Over-60s need to stop obsessing over weight loss and start eating more.
That’s the message from one of Australia’s leading dietitians, who says older people are getting lost in a world of weight loss adverts and fad diets.
“People need to be aware that cutting back on food is a mistake and many need to do all they can to have one more mouthful,” says Ngaire Hobbins, author of Eat to Cheat Ageing.
“Older people often say they’re not hungry and don’t feel the need to eat as much anymore.
“Thinking you don’t need to eat much when you’re older is actually a really dangerous mistake.”
Our dietary needs change as we get older and in order to fuel the brain and keep muscles strong, we need to change with them. Health advice round weight loss and cutting certain foods from our diet can actually do more harm than good as it often means depriving our bodies of the nutrients it needs as we age.
Hobbins says over-60s shouldn’t be as worried about treating themselves with a slice of cake or fatty pizza as they get older because it helps keep our appetites active, which can benefit our brains in the long run.
Our brains are largely affected by the food we eat and need a steady stream of glucose, carbohydrates and protein to work to their best capacity.
“Your brain is two per cent of your body weight, but it’s using up to about 20 to 25 per cent of the calories that you’re burning at any point in time,” Hobbins says.
“It’s much hungrier than the rest of your body and it has an enormous need to take precedence.”
Research has shown that a healthy diet full of natural foods can help ward off dementia and other brain-related conditions. Maintaining muscle strength through diet and exercise is also vital in later years of life.
Our muscles deteriorate with age and eating protein, combined with strengthening exercises, is the best way to keep them strong and reduce your chance of a nasty fall or loss of mobility down the track.
Hobbins says maintaining a steady weight is also more beneficial than weight loss because weight loss inevitably leads to muscle loss, which is no good for over-60s.
“Things change as you get older,” she says. “When you’re beyond 50 years old, you’re not putting the protein back as well as you should and you’re also drawing more from your muscles.
“If you lose weight when you’re older you also lose proportionally more muscle and there comes a time when you can’t keep your immune system going or you can’t maintain your body organs as you would like to.”
One of the biggest nutritional risks for older people is malnutrition and sadly it’s something too many Australians are living with. While our appetites may decrease with age, it’s often a trick of the mind that can sabotage our nutritional needs.
Everything from changes in routine to the medications we’re taking can affect our appetite, but rather than skipping a meal because we’re not hungry, we need to be eating more.
This is particularly important with the elderly, who often reduce their meals to a tiny portion. Hobbins suggests using “treat” foods to trigger the appetite and get tastebuds watering.
“Don’t be paranoid about those nice high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie types of foods when someone is frail and old,” she says. “That’s a completely different world to talking to a 30-year-old and telling them to give up high-sugar drinks and the like.”
In the meantime, she says putting protein at the centre of every meal and surrounding it with colourful natural foods will help prepare us for a healthy and active life when we’re older.