It seems like every day the tips on what to eat for healthy aging changes. Paleo? Vegan? It’s enough to make my head — and my grocery list — spin. I decided to ask the food pros for some commonsense advice about what foods are actually proven to help prevent disease and improve overall health. I’m smart enough to know there are no miracle foods, but miracle-ish would be nice. Turns out, that’s not so crazy after all.
“Nutrition plays a key role across the lifespan to not only help prevent chronic disease, but also to enhance day-to-day physical and mental functions,” says Boston-based registered dietitian Stacey Nelson. “As we get older, we are at greater risk of certain health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Changes in body composition can increase the risk of osteoporosis and muscle loss. Luckily, by making a few small changes, we can try to mitigate some of these risks while also promoting a higher quality of life well into our later years.”
Let the shopping begin.
- Greek yogurt
“Greek yogurt is loaded with lean protein, which is important for maintaining muscle and bone health,” says Melina B. Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist and author of Spice Up, Live Long. “Plus, as a fermented food, it helps maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, which is critical for optimal health. It is also good source of calcium for bone health, and B12, which can decrease as women age.”
Jampolis recommends opting for 2 percent Greek yogurt. Regular yogurt is great, too, though it tends to have less protein.
Mix oats with Greek yogurt and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, toss in some slivered almonds and fresh berries with a sprinkle of cinnamon for a delicious and super healthy breakfast parfait.
“Berries are loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants that studies show may reduce your risk of dementia,” Jampolis says. “They also contain substances that help fight inflammation and are a good source of fiber, which can help support healthy cholesterol levels and keep you regular.” Aim to eat berries three times a week.
If fresh berries are out of season, buy frozen berries and whip them into a smoothie, along with leafy greens. And yes, I throw in some of that Greek yogurt for an added boost.
- Wild salmon
“Wild salmon is a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and dementia. It also has B vitamins and potassium, which is important for regulating blood pressure,” Jampolis says. But that’s not all. This is indeed a superfood. “Wild salmon also contains an antioxidant called astaxanthin, which is important for eye health. It may even help reduce wrinkles and protect the skin from damage,” she adds (Beauty and a health boost? Sign me up!)
Canned salmon is usually wild and is much less expensive. It’s perfect for throwing on top of a salad. Canned sardines, which are high in calcium, are also an affordable option for a healthy diet boost.
“Beans are loaded with soluble fiber and magnesium, which most older Americans do not get enough of,” Jampolis says. “Magnesium is important for managing healthy blood sugar and blood pressure and may even help you sleep better. Soluble fiber can help keep you fuller longer and reduce blood sugar and cholesterol.” Aim to eat beans at least twice a week. Varieties that top the heart-healthy list are black beans, navy beans and pinto beans.
Give Meatless Monday a whirl by adding beans to soups, salads or chili. I happen to love vegetarian chili, and it freezes well. So I make extra and divide it into individual servings that I can pull out on Mondays — or any day — when cooking is that last thing on my mind. Chickpeas are also packed with nutrition, so add some to salads with your canned salmon.
- Dark leafy greens
“Spinach, arugula, kale, bok choy, collard greens and Swiss chard are all very low in calories and very nutrient-dense,” Jampolis says. “They are rich in vitamin K, magnesium and antioxidants that can help fight cancer. Plus, studies have shown that 1.4 servings of leafy greens daily can decrease your risk of diabetes significantly and can also decrease risk of dementia.” In fact, a new study published in the March 8, 2023, issue of Neurology found that dark leafy greens may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slow cognitive decline. Nikita Kapur, a registered dietitian at New York’s Compass Nutrition, adds that dark leafy greens are also a great nondairy source of calcium. Aim to eat at least 1 cup daily or more.
Tossing your greens with a healthy fat like olive oil (see No. 6!) can help increase the absorption of the nutrients.
- Healthy oils
“Plant-based oils like avocado, olive or sunflower oils are higher in omega-3s, which can protect your heart, and are lower in saturated fats (which have the opposite effect) than other oils,” Kapur says. Olive oil is a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, which numerous studies tout for its health benefits. This is the oil of choice for the persons who live the longest in the world, in cities and countries known as “blue zones.”
Swap olive oil for butter for cooking vegetables or tossing with pasta. I also buy olive oil spray for sautéing with fewer calories.
And don’t forget … water
Okay, this isn’t technically a food, but it is important. “Adequate fluid intake is essential as we age to support multiple bodily functions, including everything from regularity to helping to keep joints lubricated,” Nelson says. “Older adults may be more prone to underhydration. Symptoms may include headaches, weakness, dark-colored urine or dry mouth.”
Add a squeeze of lemon or lime for some zest. My non-pro tip: Add a slice of cucumber and pretend you’re at a spa! You will notice that dessert is not on the shopping list. Luckily, all the experts agree that dark chocolate is not only delicious but loaded with antioxidants. I keep a large bar of it handy and break off a piece after dinner every night. If I’ve learned anything after years of writing about health, it’s that we all need a little pleasure to stick with anything!
What foods do you try to eat in order to be healthy? Let us know in the comments below.