Nutrition & Aging
By Chris Zinn
It’s not uncommon for people to live to 90, 95, or 100 years old nowadays. People are living longer, that’s for sure… but are they living better? Is the quality of those extra years improving as well?
Medicine has advanced quite a bit and can keep you alive longer, but without proper nutrition, you’ll most likely end up increasing the quantity of years you live rather than the quality.
Nutrition becomes increasingly important as we age and can be very impactful on our health. This also means it’s harder to get away with some of the things you may have as a kid, like eating chocolate cake for a week straight. As a 15-year-old that was no problem, just added fuel to the fire and energy for you to burn. As an adult, you’ll probably find that that chocolate cake sticks around a little bit longer than you’d like.
As you age, your body goes through many changes, some controllable and some uncontrollable. But with proper nutrition, you can do everything in your power to keep what you can control, under control.
"Old age" is just an accumulation of bad habits
Yes, change is inevitable and bound to happen. Everyone gets old someday. Eventually, your body will experience a loss of strength and mobility, a decrease in immunity, a need for less energy input to operate the same way, and a decrease in metabolism.
Not to get overly existential on you, but these are all things that will eventually happen.
But here’s the good news.
How and when these things happen is highly influenced by the lifestyle we choose to live.
A big part of “aging” (or at least, the physical effects associated with aging) is actually just an accumulation of bad habits that persisted over a long period of time.
That bad knee that has become weaker and more painful? It's likely a result of a decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentary activity causing the muscles around the knee to atrophy and become weak.
That unwanted body fat? It's probably a result of that sweet tooth of yours that always wanted more dessert.
A majority of the time, these seemingly inevitable problems could be delayed or prevented entirely with the right diet and exercise.
I’ll leave the exercise portion of this explanation to David, but let’s explore a little more and see how we can utilize proper nutrition to live longer and healthier lives.
Control what you can
The best thing you can do is to control what you can control, and don’t worry about the rest. That leads to the question, what sort of things can you control?
Things you can control are things such as:
Nutrition and lifestyle
People you surround yourself with
Dynamic environment (e.g., cleanliness of the home, how often you're outdoors)
Vs. things you can’t control such as:
Fixed environment (e.g., pollution, other people's actions)
If you are genetically predisposed to a certain disease or condition the best thing to do instead of increasing your stress levels and worrying about it too much, is to get everything you can control in line to limit the likelihood of that genetic predisposition arising.
In the case of nutrition, this means getting enough nutrients, limiting harmful fats and sugars, and getting enough rest and water.
A good example of this would be developing arthritis as you age and managing what you can control with diet. In this case, eating a diet that is high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids will help limit the amount of inflammation that occurs. If you were to eat food that contains pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, you would most likely be doing more harm than good.
As you age, nutrition becomes increasingly important
It’s harder to get away with eating cake often as you get older because when you age, your body requires less energy input, but more nutrient input.
We’ve talked about the concept of nutrient density in previous blogs, but the general idea is this: Nutrient density = the number of beneficial nutrients in a food product in proportion to the volume of that food.
In other words, a nutrient-dense food contains lots of beneficial nutrients without containing an excessive amount of calories. This is opposed to energy-dense foods, which contain a lot of calories, but not so many nutrients.
Due to the natural attrition of certain body tissues and structures as you age, nutrient intake becomes increasingly important, and supplementing appropriately enters the picture as well.
So, let’s say at 25 you could eat 2600 calories and maintain a healthy weight and a certain amount of nutrients. At 65, you might only need 1900 calories to sustain a healthy weight and bodily functions, but the amount of nutrients is the same or even higher than it was when you were 25.
This means the nutrient density of your daily caloric intake increases, and you’ll need to start eating more vegetables and less junk to achieve that required nutrient density.
If you haven’t been a big water drinker, it’s time to become one. As you age, dehydration can worsen bowel movements, increase infection, thicken mucus which can aggravate lung conditions, and reduce mental performance and promote fatigue.
Ensuring your water intake is high enough will be key in making sure you don’t make any existing conditions worse, and that you keep your body moving and functioning well.
Vitamins & minerals
Like I mentioned earlier, nutrient density becomes paramount in your diet. As you age, some vitamins may be absorbed less efficiently, so making sure your diet is balanced, includes colorful fruits and vegetables, and limits junk food is key.
Some vitamins that may require supplementation or special attention are:
Now you may be thinking, “I’m not buying one of those weekly pill dividers because I will feel older just from doing that!” I understand.
That’s why a diet with plenty of variety in fruits and vegetables, proteins, carbs, and fats is beneficial. You should be able to get most, if not all of that stuff on a proper diet.
If not, taking a simple multivitamin can be a good alternative.
Protein, carbohydrate, & fat
The body changes the operating manual as it ages. This means you might not process certain macronutrients as well as you used to, or maybe you have developed allergies to something you were never allergic to before.
One example of that is “anabolic resistance” which is just a fancy term for saying your body doesn’t build protein as well as it used to. This means you may need more protein to do the same job.
Fiber - a form of carbohydrate - is important in regulating digestion and bowel movements, so ensuring you are getting enough fiber will keep your intestinal tract happy.
There are certainly some fats that you want to avoid, but there are also some essential fats. They play a big role in inflammation in the body so making sure that you are eating the right kind of fats is important. Getting good quality omega-3s and omega-6s while limiting trans fats is a good place to start.
Overall, think about consuming a colorful, balanced, whole foods diet. Prioritize nutrient-dense foods first, but don’t be militant about removing all treats; pleasure is important too!
How to adjust
So, how can you adjust to get this new and healthier version of yourself?
Here are a few tips:
Eat healthy, balanced meals
Eating healthy and balanced meals means you are getting enough of the right nutrients. For example, enough protein in your diet will help preserve lean mass. Enough antioxidants will help to fight disease.
Get to and maintain a healthy weight
It’s important to hit the sweet spot here. Notice how I said a “healthy weight” and not skinny. That’s because being overweight can be harmful, but being underweight can be just as dangerous. As the chance for disease increases as you age, it’s good to have some fat on your body to protect you from any form of wasting disease.
Drop the bad habits
Sometimes the best addition you can make to a healthy lifestyle is the subtraction of something else. Easier said than done, I know, but try to quit smoking if you are a smoker and eliminate or moderate alcohol. Those are two of the biggest forms of stressors to the body that don’t pair well with old age.
If nothing else, remember that the best thing you can do is to add some healthy things and try to eliminate some unhealthy things to get to a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
Adding more nutrient-dense foods, more water, or more protein to your diet can be major contributors to a healthier you as you age.
On top of that, subtracting some bad habits that you know aren't helping you live your best life will give you the best chance at improving the quality and quantity of your life.
Most importantly - be aware that the quality of your nutrition can and will affect the quality of your aging. So, make the changes that you need to now to eat a more balanced and healthy diet, and you will support your body for healthy aging!
Want to find out more about how to craft an approach to eating that will fit in with your needs, goals, and lifestyle? You can get started today working with Med Gym's own Certified Nutrition Coach, Chris Zinn, in our Nutrition Coaching Program! If you've tried diet after diet and struggled to reach your goals, nutrition coaching may be the answer you need. Working with a qualified nutrition coach to craft and stick to the plan that is the right fit for you can be game-changing! Contact us here to learn more about nutrition coaching and how you can get started.