Diet and Aging: What You Need to Know
“When I was that age, I could eat anything I wanted without gaining weight!” This is a phrase we hear quite often from adults remembering their younger years, and it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, as we approach our thirties our bodies begin to lose lean muscle mass—and in many cases, this lost muscle is replaced with fat. Muscle mass is highly metabolically active, but fat mass is not—so this change in body tissue composition is not in our favor. Fast forward a couple decades, and you will find diminishing levels of estrogen and testosterone in both men and women. This downward trend in sex hormones has been linked to weight gain in older age.
Telomere length is another component found to be associated with aging. Telomeres are protective caps found at the end of each chromosome and can be compared to the plastic ends of your shoelaces. Recent research has found that as our telomeres become shorter, so does the life of our cells, further accelerating the aging process.
What You Can Do
As we progress through the aging progress, our calorie needs become lower and lower. If we don’t adjust and continue eating as many calories as we did when we were, say, 25, these extra calories get stored as fat—causing us to pack on pounds. This is why a diet rich in vegetables is your best weapon in battling weight gain that comes with age.
Vegetables are incredibly low in calories, yet packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols, or naturally-occurring chemical properties in plants that have protective health benefits. Antioxidants work to quench free radicals, which reduces oxidative stress on the body. Oxidative stress damages cells and has been found to accelerate aging. Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that participants with higher intakes of the antioxidants vitamin A and vitamin E had longer telomeres on average. Dark leafy greens like kale and spinach are an excellent source of these vitamins.
Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables, like a salad or roasted, sautéed, or steamed veggies. This will spare you significant calories at mealtime and will allow you to reap their anti-aging benefits. The other half should be made up of lean protein and whole grains. Try replacing sugar and fat loaded desserts with a cup of fresh berries. In addition to cutting calories, berries are also food rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. You may be surprised at how this will satisfy your sweet craving without having to splurge.
Make sure you are also meeting your protein needs throughout each day to prevent extra losses in muscle mass. The average adult requires 0.8-1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. As a last point, it is recommended by the CDC for older adults to engage in muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week to build and maintain optimal levels of muscle mass.