5 nutrition tips to help you age well

We are experiencing population aging, a phenomenon in which the number of adults 65 years old or older continues to rise. It is estimated that 1 in every 6 people will be older than 65 by the year 2050, which is an almost 50 percent increase from the year 2019.

It’s therefore important that we know how to take care of our bodies through the aging process to maximize health span, or quality life. As the years go by, we all notice that things change — like our metabolism, for starters. Let’s talk about why this happens and what we can do about it.

The aging process is highly complex and depends on many internal and external factors, including genes, environment, health conditions and lifestyle factors, all of which vary between all of the different molecules in one person’s cells as well as between people. The process progresses gradually and causes structural and functional changes within the human body that affect the hormones in our endocrine system, our heart health, digestive system, nervous system and musculoskeletal system. There is a strong association between aging and molecules that promote inflammation in the body. This persistent low-grade inflammation is defined as “inflammaging.”

One of the hallmarks of the aging process is sarcopenia, which is an age-related decline in muscle and strength that we begin to see in women in their 40s and men in their 50s. Scientists believe it is due to a variety of conditions that characterize the aging process. Some of these include lower levels of physical activity, cellular changes, inflammation, alterations in the molecules that make up muscle fibers and lower levels of hormones that build and maintain muscle.

Muscle helps drive metabolism, so it’s no surprise that as muscle mass decreases over time, so does metabolic rate, or the total amount of calories someone burns in a day. It’s estimated that metabolic rate declines 3 percent to 7 percent each decade starting around the 40s or 50s. While we can’t physically see all of these changes, we can see and feel the increase in body fat that occurs around age 50.

Health care professionals care more about the way body fat is redistributed on the body as we age, rather than the fact that it increases. Fat tissue tends to gather around the midsection more with age. This centralized redistribution of body fat alters endocrine and metabolic function in a way that is associated with greater risk of developing conditions like Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Our gastrointestinal tract also changes over time in a way that lowers appetite and thirst. Hormones operating in the stomach and intestine change to make us feel satisfied quicker.

Because of all of these shifts, older adults are at greater risk of getting sick and having poor nutritional status, which is debilitating and makes it harder for people to do the things that make them happy as they grow old. The good news is that we can use lifestyle and nutrition to effectively optimize nutrition status and attenuate age-related metabolic changes that will help us age gracefully.

Participate in resistance exercise: Regular physical activity positively impacts the aging process by stimulating muscle growth and strength. Lifelong exercise helps protect against sarcopenia and leads to better outcomes of function and mobility in older adults, compared to those who are sedentary. Because older adults are not able to maintain and build muscle as easily as younger adults, resistance exercise in which you are pushing against a force — weights, resistance bands, or even your body weight — is an important strategy that triggers muscle synthesis. It’s especially crucial for adults to participate in resistance exercise two to three times per week when they hit their 50s.

Prioritize protein: Consuming protein stimulates the synthesis of muscle. In order to maximize this response, it’s recommended that older adults consume protein in consistent doses throughout the day by aiming for 25-35 grams, or 3-4 ounces, of protein per meal. It’s best to choose high-quality sources of protein such as seafood, dairy or plant-based proteins, like fish, eggs, low-fat Greek yogurt, beans and quinoa rather than less lean and nutritious proteins like red meats.

Add omega-3 fatty acids to your plate: Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat that have been shown to protect against the effects of inflammaging by enhancing brain health, heart health and metabolism. DHA, a type of omega-3, is found in high amounts in the brain as well is in the membranes of cells. Some research has also shown that these fatty acids can improve the transport of muscle-building nutrients into muscle, which is key in fighting sarcopenia. Add protective omega-3s to your meal or snack by cooking with olive oil, eating that extra handful of nuts, or opting for that side of avocado/guacamole whenever you have the opportunity.

Focus on dark green, yellow and orange vegetables: While all vegetables are excellent, nutritious choices, those rich in shades of green, yellow and orange contain compounds called carotenoids that have been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers and neurodegeneration. An example of this would be eating a green leafy salad with salmon or perhaps some bell pepper fajitas with guacamole on top.

Eat and drink probiotics: Daily consumption of food and/or drinks rich in probiotics can potentially help compensate for the inflammation that occurs with age in the gut. Probiotics provide your body live species of beneficial bacteria that help keep your gut health in check and all associated processes working efficiently. These can be found in some more exotic food choices, like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh or fermented pickles. Probiotics can also be found in many dairy products, including Greek yogurt, kefir and certain cheeses, such as mozzarella, Gouda, cottage cheese and cheddar. One bonus with getting probiotics through dairy is that dairy contains calcium, to attenuate decreased bone density, as well as high-quality protein.

Eating for aging is all about lifestyle and dietary patterns, not one single food or nutrient in isolation. Start including resistance exercise and experimenting with these nutrition recommendations to give your body nutrients that will keep you in good nutrition status and mitigate the metabolic changes that come with age.

Emma Willingham is a registered dietitian who practices in an outpatient hospital clinic and through her private practice, Fuel with Emma. You can find her on social media at @fuelwithemma.