With age comes a variety of health problems, some of which can be avoided or minimized by certain lifestyle changes, like embracing a healthy diet. The food we eat is the fuel for our bodies. It also has a significant impact on our risk of disease development and disease management.
Most experts agree that our diets should be rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and nuts and low in processed foods and refined carbohydrates. The amount of food we eat is also important. Watching our total caloric intake and keeping an eye on portion control can help us to maintain our proper weight (for height and age) and to avoid weight gain. (Click here to view standard Body Mass Index information at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s website.)
What to Include in Your Diet
- Whole grains: Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and whole oats are rich in fiber. A diet containing whole grains can help prevent and manage diabetes. It can also help promote regularity.
- Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables, in addition to having fiber, are often rich in vitamins and minerals that have important health benefits. For example, dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach contain calcium needed for bone mass, and the beta-carotenes and vitamin C found in peppers and cantaloupe can help fight certain eye diseases like macular degeneration. Certain fruits and vegetables also contain antioxidants, substances that help fight damaging free radicals in our bodies, which can help prevent a variety of problems from certain cancers to aging skin. Examples of antioxidants are the anthocyanins found in blackberries and blueberries and the lycopene found in tomatoes.
- Lean proteins: Protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass. Examples of lean proteins are fish and legumes. Fatty fish such as salmon or tuna have the added benefit of containing omega-3 fatty acids, which have a protective effect against heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. Legumes such as beans and lentils are fiber-rich, low-fat, and an inexpensive source of lean protein.
- Low-fat dairy/calcium-fortified dairy substitutes: Low-fat dairy products such as skim milk or low-fat yogurt contain calcium and vitamin D, which is important in preventing bone loss or osteoporosis. If you cannot eat dairy, look for alternatives such as calcium-fortified almond or soy milk.
- Nuts: While nuts have a relatively high fat content, the fats they contain—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—are the healthy kinds of fats. Nuts are also high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber, among other nutrients, and have been linked with a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. It is important to bear in mind that nuts are high in calories and some nuts come prepared with added sugar and salt, all of which can counteract the positive health benefits.
What to Avoid
- High-sugar/processed foods: Foods high in sugar can raise your blood glucose levels, leading to an increased risk of diabetes and weight gain.
- High-fat foods: Foods high in saturated and trans fats increase your risk of heart disease and stroke by contributing to the build-up of plaques in the arteries of the heart and brain in addition to other places like our legs, resulting in peripheral artery disease.
- High-salt foods: High salt consumption has been linked with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and kidney disease. In addition to watching the salt that you cook with or season your food with, it is important to check food labels for sodium content.
Originally published in February 2016 and updated.