Nutrients everyone over 50 should consider adding to their diets
A healthy diet is important at any age, but it’s especially important at transitional periods in our lives. Newborns need extra fats to support brain development, kids need protein to build muscle mass, and young adults that stick to high-nutrient foods may find it easier to juggle the many stresses of their early careers. But what about the over-50 crowd? If we’ve settled into diets that served us well throughout our middle years, is there any reason to make changes now?
The short answer is yes. Decreasing bone and muscle mass, an increased risk of chronic conditions and changes in metabolism that translate to decreased calorie requirements are all part of the picture of aging. Yet what we eat today does not have to be radically different from what we ate when we were younger. What’s most important is making informed choices that allow us to optimize our internal engines.
Eat a rainbow
Raya Ioffe, a functional nutrition and lifestyle practitioner based in Latham, offers some simple advice: “The more colorful we can make our plates and the more variety, the better.” Ioffe notes that the colors of plant-based foods offer a key to the types of nutrients they contain.
In particular, she’s talking about phytonutrients: substances that plants use to protect themselves from environmental hazards. These can stabilize the free radicals formed by stressful conditions, and when consumed they can offer the same kinds of protections to us.
One example is lycopene, a carotenoid that gives tomatoes their red color and offers cardiovascular benefits and cancer-fighting properties. Orange foods like carrots contain alpha- and beta-carotene that can be converted into vitamin A for immune system support. Leafy greens such as spinach and kale also contain carotenoids that may help protect from cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
This is just scratching the surface. There are literally thousands of phytonutrient types, and antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other beneficial properties are evident in the handful that have so far been isolated and studied. Sources like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suggest eating aiming for one daily serving from each color group, while Healthline suggests incorporating two or three different colors at each meal. Ioffe doesn’t have a specific formula, but says that it’s important to add variety if possible. The general advice from all corners is “eat a rainbow.”
Find what works for you
It’s not surprising that the immune system stars of the plant world are beneficial for human health: Ioffe says that 75% of our own immune systems reside in and around the gut. Cleaning the gut, she says, is the place to start addressing immune problems, for which she takes a very individualized approach when working with clients.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” she stresses. While nutritional advice is often framed in general terms, it’s important to note that different people process foods differently. Those leafy greens might not be right for someone with digestive issues, for example. Some people will digest cooked foods more easily than raw foods, even though interest in the latter has garnered quite the following.
Schenectady-based health coach and certified Whole30 coach Laura Gregg also stresses the importance of taking an individualized approach—one that draws upon an awareness of what is and isn’t good for you, in contrast to the typical fad-diet promise of permission to eat whatever you want as long as it lines up with prescribed numbers.
Focus on protein
Gregg is an advocate of setting targets for protein intake that might seem quite high, for a good reason. “People in this country massively under-eat protein. And there’s nobody who needs protein more than the aging population,” she says, noting the hormonal changes that begin to break down muscle and the increased danger of falling. “Bone is simply mineralized protein. Muscle is protein. If you want to be strong and healthy, you have to eat protein.”
What works for Gregg is a low-carbohydrate, meat-centric diet. She thinks of fruits as meant to be enjoyed seasonally and she’s not a big fan of vegetables, citing their relatively low nutrient density compared to animal-based sources. “I know this sounds crazy,” she says. “But I’ve lived it.” She and her husband, she says, are thriving in their 40s on a diet that is 90% meat.
Gregg calculates individual protein targets by first determining an appropriate body mass, then aiming for daily consumption of one gram of protein per pound of body weight. For example, if you’re aiming to weigh 150 pounds, you should be eating 150 grams of protein every day; since protein has 4 calories per gram, that translates to 600 calories coming from protein. That could include choices like bacon and eggs for breakfast, salmon or tuna for lunch, a snack of sardines and a lean cut of steak for dinner.
What about cholesterol?
Despite their varying approaches, neither nutritionist is overly worried about the body’s ability to handle cholesterol. “Cholesterol is not our enemy,” says Ioffe, noting that healthy levels are used to synthesize vitamin D and build cell membranes and hormones. In the absence of underlying pathology, Gregg adds, cholesterol coming from natural, unprocessed food sources “is going to sort itself out.”
When it comes to eating eggs, both nutritionists are pro. Ioffe calls them a “perfect, complete food,” containing all the nutrients needed for starting a new life. Some of the same antioxidants and vitamins found in leafy greens are found in egg yolks, which also contain healthy fats that help our bodies to absorb those additional nutrients. Ioffe avoids eggs herself, because they trigger her immune system—underscoring again the importance of an individualized approach. Gregg, who avoids seed oils (including most vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn and canola) and recommends that all fats come from animal-based sources, says she eats seven to 10 eggs per day.
The big picture
Perhaps most importantly, both nutritionists strive for a holistic view that considers the interaction of all our internal systems. “None of these systems are separate within our body,” says Gregg. “Everything is connected. Nothing works in isolation,” Ioffe agrees.
Both also avoid processed foods. “Don’t eat things that come out of bags and boxes and factories,” Gregg says. “If nature didn’t make it, then don’t think you should be eating it.” Ioffe follows the tried-and-true advice to “shop the perimeter” at the grocery store—the produce section, nuts and seeds, fresh meats and fish. “If it has artificial anything in it, it’s an automatic ‘no’ for me,” she says.
“I don’t just look at what we eat. I look at what the body can do with what we’re eating,” Ioffe adds. “We want the body to be in a state where it’s working at its optimum. Not just surviving, but thriving.”
The experts choose: Top 5
- Pasture-raised beef
- Organ meats, such as liver
- Animal-based fats, such as butter, ghee, tallow and bacon fat
- Leafy greens, like kale
- Nuts and seeds
- Berries, for their antioxidant properties
- Avoid processed foods, sugar, dairy and grains in general, for an anti-inflammatory diet focus
• Laura Gregg, Certified Whole30 coach based in Schenectady
• Raya Ioffe, Functional nutritionist based in Latham
(518) 229-3033 | rayawellness.com
Both Ioffe and Gregg have offered classes through Honest Weight Food Co-op.