As health experts frequently say, small changes can lead to big results.
So here’s a quick round-up of 10 practical diet tweaks for fiftysomething eaters, strategies that are geared toward slowly reshaping meals to help better manage everything from blood pressure and blood sugar to weight and vision:
1. Ditch the low-protein breakfast cereal.
Is your go-to breakfast a bowl of cornflakes with milk? That could be setting you up for food cravings and unhealthy snacking throughout the day. The problem: too little protein (10 to 15 grams). According to a 2015 University of Missouri study, the key protein dose for breakfast needs to be closer to 35 grams. For lots of reasons.
“We showed that eating high protein breakfasts improves glucose control throughout the day, curbs appetite, and prevents body fat gains compared to skipping breakfast and/or consuming a normal protein breakfast,” says researcher Heather J. Leidy, an assistant professor in the school’s Department of Nutrition & Exercise Physiology. (While the study involved adolescents, Leidy said she believes the results would apply to older adults, as well.)
Starting your day with a vitamin C-rich fruit or juice may help you reduce your risk of cataracts.
— Joan Salge Blake, Boston University
Good protein-rich choices (combine a couple of these for a good protein total): Greek yogurt, eggs, or high-protein waffle mixes/cereal.
2. Eat blueberries to lower blood pressure.
Feeding a daily dose of freeze-dried blueberries to post menopausal women volunteers (average age 55) for eight weeks helped lower blood pressure numbers 5 to 6 percent, according to a 2015 Florida State University study. A control group, eating fake blueberry powder, saw no change in blood pressure. Translated to fresh blueberries, the healthful dose is about one cup.
3. Feast on pulses to maintain weight.
Pooling the results of 21 different clinical trials with 940 participants (median age 51), Canadian scientists report that adding 3/4 cup of pulses — lentils, chickpeas, beans — to the daily menu for six weeks results in a modest weight loss of 3/4 pound.
A small impact, yes. But a good strategy for weight maintenance.
“Bite for bite, pulses fill you up more than many other foods,” says lead researcher Russell de Souza, of the Department of Clinical Epidemiology & Biostatistics at McMaster University. The chewing, the protein, the fiber — it all helps to make you feel full longer.
But the real clincher, says de Souza: “The type of carbohydrate in pulses is “slow-release” (low glycemic index) which helps you avoid those blood sugar crashes that leave you hungry for higher-calorie snack foods.”
4. Give cataracts the boot with orange therapy.
Oranges. Strawberries. Broccoli. Bell peppers. “Starting your day with a vitamin C-rich fruit or juice may help you reduce your risk of cataracts,” says Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and author of Nutrition & You.
“After following 1,000 twins for a decade, a study from the journal Ophthalmology (found) that those individuals with the most vitamin C in their diets, not from supplements, had more than a 30 percent reduced risk in the progression of cataracts,” Blake says.
5. Fill up on water 30 minutes before meals.
Need to lose a few pounds? In a 2015 British study in the journal Obesity, half of a group of obese adults was asked to drink a pint of water 30 minutes before meals. The other half was asked to imagine they had a full stomach before eating. After 12 weeks, the water drinkers lost nearly three more pounds on average than the control group.
6. Add a handful of walnuts.
The fat in walnuts may be beneficial to the heart, but aren’t these nuts high in calories? Maybe not.
After feeding walnuts to volunteers, Department of Agriculture scientists noticed participants didn’t absorb all the fat in walnuts, so they adjusted the calorie numbers downward to 146 calories per ounce (instead of 185 calories.) Ditto for almonds, which the same researchers find have 23 percent fewer calories than food labels state.
7. Grab an apple for a snack.
“Apples are a good source of a group of phytochemicals, called polyphenols, which have been shown to help decrease the risk of getting heart disease,” says Blake. “Apples are also rich in pectin, a soluble fiber that can help your lower blood cholesterol levels.” In other words they’re good for reducing overall heart disease risk.
8. Replace some carbs with healthy fats and protein.
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which advocates plenty of vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy foods as well as moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts, works great for lowering blood pressure. But tweaking it yields even more benefits as the OMNI (Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial to Prevent Heart Disease) heart trial shows.
Scientists put participants — average age 54 — on one of three diet plans: the DASH diet; DASH plans that replaced some of the carbohydrate with plant-based proteins like nuts and beans or diets that subbed in unsaturated fats (nuts and olive oil) for some of those carbs.
Both switches helped study participants lower systolic blood pressure and blood fats even more than the DASH plan alone, says Kathy McManus, director of nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“The other important result of both DASH and OMNI was that these changes occurred when body weight was unchanged,” says McManus. “It emphasizes the fact that overweight people can improve their health by improving the quality of their diet even if they don’t lose any weight.”
9. Dine Mediterranean style for your brain.
At a University of Southern California April 2016 seminar, Nutrition, Genomics, and Longevity, scientists touched on many issues facing fiftysomething health, but one in particular: cognition.
“What is going to hit baby boomers in the near future is Alzheimer’s,” says Carin Kreutzer, of the school’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “And it’s going to hit us hard. It may even be bigger than cancer.”
It’s not certain exactly how nutrition fits in to preserving brainpower, but the Mediterranean diet seems promising, Kreutzer says. Olive oil is golden, maybe even healthier than nuts, but don’t focus on specific foods, she says. Focus on the whole Mediterranean style of dining that includes focusing on fresh foods, preparing your own meals, and sitting down and leisurely enjoying them.
10. Ease up on processing’s big 3: sugar, salt and bad fats.
“I believe the food industry has hooked us on sugar,” says Kreutzer. “Same with salt. Same with fat.” At some point, we need to admit that going overboard on processed foods — particularly sweets, salty foods and unhealthy fats (trans, animal fats) — leads to all kinds of unhealthy consequences.
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