Choosing Healthy Meals as You Age

When you’re young, you don’t really think about how your diet impacts your health. You can happily survive on a diet of hamburgers, pizza, and soda, while not sparing a second thought for your digestion, skin, or longevity. 

As you age, this changes. In your teens and twenties, you can eat junk food for weeks without suffering the consequences. In your thirties and forties, you reach a point where a single cheeseburger is enough to throw your digestion out of whack for a week.

The older you get, the more important it is to make healthy choices that improve your health, longevity, and make you look good on both the outside and the inside. 

Take a look at these tips to help you make healthier eating choices as you age.

Low-Fat Isn’t Always Healthier

Seniors over the age of 65 like to think that they were raised on healthier foods than the current generation of young adults. 

They weren’t surrounded by fast-food franchises and weren’t forced to endure having trans fats, salt, and sugar pumped into their childhood foods. However, many of the ideas and trends that formed 40 or so years ago are now believed to be responsible for the massive increase in heart disease we’ve seen over the last decade or two.

One such trend was to demonize fat, blaming it for most of America’s woes and suggesting that a low-fat diet could reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and countless other ailments. The problem is, once fat became the scapegoat, sugar took the spotlight and we now know that it’s likely responsible for more cases of chronic disease than fat is.

The important thing to remember is that added sugar, trans fats, and saturated fats are all bad. A little here and there won’t harm you, but there’s no point at which these substances become healthy. That said, that doesn’t mean that all fats are bad.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil and oily fish, are very good for you and can contribute to a healthy heart. They are high in calories but it’s longevity we’re focusing on here, and countless studies suggest that a diet rich in these fats can prolong your lifespan.

If you avoid all fats, not only will you be robbing yourself of these benefits, but you may also be consuming more harmful sugars. Many “low-fat” foods use sugars to replace some of the flavor removed after extracting the fat, which means you get rid of one bad thing and have it replaced by another.

Think Mediterranean

The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world, and it’s also one of the tastiest when done properly. Consumed throughout Greece and Italy, this diet has been linked to a greater life expectancy, as well as lower cases of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

The Mediterranean food pyramid isn’t that much different from the one taught here in America, but there are a few notable exceptions. 

It includes a greater emphasis on whole grains, beans, legumes, and fresh vegetables.  Olive oil is also consumed liberally, as the average Greek household goes through around 25 gallons of the stuff every year. 

One of the biggest changes concerns the consumption of dairy products. In the US, dairy is often placed quite high on the pyramid, with many nutritionists arguing that this is a result of the dairy industry exerting its influence. 

On the Mediterranean food pyramid, fish and seafood are given a higher priority than dairy. The average Greek household eats small amounts of cheese, often in the form of feta, and high-protein Greek yogurt.

Finally, on the Mediterranean pyramid, meat is at the top alongside sweets, as it often plays a supporting role to vegetable, bean, and fish dishes. 

Avoid Processed Foods

Processed foods are bad even when they seem good. Just because you’re choosing to eat some dried and flavored peas/nuts instead of a burger doesn’t mean you’re avoiding the bad connotations associated with these foods.

When food is processed, most of the flavor is removed, the nutrients are stripped away, and manufacturers add flavorings, preservatives, sugar, and salt to restore some of the flavor and visual appeal.

Take maraschino cherries, or cocktail cherries, as an example. When producing these products, the manufacturers soak real cherries in a brine solution that contains sulfur dioxide. This bleaches the fruit, taking away its flavor, nutrients, and its vibrant red color. The “cherries” are then soaked in sugar syrup and preservatives to restore their natural vibrance and make them edible once more.

This is an extreme example, but it’s something we see with a lot of processed foods, from cornflakes and other breakfast cereals to orange juice and frozen meals.

Stick with whole foods and minimally processed foods when possible.

Avoid Fad Diets

A lot can be said for the benefits of the Atkins Diet, the Keto Diet, and other high-fat, low-carb options. They are effective tools for weight loss and, when done properly, they are safe. However, these diets are generally not conducive to good overall health and a long lifespan.

Diets like Atkins encourage the consumption of saturated fats and limit the consumption of all carb sources. For the average dieter, this means an excessive amount of butter, cream, and other animal fats, and very little fruits and vegetables. The result is a dangerous amount of unhealthy fats and very little fiber, vitamins, or minerals.

It’s a similar story with other fad diets that focus primarily on weight loss:

  • Meal Replacement Diets: You’ll get all of the nutrients you need, but many of these shakes are loaded with simple sugars and have very little fiber. A liquid diet is not advised over the long-term.
  • Low-Fat Diets: When consumed in excess, saturated fats are bad for you. There is a lot of ambiguity and disagreements with regards to nutrition, but experts have reached a conclusion on that front. 
    • That doesn’t mean all fats are bad, as some are essential for optimal health. A low-fat diet tars them all with the same brush and often leads to the exclusion of very healthy foods like olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
  • Slimming Club Plans: Many of the diet plans pushed by slimming clubs use point-based systems and, while this encourages consumption of healthy foods, it often leads to unhealthy eating habits.
    • Dieters may skip multiple meals just to “save” their points for a pizza or a few glasses of alcohol, believing that if they stay within their allowance they will be okay.
  • The Carnivore Diet: This one is fairly obvious. While some proponents insist that they are healthier than ever, if you subsist entirely on meat, you’ll be seriously deficient in numerous nutrients. Not to mention fiber, which is essential for maintaining optimal health in older adults.

It’s Never Too Late

It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you’ve survived, and how healthy you think you are. You can always benefit from a healthier diet.

The 70-year old chain smoker doesn’t think about quitting, because if they’ve lived that long, surely, they’ve survived the worst of it. To an extent, they’re right, and a smoker who has lived that long has certainly beaten the odds. At the same time, for every year they continue smoking, their risk increases exponentially and, eventually, their luck will run out.

It’s a similar story with your dietary choices. Just because you have survived on a diet of saturated fat thus far doesn’t mean you can continue doing so without worry.

You’re human, not immune to a bad diet. The sooner you start eating healthily, the sooner you can reap the rewards that a healthy diet brings.