Healthy ageing: The importance of nutrition for over 60s

Mar 29, 2023
With a healthy diet many over 60s are able to maintain a good quality of life and ensure optimal health. Source: Getty Images.

Maintaining a healthy diet is an important pillar of health for over 60s as it plays a crucial role in maintaining and even improving overall health and well-being.

A healthy diet can help manage and prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer and can also help in maintaining a healthy weight and improving energy levels.

Eating a healthy diet is particularly important for over 60s, given that as we age our nutrient needs change and our bodies’ ability to absorb and use certain nutrients decreases.

Principle Nutritionist and Director of Sydney City Nutritionist and Food Intolerance Australia, Jennifer May explains that “for people over the age of 60, nutrition is especially important for maintaining overall health.”

“Eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated are key components to ensuring that seniors get all the nutrients they need in order to support optimum health,” May says.

Dr Lucy Burns, from Real Life medicine, is a lifestyle medicine physician who is an expert in optimising health through nutrition and other lifestyle factors and shares that although “our lifespan is increasing” our “quality of life is decreasing due to chronic disease” making the need for a healthy lifestyle all the more important.

The importance of being “mindful of our dietary choices in order to maintain optimal health” is something that is championed by accredited nutritionist,member of the Nutrition Council Australia, and the author of cookbooks The 10:10 Diet and The Long Life Plan, Faye James.

“For those over 60, there are several factors to take into consideration when it comes to eating healthy,” James says.

“According to the Australian government’s Department of Health, older adults have unique nutritional needs and may require extra nutrients to maintain their health. Eating a well-balanced diet can help to prevent chronic conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.”

Whereas, Happy Healthy You, nutritionist and health expert, Tahlia Thomas refers to the food as medicine approach to ensure wellbeing.

“This rings very true for the over 60’s group, as we know that many age-related diseases can be prevented and managed holistically with a well-balanced clean diet,” Thomas says.

Despite being all too aware of the myriad of benefits eating healthy can have for our health, many of us still lose our way when embarking on a healthy food journey and in no time at all we are opting for simple to prepare junk food over healthier options.

In an effort to ensure you are successful in remaining committed to eating well, Starts at 60 spoke further with the experts to delve deeper into why eating healthy is so important, what foods to eat, and how to find the motivation to get started so you can enjoy the numerous benefits that come from healthy eating.

adopting healthy diet.
Source: Getty Images.

Why is eating healthy important for over 60s?

Unfortunately, with old age can come an increased risk of health issues, such as chronic diseases, cognitive decline, and physical impairments.

However, with a healthy diet many over 60s are able to maintain a good quality of life and ensure optimal health.

May says “eating a balanced diet can help older adults reduce the risk of, or manage, chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, as well as reduce their risk of falls and fractures” while highlighting the importance of over 60s maintaining a healthy diet.

“Eating nutrient-rich foods also helps support cognitive function and mental health by providing essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary for proper brain functioning,” May says.

“Additionally, consuming more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and other fibre-rich foods can support digestive health while keeping feeling energised throughout the day.”

May spoke further regarding the specific benefits certain healthy foods can have in regard to conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

“A recent study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience has suggested that blueberries may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The study, which was conducted on mice, found that consuming a diet rich in blueberry extract helped protect the mice from age-related cognitive decline,” May explains.

“The researchers also noted that blueberries contain natural compounds called anthocyanins which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These compounds may help reduce cellular damage caused by free radicals and reduce inflammation in the brain, thus helping to delay or prevent Alzheimer’s Disease from developing.

“While more research is needed to confirm these findings, it provides further evidence of the potential health benefits of adding blueberries to your diet for seniors age 60+.”

Burns referred to the “tsunami of chronic disease” that is engulfing the health care system which is also leading over 60s into “spending their retirement going to doctors appointments and being admitted hospitals instead of enjoying their twilight years”.

One particular area of concern for Burns was sarcopenia which can be addressed through proper nutrition,

“As we get older we lose muscle mass. This is called sarcopenia and it occurs in both men and women. It is a major cause of frailty and increases falls,” Burns explains.

“The 2 biggest factors contributing to sarcopenia are reduced movement, especially resistance or strength training, and inadequate protein consumption

“There are many ways to assess protein requirements but an easy rule of thumb is to eat approximately 1g of protein per kilo of body weight.”

Burns also points out that “as we get older we become more insulin resistant. This leads to pre-diabetes, diabetes, fatty liver disease and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease”.

Burns highlights that “many chronic diseases are also inflammatory based”.

“Inflammation is worsened with high levels omega 6, and processed food containing high levels of sugar and starches,” Burns says.

“Excess alcohol is bad for brain health, fatty liver disease and increased cancer risk and so keeping alcohol to a minimum is helpful.”

More importantly, ensuring your health is at its best is paramount to maintaining your independence later in life, as Nutritionist and Recipe Developer for The Fast 800, Gabrielle Newman explains.

“Optimal health comes from a healthy lifestyle,” Newman says.

“Eating well when you’re over 60 will help you maintain your health and independence.”

healthy eating in 60s.
Source: Getty Images.

How to eat healthy?

Knowing the benefits that come with eating healthy is one thing but knowing what to eat in order to enjoy the maximum benefit is another.

It can quickly become an overwhelming endeavour when deciding what to eat and what not to eat in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.

James simplified matters somewhat, explaining that “when it comes to what types of foods to eat, it is important for over 60s to focus on nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.”

“These foods provide essential vitamins and minerals, which can help to reduce the risk of chronic disease. Eating fish, especially those that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, at least twice a week is recommended by Australian government as well,” James explains.

James points to the Mediterranean diet as an example of a healthy eating plan that has “been shown to be particularly beneficial for older adults”.

“The Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, has been shown to be particularly beneficial for older adults. This diet pattern is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, as well as a lower risk of cognitive decline and better overall health outcomes,” she explains.

“Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet may be particularly effective for older adults. One study conducted by Deakin University, found that older adults who followed a Mediterranean diet had better cognitive function and a lower risk of depression compared to those who did not follow the diet.

“Another study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that the Mediterranean diet is beneficial for overall health in older adults, particularly when it comes to reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

“The Mediterranean diet is also found to be particularly effective in controlling blood sugar levels in older people with type 2 diabetes.”

While James extols the values of the Mediterranean diet, May points to “foods such as leafy greens, whole grains, and lean sources of protein provide essential vitamins and minerals while fibre-rich foods like beans, berries, and avocados help promote healthy digestion.”

“Additionally, including anti-inflammatory foods, such as green tea, leafy green veg, sweet potato, olives, olive oil, salmon and walnuts, can reduce aches and pains whilst also supporting joint health,” James says.

“Drinking plenty of water can also aid in digestion and elimination while also helping to improve energy. Keeping muscles strong and flexible through a combination of a protein-rich diet, optimum hydration along with stretching and exercise can help to prevent fall-risk and associated injuries.

“A very important consideration is that as people age, the body’s ability to absorb protein declines. This is due to changes in hormone levels, reduced muscle mass, common medications and decreased ability to regulate stomach acid. It is important for older adults to consume more high-quality proteins such as lean meats, fish, nuts, eggs and legumes.

“Eating a variety of these foods throughout the day will help ensure adequate daily intake and absorption of essential amino acids. Eating slow cooked meats and poached fish can help to improve absorption of protein, in those who suffer digestive symptoms – particularly constipation, it can be beneficial to include some blended soups to lighten the load on the digestive system.”

In addition to including such a wide variety of foods in your diet, Burns points out that it’s important to minimise other foods to ensure optimal health.

“Minimise snacking,” Burns suggests.

“Minimise sugar and processed starched such as flour (includes rice flour, wheat flour, processed biscuits, cereals etc).

“Reducing processed vegetable oils such as canola oil, rice bran oil and sunflower oil etc is helpful for reducing inflammation.”

Healthy food.
Source: Getty Images.

How to find the motivation to start eating healthy?

As anyone who has joined a gym to commence a new fitness journey can attest, taking the first step is often the hardest.

Although knowing what foods are best for your health is a great first step, finding the motivation to regularly consume such foods and stick with it can present its own challenges.

Newman explains that “as you age, you may find it difficult to get out to buy groceries, or you may feel like your appetite has reduced” which can make mustering some much needed motivation all the more difficult.

“Health issues may also make it difficult to eat or enjoy foods,” Newman says.

Despite finding the motivation to adopt healthier eating habits appearing to be somewhat of an uphill battle, Newman suggest viewing “every meal as a chance to give your body maximum nutrition”.

“If needed, ask for help with shopping or meal preparation, from family and friends, community groups, carers, or your doctor. Make use of supermarkets delivery services if this is easier for you,” Newman advises.

When it comes to changing your diet in favour of a healthier focus, May suggests to “start small”.

“Aim to improve your water intake and add an extra handful of vegetables and/ or fruit to meal times,” May adds.

“Add a cup or two of green tea at snack time, this can help reduce inflammation and pain, boost immunity, reduce stress and improve sleep.

“Snack on berries, particularly blueberries, and a tablespoon of raw nuts mid morning and mid afternoon.”

James shares similar sentiments to May when it comes to getting started, advising over 60s adopt “small, manageable changes rather than trying to overhaul your entire diet at once”.

“This can make healthy eating feel less overwhelming and more achievable,” James explains.

Reminding yourself of the benefits that eating healthy can have and establishing benchmarks is another method that can help keep you on track.

“Another strategy is to focus on the benefits of healthy eating. Reminding oneself of the potential health benefits such as reducing the risk of chronic diseases, improving cognitive function and mood, and maintaining a healthy weight can provide motivation to make healthy choices,” James says.

“Setting goals for oneself, and tracking progress can also be a powerful motivator. For example, you may set a goal to eat a certain number of servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or to reduce your intake of added sugar. Having a tangible goal to work towards can make it easier to stick to healthy habits.”

Consulting “with a healthcare professional or a dietitian, who can assess your individual needs and provide guidance on how to make healthy choices that work for you” can also prove beneficial in helping you remain consistent with your healthy diet.

“They can also help to identify any potential barriers to healthy eating and provide strategies for overcoming them,” James advises.

“Finally, involving family and friends in the process of healthy eating can also be very beneficial. They can provide support, encouragement, and accountability, which can make it easier to stay on track.”

Sometimes you’ve got to walk before you can run, and small and simple changes to your diet are something Thomas encourages to make a “world of difference”.

“Maybe you choose to opt for a muesli and yoghurt instead of toast in the morning,” Thomas suggests.

“Implementing something as simple as eating two pieces of fruit daily can make the world of difference when it comes to your health.” 

 Burns suggests that “the number one thing is to eat real food as close as possible to the way nature intended.”

“Many people find that when they reduce processed food, they feel better. They have more energy. They no longer have brain fog. Their mood improves. They sleep better. They’re not bloated and reflux gets better.

“Some people think that it’s too late but it’s not.

“Most people who are 60 will live another 30 years. That’s plenty of time to turn around your health.

“It’s never too late to feel better.”

gut health.
Source: Getty Images.

How healthy eating can improve gut health?

Although eating healthy is important in managing and preventing a number of chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and heart disease, one other area that is overlooked that healthy eating can improve is gut health.

According to James, “gut health is another important factor to consider when it comes to healthy ageing.”

A study cited by James, that was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, “suggests that gut health is also important for bone health in older adults, as gut bacteria play a role in regulating bone remodelling, as well as bone metabolism, which is important for bone strength.”

“Eating a diet high in fibre and fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir, can help to promote a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn has been linked to improved overall health,” James advises.

May spoke further regarding the importance of improving gut health and its impact on overall health.

“Eating a healthy diet is key to improving gut health. Eating nutrient-rich, plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can provide beneficial pre and probiotics that can balance the bacteria in the gut,” May says.

“Eating these foods can also help ensure adequate intake of fibre which is important for proper digestion and elimination of wastes – acting like a broom that sweeps the intestines clean. Unhealthy fats found in processed and fast foods should be limited as they can increase inflammation in the gut and trigger painful symptoms. Additionally, drinking plenty of water throughout the day helps to keep your digestive system running smoothly.”

Newman explains that “studies have shown time and time again that an unhealthy gut microbiome, and the ‘Western diet’ in general, have strong associations with a wide range of diseases, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

“A diverse microbiome is a happy microbiome, and broadening your diet is a great way to diversify the good bacteria in your gut.[10] Specifically, a Mediterranean diet has been shown to modulate gut microbiota, and increase its diversity, leading to the prevention of chronic illness such as cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer.

“Introduce new non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats, legumes and meats to your diet, while steering clear of harmful processed foods.”

Burns warns that “many processed food have manufactured fibre in them that causes bloating and gas” and that “our gut isn’t designed to eat processed food.”

“Adding food with prebiotic’s (fibrous veggies) and probiotics -fermented food like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi is helpful,” Burns advises.

“You don’t need a lot just a little every day.”

Although navigating the minefield that can be healthy eating can presents its challenges, particularly regarding what to eat, how much and how best to get started, May stresses that it’s important “take it slow, don’t strive for perfection and know that each small change will gradually improve your health and get you to your goal of feeling younger, stronger, healthier.”

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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