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Strategies for Energetic Aging

Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD


Getting older can mean you're getting better. At 40, 50, or 60, you probably know more, work smarter, and have more confidence than when you were 20. But no one wants to feel old.

To minimize the pitfalls of aging, you can't just sit back and "grow old gracefully." Making changes in your diet and exercise routines may be your key to staying active and vital well into old age. (See "A Checklist for Energetic Aging," below.)

Exercise is Essential

Until recently, weight gain and declining physical ability were mostly blamed on aging. We now know that much of this decline starts with inactivity. This leads to loss of muscle mass and increased weight, and eventually to disease and loss of independence.

Most of the calories you consume are burned by your muscles, so if you don't exercise to maintain muscle mass, your body will burn fewer calories. If you continue to be active, you maintain muscle mass, aerobic capacity, and fat-burning potential, and you keep your weight down. At the same time, you reduce your risk of developing many diseases. This will help you continue to be active into your seventh and eighth decades, and even beyond.

General Diet Strategies

When you stay active you can eat more without gaining weight, which means you can get more of the nutrients that help preserve health. Here are some helpful diet strategies:

Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity has been linked with increased death rates from many types of cancer. To help maintain a healthy weight, you may want to try changing your pattern of eating. A study at Tufts University in Boston found that postmenopausal women who ate fewer than 1,000 calories per meal burned fat at virtually the same rate as younger women. But with larger meals of 1,000 calories each, the older women's ability to burn fat was greatly reduced. And when dietary fat is not burned as fuel, it is stored as body fat.

To improve your burning of fat, then, try eating four to five smaller meals rather than three large ones each day. Besides helping you with weight control, smaller, more frequent meals and snacks will also provide energy throughout the day.

Keep your fat intake low. No more than 20% to 25% of your calories should come from fat. High-fat diets increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. Avoid foods high in saturated fats like fried foods, chips, desserts, high-fat meats, and full-fat dairy products, dressings, dips, and sauces.

Fill up on fiber. Fiber keeps food moving through your system. It decreases your risk of constipation, diverticulosis, and hemorrhoids. It can help lower your cholesterol level and remove carcinogens.

Eat a plant-based diet. If your diet consists mostly of fruit, vegetables, grains, and plenty of protein-rich beans, nuts, and seeds, it will almost certainly be low in fat and high in fiber. In addition, you'll be eating foods that are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals—natural substances that may help prevent cancer and slow some aging processes.

Four Vitamins and a Mineral

The following nutrients become increasingly important as you age:

Folic acid. Folic acid, or folate, helps prevent heart disease and stroke by limiting the blood level of an amino acid called homocysteine (high levels of which are linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease). If you eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and beans, you should be getting enough folate. But if you want to make sure, take a supplement with 400 micrograms of folic acid. Beware though! Too much folic acid can mask evidence of a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Vitamin B12. Insufficient stomach acid (atrophic gastritis) inhibits the separation of vitamin B12 from food. This condition occurs in 10% to 30% of people over age 60, and may cause a vitamin B12 deficiency. To prevent the problem, a daily supplement containing 25 micrograms of vitamin B12 is recommended. B12 also helps limit homocysteine levels.

Vitamin E. Vitamin E has been linked to lower risks of heart disease and prostate cancer. An antioxidant, it also may help decrease inflammation that occurs after strenuous exercise in people over 55 years old.

Since vitamin E is fat-soluble and found primarily in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, low-fat diets are notoriously deficient in this nutrient. Make sure to include some of these foods in your diet. A 100- to 400-IU supplement is also recommended. If you have high blood pressure or take coumadin or other medicines that prevent blood clots, check with your doctor before taking these supplements—vitamin E may raise the risk of stroke and interfere with the action of the drugs.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency accelerates bone loss. Between 30% and 40% of adults over 50 may have a borderline or pronounced vitamin D deficiency.

Milk and fortified breakfast cereals are good sources of vitamin D. Though your skin makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, older skin can be up to 50% less productive.

Recently, the National Academy of Sciences recommended daily vitamin D intakes of 200 IU for ages 50 or younger, 400 IU for ages 51 to 70, and 600 IU for ages 71 and older. Most older people don't get enough by sun exposure, so if you don't get enough in your diet, you need to take a supplement.

Calcium. In clinical trials, people given calcium or calcium plus vitamin D had fewer fractures than people given a placebo. Women aged 19 to 50 and those aged 50 to 64 who take estrogen need about 1,000 mg a day; women older than 50 who are postmenopausal and not taking estrogen should consume 1,500 mg per day. Men aged 25 to 64 should consume about 1,000 mg daily, and those older than 65 need about 1,500 mg daily. You can get enough calcium from three to four servings of low-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese each day, or from fortified foods or supplements.

Drink Up!

Our thirst mechanism gets worse as we age. That means you need fluids, but your body can't tell you. If you take medications it is essential to stay well hydrated.

Drink at least eight 8-ounce cups of noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic fluids every day, and one to two 8-ounce cups of water or a sports beverage before you exercise. During exercise, especially in the heat, drink 4 to 8 ounces every 15 minutes, and at least two 8-ounce cups after exercise.

Aging With Advantages

We know more today than ever before about the influence of diet and exercise on the aging process. Take advantage of that knowledge, take action, and you'll increase your chances of staying healthy and strong for many years.

A Checklist for Energetic Aging

When combined with a good exercise program, these nutrition habits and strategies will help you stay healthy and active well into old age:

[Checkmark]Maintain a healthy weight; smaller, more frequent meals may help.

[Checkmark]Keep your fat intake low.

[Checkmark]Fill up on fiber.

[Checkmark]Eat a plant-based diet.

[Checkmark]Get enough minerals and vitamins, especially calcium, folic acid, and vitamins B12, E, and D.

[Checkmark]Drink at least eight 8-oz glasses of noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic fluids daily.

Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Dr Kleiner is owner of High Performance Nutrition and a nutrition consultant to athletes in the Seattle area. She is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine; a member of the American Dietetic Association and its practice group, Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutritionists (SCAN); and a fellow of the American College of Nutrition.




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