Nutrition for Over 50: A Guide to Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats
Today I’m going to talk about nutrition for over 50, i.e. seniors like me who are aged 50 and above.
As we age, it’s very important to eat healthily i.e. foods that are nutritionally dense that will help us improve or maintain our health and very importantly for us to enjoy eating.
However, as we age our lifestyles and appetites change and this can affect the types and amounts of foods we eat. A decreased appetite or the reduced ability prepare healthy foods can mean that many of us won’t get enough protein, essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and essential fats; this can decrease our immunity and increase our risk of getting major illnesses.
Therefore it is extremely important for us to use every meal and snack as an opportunity for maximum nutrition and find ways to improve our diets that will fit our tastes. Doing so will enable us to maintain healthy eating habits for the long haul. It won’t do us any good to follow fad diets that supposedly promise good nutrition and help us lose fat but which we cannot maintain, for one reason or another.
So, bearing all these in mind, let’s now take a look at the macronutrients that’s essential for health especially in the golden years.
Nutrition for Over 50: Protein
This is by far the most important macronutrient. Proteins are the foundation of our cells, tissues and organs. They are essential for our blood, muscles, organs, hormones and hair. While the body can survive without eating carbohydrates and it can last for extended periods without eating fat, a lack of protein in your diet will cause degeneration of your muscle tissue and organs, and if the condition is severe and left untreated it may eventually lead to death. Knowing how important protein is to the body, it is vitally important to ensure that we have adequate protein in our diets.
Several studies have shown that the recommended daily amount of protein i.e. 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram or 2.2 pounds of bodyweight, isn’t adequate for seniors especially those of us who have active and healthy lifestyles. In fact, those of us who engage in sports or workout regularly will lose lean muscle mass on the recommended amounts of protein. For those of us who have active lifestyles, increasing the recommended daily amount of protein will ensure we maintain lean muscle tissue. For example, I weigh about 70 kg or 154 pounds and am fairly active, engaging in brisk walking 5 to 6 days a week plus resistance circuit training 3 times a week. To ensure that I have enough protein for daily maintenance and most importantly, not lose lean muscle mass I would need about 80 to 100 grams of protein every day.
Sources of Protein
Good sources of protein are grass fed beef, lamb, pork, free range poultry & eggs, fatty fish & other seafood. I strongly recommend grassfed beef: it’s free of bovine growth hormones and antibiotics. Same with free range poultry and eggs where no hormones and antibiotics are fed and the chickens, ducks and geese are free to roam about. For seafood, go for wild salmon, cod, tialapa etc. Try to avoid large fishes like tuna and swordfish – because of their much larger size, the concentration of mercury and PCBs in their flesh are much higher and you don’t need these poisons in your system.
Peas, quinoa, raw nuts and nut butter, beans especially kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, edamame, hemp, chia seeds, sesame and sunflower seeds, unsweetened soy milk, black eye beans, white beans, tempeh, lentils, kidney beans and flax seeds – these are all very good protein sources if you’re a vegetarian or if you prefer to get your protein from non-meat sources. If you’re a lacto-vegetarian, you can include goat’s milk, milk from grassfed cows, cheese especially Parmesan cheese, and Greek yoghurt into your diet to increase protein intake.
If you’re pretty active like me, you may wish to include a protein supplement as well. I would recommend that you get natural flavored (unsweetened) whey protein from grassfed cows with none of the artificial flavors, sweeteners and fillers. If you find it bland, you can always add some 100% cocoa powder and stevia which is the only artificial sweetener that doesn’t harm your health. If you have lactose intolerance, then you can get grassfed whey isolate, pea protein, hemp protein or brown rice protein to supplement your diet.
But before you get any protein supplement, please ensure that most of your protein needs are met from your daily diet. A protein supplement should just be that – a supplement. If you eat lots of junk food, please fix your diet first.
Nutrition for Over 50: Carbohydrates
Basically there are 2 types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. In layman’s terms it’s simple sugars and starches. Simple carbohydrates are easily and quickly digested while complex carbohydrates take a much longer time to digest. The reason why fruits are the only healthy source of simple carbohydrates is because the flesh of fruits has fiber and are chocked full of antioxidants, enzymes, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
However, as we enter into our senior years, our ability to metabolize carbohydrates effectively decreases and our risk of chronic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease increase. So we need to reduce our intake of refined carbohydrates especially sugar dramatically since high blood sugar levels have been directly linked to all these chronic diseases and more. Instead, we should ensure that most of the carbohydrates we eat are complex carbs.
If you have prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes, are overweight or obese, please avoid fruits with high sugar levels because the sugar in fruits can spike your blood sugar and insulin levels. Folks with any of those conditions would do well on a low carb diet which has been clinically proven to reverse Type 2 diabetes, increase insulin sensitivity, improve lipid profiles and aid in weight loss. I would even go so far as to say that going on the low carb high fat diet is your best bet in preventing most chronic diseases. If you’re not sure how to start on a low carb diet, please read my blogpost where I’ve detailed a how to guide on starting the low carb diet.
So if you’re either prediabetic or diabetic you can have very small portions of low sugar fruits like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cantaloupes, apples, peaches and plums. There are however, 3 fruits which you can eat as many as you like: olives, avocados and coconuts because the sugar levels of these fruits are extremely low and they do not negatively impact blood sugar and insulin levels.
For folks who don’t have prediabetes or diabetes I’d recommend that you either cut down or totally eliminate refined carbohydrates and processed foods because these are the type of foods that will increase your risk of chronic conditions.
Now a word about fruits and fruit juice. Just because fruits are healthy don’t necessarily mean fruit juice is good too; in fact the opposite is true. Once the flesh and the peel or skin of a fruit is removed, what remains is just the juice and fruit juice is nothing but sugar water – and the small amounts of vitamins and antioxidants in the juice do not make up for the large amount of sugar. To get a glass of apple juice, you probably need 4 – 5 apples. Now, 4 – 5 apples in their natural forms, you get all the nutrition – the fiber, flesh and juice, all containing the vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. And because the body has to digest the peel and the flesh, the sugar in the fruit is released slowly into the bloodstream. On the other hand, with a glass of juice, there’s no fiber and flesh to digest, so the sugar is released quickly into the bloodstream causing a sharp spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Too much too often and we set ourselves up for Type 2 diabetes. Now. less you get the wrong idea, I’m not even suggesting that you eat 4 – 5 apples at one go even if you’re healthy because of the amount of sugar in the fruit.
So please avoid all fruit juices like the plague, they will only spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, increasing your risk of chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sources of Good Complex Carbs
Healthy sources of complex carbohydrates are those that are natural with minimal or no processing and refining e.g. quinoa, steel cut oats, wild or brown rice, yams, sweet potatoes, taro, lotus roots, radish, carrots, beans, peas, lentils and all leafy and cruciferous vegetables are examples of natural complex carbohydrates with little or no processing.
You’ve also probably noticed that I didn’t include whole wheat pasta, noodles and bread into the list of healthy complex carbohydrates. I mentioned earlier that as we age, our bodies cannot handle such processed carbohydrates like when we were younger so it’s best to avoid them because they aren’t half as nutrient dense as other whole grains, vegetables and fruits so it’s a complete fallacy to say that we need them for health.
In my view you can get the biggest bang for your buck in vegetables and legumes for your daily carb intake. Like fruits, they are full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and dietary fiber. Yellow, orange and green vegetables in particular are rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, beta-carotene, vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin K. All vegetables also have lots of fiber which offer protection from conditions like chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, and rectal fissures.
If you’re a senior who have the middle age spread and are overweight, cut down the whole grains, tubers, roots and lentils and concentrate on eating vegetables for your main source of healthy carbohydrates: cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli, spinach, cucumbers, kale, watercress, ball peppers (capsicum), eggplant, okra, bak choy, lettuce, kale, tomatoes and cabbage etc. All these vegetables are low in carbs with minimal sugar but are packed full of health boosting nutrients. In my view it’s much easier to lose weight by reducing your intake of carbs than by laboriously counting calories. Also if you depend solely on calorie reduction, your metabolism can actually go down after a certain cut off point making it extremely difficult to lose weight further as I’ve explained in my blogpost on how to avoid the Biggest Loser phenomenon.
Buy Organic Vegetables & Fruits
I would suggest that you buy organic vegetables and fruits – they are grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Depending on where you live, organic vegetables and fruits may or may not be more costly than vegetables and fruits that are grown by conventional methods. If you are unable to buy organic vegetables and fruits for one reason or another, the next best alternative would be to rinse your vegetables and fruits in distilled white vinegar. All you need is to mix half full cup of vinegar with a full cup of water. Soak and rinse the fruits or vegetables about a minute, then put them under running water for another minute should do the trick in removing the pesticides.
Too Much Carbohydrates causes Fat Gain
As we age, our hormones change and metabolism slows down and because of these factors, we need to dramatically reduce our intake of carbohydrates otherwise the unwanted pounds or kilos will just pile on, making us fat. Although calories do play a small part, the main reason reason for obesity, being fat and overweight is more of a hormonal issue.
Let me explain why this is so.
When we eat carbs, it is converted to glucose by our bodies and our blood sugar goes up. The pancreas then excretes the hormone insulin which drives the blood sugar into our cells to be absorbed resulting in our blood sugar levels slowly dropping back to normal. When we eat too much carbs too often, our blood sugar goes up all the time and the pancreas works non stop in secreting the insulin necessary to get our cells to absorb the glucose. Over time, more insulin is needed to get the glucose absorbed into the cells for energy i.e. to lower blood glucose. Worse still, not all the excess blood glucose is absorbed and you develop insulin resistance where the excess energy is stored as fat.
If you’re overweight or have fat to lose then I would suggest that you eat limit your carb intake to no more than 100 grams a day: carb reduction will enable you to regain insulin sensitivity and help you burn off the excess energy i.e. shed the unwanted fat. This is crucial because excess fat especially visceral or belly fat has been directly linked to increased risks of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If you’re not sure of how to start on carb reduction, please read my blogpost on how to do it correctly. If you need handholding and coaching on this, just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or complete the contact form at the end of this page, I’ll be more than happy to help.
Nutrition for Over 50: Fats
Unfortunately fat has received a bad rap for decades. So much so, that it has become ingrained in our minds to intuitively reach for anything that says low fat even though recent studies have debunked the myth that saturated fats and cholesterol foods cause heart disease!
Basically there are three types of fat:
Saturated fats are hardened at room temperature. Sources of saturated fats include all animal fats, coconut oil and palm oil. For decades saturated fats have been blamed by the medical community for causing heart disease. However recently studies like this one seem to show that saturated fats aren’t as bad as they seem to be.
The new argument is that saturated fats do cause cholesterol levels to be elevated but the increase is from both HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease and the benign large particle LDL. On the other hand, the consumption of sugar, refined carbohydrates and trans fats (found in hydrogenated oils) have been found to cause changes in the LDL particle size – from the benign large particle to the malignant small particle LDL plus increasing triglycerides levels: all these increase the risk of stroke and heart disease.
However the larger medical community is still cautious about saturated fats because there are simply many more studies that show saturated fats increase both types of LDL – the harmful small dense particle LDL and the less harmful larger particle LDL. Less harmful doesn’t equate to harmless as purported by those medical professionals who support the new argument that saturated fat is benign.
My take is simply this. Please err on the side of caution. If you consume too much saturated fats and your LDL level shoots up, then just reduce the amounts that you consume. On the other hand, it you’re one of those fortunate individuals who don’t get elevated LDL levels on consuming higher than normal amounts of saturated fats, then I would say your genetic disposition enables you to consume a higher amount of saturated fats than others.
Mono saturated fats
Mono saturated fats are liquid in room temperature but get solidified in the fridge. These are heart friendly fats with omega 3 fatty acids; olive oil, avocados, fish oil and flax seed oil are all mono saturated fats with high concentrations of omega 3 fatty acids. Research shows that omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega 3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function.
Poly Saturated fats
Polyunsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator. Sources of polyunsaturated fats are safflower, sunflower seeds, corn and soybeans, many nuts and seeds, and their oils as well as vegetable oils. Poly saturated fats contain both omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. Ideally, the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 oils should be 1:1. However with the prevalence of such commercial cooking oils, the ratio has shifted way off this ideal ratio to 1:20 to as high as 1:25. Omega 6 is pro inflammatory while omega 3 is neutral. What this means is that our modern day diets are so laden with omega 6 fatty acids that we see increases in inflammatory diseases. What you can do to level the imbalance is to increase your omega 3 intake by eating more fatty fish, chia and flaxseeds, all of which are high in omega 3 fatty acids.
So as you can see in this short analysis of the different types of fats, my personal recommendation is to increase mono saturated fats, decrease saturated fats and take moderate amounts of poly saturated fats (with an emphasis on omega 3 fatty acids).
There you have it, a roundup of the macro nutrients that all of us need as we go into our golden years. Increasing protein intake, reducing carbs to a minimum, increasing saturated and mono saturated fats and avoiding poly saturated and trans fats will go a long way in maintaining good health as we age.