindful and staying on top of your water intake is vitally important. Get in the habit of drinking water throughout the day and take care to drink more water if outdoors or in a hot environment.  Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink water – get in the habit of keeping a tumbler of water with you at all times and drink regularly throughout the day.  Making water your primary beverage at meals is another way to ensure better hydration levels.   Water means water.  Since thirst sensation is low and kidney function may be impaired due to lower levels of hydration, don’t fill up on beverages that are not beneficial to your hydration.  In general, adults over 50 should aim for 3 liters per day.  A liter of water is 4 1/4 cups.   To make it easy, purchase a 32 oz. insulated tumbler and strive to drink 3 of those each day.   If you want some flavored water, try adding slices of citrus fruit, strawberries, cherries, cucumber or fresh mint leaves to your tumbler of water.

As always, if you have a chronic medical condition or are on prescription medications, consult with your physician about your specific dietary needs and/or ask for a referral to a registered dietician.

Stay Healthy. Be STRONG.  Get After It.

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