U.S. News & World Report
January 25, 2023, 7:00 PM
You are what you eat
The adage is true: To stay healthy, you need to eat right. But that advice becomes especially important as you get older. Seniors in particular need to eat a variety of healthy foods to maintain strength, bone mass and cognitive function.
The good news is that there are lots of tasty superfoods that can help you improve your health as you age.
What’s a superfood?
“The word ‘superfood’ isn’t scientifically based or regulated,” explains Alison Liggett Neov, a registered dietitian with Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads, a senior living community in Falls Church, Virginia. “However, there are many nutrient-dense foods that are great to include regularly in your diet.”
Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California, adds that superfoods are also sometimes called “functional foods” because they “provide an extra boost of nutrients.”
Monique Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in integrative and functional medicine based in Johnson City, Tennessee, and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agrees, adding that there’s no definitive defined context or definition of “superfood” in the medical and scientific community.
As a whole, she says, your registered dietitian nutritionists are going to be pretty careful in terms of “putting a halo on one food over another.” It’s kind of a misnomer to categorize and just look for superfoods as being superior, Richard says. “(Foods) are all working together a little differently.”
You don’t have to reach for some exotic ingredient to be eating a superfood, either. Superfoods, Kanda says, “are everyday foods. The field of functional foods has evolved and includes diversity.”
Why superfoods are important for older adults
Getting older can lead to a number of anatomical and physiological changes. Kanda notes that aging brings a declining need for calories — a measure of energy — due to several factors, including:
Digestive issues, like constipation. Aging affects all functions of your gastrointestinal system, including motility, enzyme and hormone secretion, digestion and absorption, according to a 2019 study. The study cites an increase in the prevalence of constipation, particularly among elderly populations, due to decreased mobility, cognitive impairment, comorbid medical issues, medication use and dietary changes.
Age-related muscle mass loss, a condition called sarcopenia. A review published in the peer-reviewed journal Ageing Research Reviews says two major factors contribute to muscle mass loss in aging individuals: atrophy and loss of muscle fibers. Researchers have also pointed to decreases in certain hormone levels as a possible contributor.
Osteopenia and osteoporosis, two conditions in which the bones become brittle and more likely to fracture. A number of factors have been shown to impact bone mass loss as you age, including genetics, nutrition, lifestyle and comorbidities, as noted in a 2018 study. The study says that osteopenia, or bone mass loss, often progresses to osteoporosis, which is characterized by reduced bone mineral density and an increased rate of bone loss.
Being able to get all the various nutrients you need from foods that don’t provide excess calories, sugar, fat and preservatives can help you manage your weight and live a healthier life.
Every senior will benefit from regularly incorporating the following 10 superfoods into their diet.
1. Blueberries
Foods that are high in antioxidants and polyphenols — compounds typically found in plant-based foods — are beneficial for humans.
“Categories of these types of foods are going to be your berry family,” Richard says.
Types of berries to incorporate in your diet include:
— Blueberries.
— Cranberries.
— Goji berries.
— Strawberries.
— Blackberries.
— Raspberries.
Different types of berries may vary in their nutrient profile, but “they’re all going to be very similar in how potent and powerful they can be,” Richard says.
Blueberries, for example, are a great inclusion because they have high levels of phytochemicals and an antioxidant profile that promotes bone and brain health, Kanda says. “Several animal and human studies have demonstrated a diet rich in blueberries has positive neurocognitive effects,” meaning that these tiny berries may help you stave off age-related memory decline.
Blueberries are also good for bone health because “some causes of bone loss can be attributed to increased oxidative stress through the aging process,” Kanda explains.
Potentially, antioxidant-rich foods may represent one strategy for slowing down age-related bone loss and improving your bones’ ability to heal.
“Several studies have identified greater fruit intake with decreased fracture risk, greater bone mineral density, and decreased bone turnover,” Kanda says.
Kailey Proctor, a board-certified oncology dietitian at Leonard Cancer Institute at Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, agrees that blueberries “pack a nutritional punch. One cup contains only about 85 calories and four grams of fiber.”
When considering if you’re getting enough berries in your diet, Richard recommends asking yourself:
— Are you consuming any type of berry?
— What form is it?
— Does it have a lot of sugar added?
— Is it organic, or is it processed?
Consuming high-quality, minimally processed produce helps ensure you’re receiving optimal levels of nutrients.
Proctor recommends eating a half to a full cup of blueberries (or your preferred berry) per day.
2. Dark green leafy vegetables
“Foods high in antioxidants, such as dark green leafy vegetables and berries, assist in removing free radicals from the body,” Liggett Neov says.
Free radicals are unstable molecules in the body that can build up in cells and cause damage to other cells. Fighting off free radicals can lower your risk for many different diseases associated with aging, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Liggett Neov adds that leafy green vegetables are also high in vitamin K, which helps blood clot and protects bones from osteoporosis.
Examples of dark leafy greens to add to your plate include:
— Arugula.
— Bok choy.
— Chard.
— Collard greens.
— Kale.
— Spinach.
— Swiss chard.
— Watercress.
Lori Chong, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center says that “these nutritional powerhouses provide carotenoids,” which are a type of antioxidant that are particularly protective against oxidative damage in the eyes.
Leafy greens are also rich in
Folate, which can help protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer and cognitive impairment.
Magnesium, which is involved in a wide array of metabolic processes throughout the body and helps prevent Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and sarcopenia.
Potassium, which can reduce high blood pressure.
Vitamin K, which is “critical for getting calcium out of our arteries and into our bones, so it’s helpful for preventing cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis,” Chong says.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends that seniors consume 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day.
3. Brussels sprouts
“Brussels sprouts are part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer by protecting DNA from becoming damaged,” Proctor explains.
Brussels sprouts are also high in fiber, which helps promote regular bowel movements and maintain a healthy weight by increasing the feeling of fullness after a meal on relatively few calories.
Four to six sprouts per day is all it takes to get that powerful nutrient punch.
Proctor recommends cutting the Brussels sprouts in half and tossing them in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder.
“Roast at 375 to 385 for 20 to 25 minutes, flipping halfway through,” Proctor adds. “For the last minute or two drizzles with maple syrup.”
Another popular yet simple way to serve Brussels sprouts is by shredding them, either with a food processor or by finely chopping them with a knife if you don’t have a processor on hand.
You can blend a slaw-like salad by tossing the shredded sprouts with dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, goat cheese and a light salad dressing; or you could sauté them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and olive oil and add sliced almonds to serve.
If you just don’t like Brussels sprouts, other cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, are also good choices.
“Cruciferous vegetables provide a phytonutrient called sulforaphane,” Chong says. “Sulforaphane is a potent antioxidant — found only in cruciferous vegetables — that helps our detoxification processes work smoothly.”
She recommends “a daily salad with one or more of the cruciferous greens (kale, Swiss chard, watercress, arugula) with beans and any other vegetables you like, plus walnuts or hemp seeds sprinkled on top.”
4. Salmon
Liggett Neov says fatty fish like salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, “which help decrease your risk for heart disease. It’s also a great source of protein, a macronutrient that’s essential to maintaining muscle mass and strength.”
This is important at any age, but especially later in life.
“Our bodies tend to process protein less efficiently as we age, which is why it’s important to have a protein-rich food source with each meal,” Liggett Neov says.
For a simple dinner or lunch option, she recommends baking salmon on a sheet pan with asparagus and potatoes:
— Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
— Coat the sliced potatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder.
— Bake for 10 minutes on a sheet pan.
— Add marinated salmon fillets and asparagus to the sheet pan and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
— Serve immediately with sliced lemon wedges.
Kathryn Parker, a registered dietitian with Aviv Clinics in The Villages, Florida, says seniors should aim to eat 4 to 6 ounces of seafood per day.
5. Eggs
Eggs have been both reviled and praised over the years, and many people have settled on just eating egg whites to get a good protein boost without the cholesterol found in the yolks.
But Liggett Neov says “most of the nutritional benefits in eggs can be found in the egg yolk, so please eat the whole egg, not just the egg whites.”
Egg yolks are rich in:
Selenium, which helps protect the body from infection and damage caused by free radicals. Seafood is also a rich source of selenium.
Vitamin D, which your body also absorbs from sun exposure, promotes calcium absorption and is needed for bone growth. Without enough vitamin D, your bones can soften and become thin or brittle.
Vitamin B6, which plays a role in metabolic function.
Vitamin B12 keeps blood and nerve cells healthy in your body.
Choline is an essential nutrient that’s important for older adults “because it plays a role in regulating memory and mood,” Liggett Neov says. Each egg yolk contains 140 milligrams of choline, which is about 28% of your daily needs
Liggett Neov adds that eating up to three eggs per day is considered healthy. And getting them in early can help you feel energized all day.
“Fill up on protein first thing in the morning to start your day off right,” Liggett Neov says.
She recommends scrambled eggs with vegetables.
“Sauté vegetables like bell peppers, onions and spinach over medium heat in a lightly greased skillet until they have softened,” Ligget Neov says. “Add two eggs that have been beaten with a tablespoon of milk and a touch of salt and pepper. Cook until set. Serve with a bowl of fresh berries and yogurt for additional protein, probiotics and antioxidants.”
6. Plain Greek yogurt
“Greek yogurt is a functional food because it’s so versatile,” Kanda says. “It has more protein compared to regular yogurt and a 6-ounce serving is almost equivalent to a 3-ounce serving of meat. Therefore, its high protein content can support prevention of sarcopenia.”
One cup of Greek yogurt contains 17 grams of protein and about 20% of the recommend daily intake of calcium, which is important for older adults looking to strengthen bones to prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Greek yogurt also contains probiotics that keep the digestive tract healthy.
“The more we learn about probiotics, the more benefits we’re seeing as our gut health can impact other health conditions,” Proctor says.
Yogurt tends to have lesser amounts of milk sugar lactose, so if you’re lactose intolerant, Kanda says you may find yogurt to be easier to digest than cows’ milk.
Liggett Neov encourages people to eat plain varieties made with reduced-fat milk or whole milk without added sugar.
“Fat can help increase satiety, control blood sugar levels and assist your body in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D,” she explains. “Top your yogurt with berries if you need to naturally sweeten it. If you cannot tolerate dairy, another food group high in probiotics are fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut.”
Aim to eat 6 to 8 ounces of yogurt each day. It makes a great breakfast with the addition of some granola and berries. You can also substitute it for sour cream in various recipes, such as tacos.
7. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are excellent plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts, ground flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are all good options.
“The average American diet is too high in omega-6 fats from deep fryer oil, snack foods and convenience foods,” Chong says. “This high ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats can promote inflammation, whereas improving this ratio by eating more omega-3 rich foods will help to decrease inflammation.”
But it isn’t always enough just to eat more omega-3s.
“Most people also need to actively work on decreasing those foods that are high in omega-6 (fats),” she adds.
With nuts and seeds, just be careful with portion size. These foods are high in calories and fat. While they’re good fats, you can still overindulge, so keep consumption levels limited. Parker recommends consuming a small handful each day.
8. Beans
Another great plant-based source of nutrients is beans.
“Beans — including edamame — and lentils are our highest fiber foods,” Chong says. “Fiber protects against cancer, weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Most Americans need more fiber from whole plant foods, not supplements.”
Chong recommends making a simple bean salad by opening any can of beans, rinsing well and adding:
— 1/2 to 1 cup of any mixture of vegetables.
— 1 tablespoon olive oil.
— 1 tablespoon vinegar or lime juice.
— Any fresh or dried herb, such as cilantro or parsley.
“For example, you might try great northern beans, kale, tomatoes, red onion, olive oil, white wine vinegar and cilantro,” says Chong. “You can eat this as a side dish to your main protein, eat it for quick snack or add it to salad greens for a really quick salad.”
Incorporating beans into existing dishes is another easy way to up your bean intake. For example, stir them into soup, add them to your chicken quesadillas or mix them into a red tomato sauce poured over pasta.
9. Whole grains
Whole grains are also something of a superfood, especially when compared with their refined counterparts.
“We miss so many nutrients when a grain is refined to make the white, refined product,” Chong says.
Substituting whole grains for refined grains will boost your intake of several important nutrients including:
— Folate.
— Iron.
— Protein.
— Vitamin B1 (thiamin).
— Vitamin B2 (riboflavin).
— Vitamin B3 (niacin).
— Vitamin B6.
— Vitamin E.
Chong recommends trying “a new-to-you whole grain in place of pasta or white rice, such as quinoa, barley, bulgur, farro or millet. Don’t be afraid to experiment!”
And be sure to reach for that breakfast staple of oats regularly.
“Eat oatmeal routinely for breakfast or an afternoon snack,” Chong. “Buy it plain, either rolled oats or steel-cut. Sweeten it naturally with berries or other fruit.”
10. Garlic, herbs and spices
Garlic and ginger fall into that “superfood category” because they are “so multifaceted in what they can do and how they benefit us,” Richard says.
The allium family has a lot of antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal benefits when consumed, Richard explains, and they could possibly support immune health.
Well-known allium vegetables include garlic, onions, chives and scallions. Though they may be pungent in scent, allium vegetables add a rich flavor to any dish.
Eat a varied, balanced diet.
In general, it’s not about focusing on one or two things. Instead, you’re trying to look at the totality of everything together, according to Richard.
“Instead of focusing on fad diets that cut out major food groups, it’s important to try to have a balanced plate,” Liggett Neov says. “A balanced plate would contain ¼ protein, ¼ whole grain and ½ fruits or vegetables. This diet plan is easy to follow and will help ensure that you have adequate fiber, protein and a variety of fruits and vegetables each day.”
Eat the rainbow. “The more color and the more texture from fruits and vegetables you have on your plate the better. This ensures you are getting a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients for overall health,” Proctor says.
Parker recommends trying recipes from the Mediterranean or DASH diet approaches and of course “avoid high sugar drinks, fat-laden snacks and high-sodium foods.” Aim to keep your total sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day, with a goal of lowering your intake to 1,500 milligrams per day. And limit alcohol to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
“It’s about finding a way to enjoy these foods, so experiment with different spices, seasonings and low-fat cooking techniques like baking, roasting, sauteing and grilling,” Proctor says.
Go for good combinations
It’s also important to note that when you eat a food, you’re not just eating one nutrient, but rather a whole range of compounds. Combining certain foods can help you augment the benefits of each.
Blueberries and Greek yogurt are easy and healthful ingredients that can enhance a simple meal or snack and don’t require slicing or peeling.
Kanda recommends the following recipe to prepare a superfood-packed brunch for four guests.
Blueberry Greek Yogurt Parfait
— 2 cups blueberries.
— 1/4 cup sugar.
— 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.
— 2 cups low-fat yogurt or low-fat Greek yogurt.
— 1 tablespoon unshelled pistachios, finely chopped.
1. Combine the blueberries, sugar, lime juice and balsamic vinegar in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat.
2. Cook for five to 10 minutes, until the liquid is reduced, and the blueberries have cooked down to a jam-like consistency. Allow to cool. You should have about 1 cup of thick sauce.
3. Spoon 1/4 cup thick yogurt into the bottom of each of four tumblers or parfait glasses. Top with 2 tablespoons of the blueberry sauce. Make another 1/4 cup layer of yogurt on top of the blueberry sauce, and finish with another 2 tablespoon-layer of blueberry sauce.
4. Cover tightly and chill for at least one hour. Just before serving, sprinkle finely chopped pistachios over the top.
Get expert advice tailored to your situation
The best way to make sure your diet includes the right superfoods to keep you healthy in the long term is by working with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can guide you about what and how much to eat.
“Dietitians can help clients make wise decisions about food by judging the value of individual foods within the total dietary framework,” Kanda says. “No single food, no matter how super it claims to be can take the place of the importance of a combination of nutrients from all major food groups.”
Working with an RDN can help you “really understand where you’re at, and where you’re at compared to your goals and your overall intake,” Richard says. It’ll help you figure out your individual needs.
“That’s really going to be beneficial because everybody comes from a different walk of life,” she says, adding that people have different ages, come from different circumstances, experience different health conditions and have different goals. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Lastly, Chong urges you to look at food as more than just calories and nutrients. “It’s information for your genes and your cells. The information — food — you give your body turns up or turns down inflammation.”
Lowering inflammation can reduce your risk of many diseases associated with aging including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia.
10 superfoods for older adults
1. Blueberries.
2. Dark, leafy greens.
3. Brussels sprouts.
4. Salmon.
5. Eggs.
6. Plain Greek yogurt.
7. Nuts and seeds.
8. Beans.
9. Whole grains.
10. Garlic, herbs and spices.
More from U.S. News
Healthy High-Fat Foods
Foods That Age You
Food Cravings That Wreck Your Diet
Best Superfoods for Seniors originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 01/26/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.
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