Do you hear the word “diet” and cower in the corner? You’re not alone.
“No matter your age, it’s never too late to start making better nutritional choices,” says Dr. Ellen Britt, PA, Ed.D., a Georgia-based intermittent fasting coach and consultant. “Eating healthy, nutritionally dense foods [...] can help you keep your weight under control, provide valuable vitamins and phytonutrients and strengthen your immune system.”
Healthy eating has many benefits
There are lots of benefits for seniors to eat healthfully, including a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, according to the National Institute on Aging.¹ Unfortunately, many seniors have the mistaken idea that they can’t eat healthy unless they spend a lot of money. People on a limited income sometimes have to cut corners, and may think that one way may be to cut back on healthy food. Fresh vegetables are often inexpensive and can keep them feeling great and active.
Start with more greens and lean protein
Another common stumbling block to avoiding healthy eating? People often just don’t know where to start, but it’s much easier than you think. “Healthy eating involves making sure you’re focusing on real and whole foods, and less processed foods,” says Laura Ligos, MBA, RDN, CSSD, founder of The Sassy Dietitian. “By focusing on real food, we can ensure that we feel our best, maintain our energy, improve sleep and ward off progressive chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, dementia and more.”
Of course, there are some basic building blocks of healthy eating: getting in your lean protein (like lean meats, seafood and eggs), lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains (like brown rice and whole wheat pasta), low-fat dairy products and staying hydrated throughout the day. There are countless ways to add good food to your diet. Choose the healthy food that you enjoy the most, and you will soon find the healthy eating has become your way of life.
Eating well may help so many aspects of your life, including hearing. And you can make eating healthier easy, enjoyable and fun! Here are six specific ways people can improve their diet, starting in their own kitchens:
“What should I eat to lower my cholesterol?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 43 million Americans take medication to lower their cholesterol. However, when people reach age 75, doctors are on the lookout for negative medicine interactions and often look to scale back on the cholesterol medication.²
The alternative? Controlling your cholesterol through some dietary changes. The easiest way to do this is by eating your Cheerios™. A bowl of whole-oat cereal each morning can give you almost half of your total daily needs for soluble fiber.
Beans are another good source of fiber to cut your cholesterol. The body takes a long time to digest legumes, so eating them can make you feel fuller for longer—a great choice if you’re dieting, as well. Lastly, you can add nuts to your snack list each week. A handful of almonds or peanuts each day can lower your “bad cholesterol” by 5 percent.
“One of the best things you can do to help lower cholesterol is to add more plant-based meals to your diet, and reduce your intake of meat and dairy products,” Britt says. “Cooking several plant-based meals a week is fun and enjoyable. There are tons of recipes on the web you can use which you can find by searching for ‘easy plant-based recipes’ as a start.”
“What should I eat if I want to cut sugar?”
The CDC reports almost 32 million people in the US have diabetes and need to get their sugar intake under control.³ The quickest way to do this? Start reading labels.
It’s no surprise that most processed foods contain hidden sugars. So, the best foods to add to your menu include fresh produce, which of course isn’t highly refined or processed. This means lots of fruits, vegetables and fish. “Sugar is hidden in everything these days so you might be surprised where you find it,” Ligos says.
Britt says that the main stumbling block with cutting out sugars is that “humans are hardwired to love foods that taste sweet,” she says. “The problem is that many of us satisfy our sweet tooth with products such as candy, cakes and pastries that contain a lot of refined sugar, or even worse, high-fructose corn syrup. The solution to this is to replace refined sugars with natural sugars from whole fruits, such as oranges, apples and berries.”
But be careful. Going cold turkey with sugar can actually leave you feeling drained experiencing sugar withdrawal symptoms. Instead, slowly taper off. If you feel like your food tastes a little bland, consider adding spices, which can help when you’re missing sugars.
“The good news is that reducing sugar can help stabilize your blood sugar and reduce the risk of developing diabetes,” Ligos says. Make sourcing fresh produce fun by picking your own blueberries at a local farm or trying farm-to-table dining.
“What should I eat if I want to cut salt or sodium?”
Here’s a really scary statistic: Most Americans (90%) start consuming too much sodium each day from age 2.4 This constant salt intake can eventually lead to heart disease and high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke. “Reducing salt intake along with other diet and lifestyle factors can help to improve blood pressure,” Ligos says.
Here again, the best thing to do with your diet is to eliminate processed foods right off the bat. Processed meats such as bacon, ham and hot dogs contain huge amounts of sodium. Instead, choose fresh meats, which will have a little sodium, but not a lot. “Nearly all highly processed foods, even if they don’t taste salty, contain high levels of sodium,” Britt says.
Also, cut out the “quick-and-easy” boxed meals, another huge source of hidden sodium. If you use canned vegetables, rinse them to help remove some of the added salt. If you cook with broth, use lower-sodium options. “Skip out on packaged goods as much as possible and go for the fresh or frozen varieties of fruits, vegetables, starches, meat and fish,” Ligos says. “Try making new recipes from scratch! You have far more control of the salt that goes on your food than if you buy it already made.”
Finally, cutting back on sodium can make the food seem unseasoned and plain. Combat this problem by adding fresh garlic and onions to your recipes. Britt also recommends that “instead of mindlessly salting your food, experiment with adding new spices to your foods to bring out the flavor, including a squirt of fresh lemon or lime juice,” she says.
“What should I eat to add more healthy grains to my diet?”
The Whole Grains Council touts studies that say eating more whole-grains can alleviate problems from obesity to depression to eliminating an unhealthy gut microbiome. It should be no surprise that this diet option is growing by leaps and bounds.
If you want to cut out processed grains, look for whole-grain options for foods you already eat. Switch out your processed white rice for brown rice, and your pastas for whole-grain pasta. You can get a little more daring, and try some tasty “ancient” grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, millet and farro.
Britt also recommends looking for a good-quality, whole-grain sprouted bread at your grocery store. “Many of the larger grocery chains now have their own bakeries and make organic whole-grain loaves without any added sugars or preservatives,” she says.
“How can I add more fruits and greens to my diet?”
If the thought of eating bland steamed broccoli or cauliflower at every meal leaves you cold, try something a little more fun. “Instead of buying packaged snacks like crackers and cookies, swap those for things like bananas and peanut butter or sliced vegetables and hummus,” Ligos says.
Smoothies are another easy way to consume more servings of fruits and vegetables as you go about your day. Blend up your favorite fruits such as bananas, strawberries and mangoes as well as unusual items such as acai.
But smoothies aren’t just fruits. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and kale can also round out a smoothie recipe. (If you want some extra protein, throw in some nuts, nut butters or almond milk—along with crushed ice.)
Another great idea? Make yourself a weekly “Buddha bowl,” one of Britt’s go-to meals. First, select a cooked whole grain, such as quinoa. Pair it with a serving of your favorite beans, such as black beans or garbanzos.
“Then add a scoop of roasted vegetables in the bowl, along with a serving of steamed broccoli,” she says. “Sprinkle with chia and sunflower seeds and drizzle with a dressing made from lime juice, miso paste and a little honey. Top with cancer-fighting broccoli sprouts and a few dark grapes and mandarin orange slices. It’s delicious!”
For an extra protein kick, Ligos recommends adding toppings like oatmeal, nuts and seeds to your Buddha bowls or salads. “These ingredients add taste and satisfaction to your meals,” she says.
Another, sweeter idea? Britt loves Banana Berry Nice Cream. “Here’s a simple, great-tasting way to get more bananas, which are a fantastic source of potassium, into your diet,” she says. Here’s how to make it: Take a ripe banana or two and cut it into slices. Place the sliced fruit in a container and freeze it overnight. Then, separate the banana slices and place them in a food processor, along with a few frozen blueberries or blackberries and a half tablespoon of peanut or other nut butter. Process the mixture until it’s smooth and creamy. Then, enjoy! Best of all, bananas and other foods rich in potassium promote hearing health.
“What should I eat if I want to add more calcium to my diet?”
A major health problem for seniors is broken bones, often associated with falls. For an older person, a broken hip can actually turn fatal. And the reason why many seniors have this problem is calcium deficiency.
As we age, we begin to have a harder problem absorbing calcium and maintaining bone density. To combat this, many people take calcium supplements or increase their dairy intake. You can achieve the same thing, however, with non-dairy options such as calcium-fortified almond, rice or soy milk. You can also try eating more broccoli, kale and sardines to get this needed nutrient.
Healthy eating habits make a true difference
It’s never too late to take care of yourself—2020 is the dawn of a new decade and the perfect opportunity to change your diet so you can have a healthier lifestyle. “If you live alone, or it’s just you and your partner, avoid the trap of thinking, ‘Oh well, it’s just me (or us two) so I won't bother to cook,’” Britt says. “Cooking nutritious, healthy meals for yourself or for you and your spouse is one of the very best things you can do for your health and well-being.”
¹"Healthy lifestyle associated with lower risk of dementia independent of genetic risk, study finds." National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/healthy-lifestyle-associated-lower-risk-dementia-independent-genetic-risk-study-finds
² High Cholesterol Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/facts.htm
³ National Diabetes Statistics Report 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf
4 Heart Disease. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/sodium.htm