Just over a year ago, I decided I wanted to enjoy a full and active life well into my later years. I soon realised that I’d need to change my ways – big time. More mental and physical activity, more sleep, and most importantly of all, sustain a better and healthier diet.
My nearest and dearest would be quick to tell you that I am no dietary saint. I like my food – and drink! – and I like it exciting, indulgent and always incredibly tasty. But as we approach later life, understanding nutrition becomes ever more important. The good news for us foodies is that we can still indulge – so long as we have a bit more information.
Many of us think that by our mid-fifties the nutritional damage is already done, but as the Harvard professor Frank Hu says, “it’s never too late to make positive lifestyle changes. Even for those who are 70 or older, following a healthy lifestyle such as eating a healthy diet and being physically active can add more years to life.” That’s an encouraging place to start.
Even so, it isn’t simple. Ironically, we may need as many if not more nutrients than when we were younger, though we generally require fewer calories, especially if we move less. As we age, we lose muscle mass and can absorb less calcium – both significant if we are going to stay stable and maintain healthy bones. We also absorb less vitamin B12, essential in making red blood cells and maintaining healthy brain function.
The great news is that, as Dr Hu says, we can do something about all of this. Food can play a crucial part in a balanced, active lifestyle.
Some of us struggle with loss of appetite as we grow older. So, make your meals look eye-catching and colourful. Don’t rely on salt for a flavour boost, but experiment with spices and herbs. You could try eating smaller portions, more often. And get acquainted with healthy, nutrient-rich snacks and foods such as eggs, walnuts, almonds, seeds and dried apricots.
Getting more nutrients from fewer calories means we have to make our food work harder. Eat a variety of unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits, whole-grains, oily fish, lean meats, pulses and some dairy. That does not mean dumping our treats, but just indulging ourselves in moderation.
Protein is key in both maintaining and repairing muscle. Consider turkey and chicken (both with the skin off), fish and lean meat (but limit red meat to one or two days per week). We can get great protein from pulses like lentils, beans and tofu, which are delicious mixed with other foods. Some plant-based sources have added benefits such as a good fibre, vitamin and mineral content.
Sensationalist headlines often scare us off from fats or carbs – but both are essential to our well-being. The same with cholesterol – eggs, for example, are nutritional superheroes, packed full of nutrients for a healthy life.
Being aware of the effects of ageing on our nutritional needs helps us make better and more informed decisions about our individual diet and lifestyle. It’s not about self-denial but trying to maintain a healthy balance and enjoy our treats in moderation. It most certainly doesn’t mean we need to punish ourselves with bland and downright boring grub. Food can and should be bold, unapologetic and a feast for our eyes. Tuck in!