The Fiftysomething Diet
A health and aging specialist has developed a smart-eating system specifically for midlife
Weight-loss programs abound. So does nutritional advice. But you’d be hard put to find an eating plan devised specifically for people age 50 and over — until now.
What well may lay claim as the world’s first is currently being deployed by George W. Yu, M.D., a surgeon and specialist in health and aging at Aegis Medical and Research Associates in Annapolis, Md., and the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington. By midlife, says Dr. Yu, “your body enters a different stage, and you must adjust your life and food choices to maintain your figure and your health.”
To that end, Dr. Yu has developed a nutritionally sound tapas-and-global-fusion-food-oriented weight-reduction and maintenance regimen that is likely to appeal to the gastronomically savvy, who, like him, regard food as an adventure. It’s got some iconoclastic surprises in it too, including exotic Eastern spices, small amounts of steak, even lightly buttered bread (once in a while) and the occasional binge meal.
This diet reflects Dr. Yu’s hybrid cosmopolitan background: Born in Shanghai, raised in New York, trained in surgery at Harvard’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he worked in Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi and Honduras before going on to specialize in urological cancers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
It was witnessing the dramatic and dire effects of untimely hormone depletion in his cancer patients, men and women alike, that showed him how loss of the sex hormones (primarily estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) further leads to the loss of bone and musculature (don’t forget — the heart is a muscle) as well as brings on weight gain. Hormone depletion occurs naturally, of course, during menopause and andropause, and plays a major role not only in women losing their hourglass figure and men their “V” shape, but also in sapping the vitality and strength of their earlier years.
But disease enters through the mouth, says Dr. Yu, quoting an ancient Chinese adage, and midlife digestibility plays an equally significant role in age-related weight gain and muscle and bone loss. It’s well known that starting in the 50s the stomach lining atrophies, and there’s a slowdown in the production of stomach and pancreatic enzymes (which process nutrients) and in the movement of the intestinal tract.
This decline in digestibility makes you hungrier and puts you at risk for ill health downstream — from arthritis to cancers. “It’s not a matter of bad genes,” says Dr. Yu. “We’ve learned that genes don’t express themselves unless conditions are right” — food, he says, being the most significant factor of all.
These aspects of the mechanics of aging are the bad news. The good news is that the effects of aging can be delayed, according to Dr. Yu. Specifically, he recommends daily exercise (cross-training, interval training and swimming — which he says is especially beneficial, as lower underwater temperatures force the body to heat up and automatically burn off fat).
But the key, he says, is switching to a healthful diet. For his patients in midlife who are seeking both weight loss and optimal nutrition, Dr. Yu offers individualized eating regimens. These are some of the major tenets:
Restrict calories — but not the volume, texture, taste or nutritional value of the foods you eat. A proponent of the caloric-restriction regimen advanced by Roy Walford, the UCLA pathologist and Biosphere 2 crew member, Dr. Yu believes that cutting calories reduces the risk of disease and can extend life expectancy by as much as 30 percent. No surprise here, but what’s out of the ordinary is his proposing a cyclical diet. You start at 1,600 calories per day for two months. That’s spartan, to be sure, but then you switch to two months at 2,200 calories per day.
“Being on a restricted calorie count alone will change your gene expression to a healthier state within four weeks,” Dr. Yu maintains. And rotating these two calorie counts, he says, helps avoids the “nutritional boredom” that dooms many conventional diets.
Go on a modified 24-hour fast every two months. This break from routine will give your intestinal tract — and your liver, especially — a rest. During the fast, it’s okay to have a small serving of mild soup, rice porridge or mushy brown rice with a bit of flavoring. And drink plenty of water. Fasting produces a unique feeling of lightness and energy, says Dr. Yu.
Be a food rebel and diversify. Don’t eat the same foods every day. Vary your meals and their ethnicity, so you’re getting nutrients from a wide variety of vegetable and animal sources. The idea, says Dr. Yu, “is to mimic nature, but never let nature know what you’re doing. Too much of the same thing produces resistance.”
Drink at least a quart of water every day. Switch between mineral-rich tap water and nearly mineral-free reverse-osmosis water, such as Glaceau Smart Water. The body, Dr. Yu explains, needs ordinary water for optimal metabolism, while the reverse-osmosis variety reduces impurities. An ample water supply also decreases your risk of both constipation and headaches.
Have a substantial breakfast — your only big meal of the day — that's rich in protein and low in carbohydrates. For protein, try a shake with whey, vegan (from Sun Warrior) or soy, as well as a poached egg — whose yolk isn’t oxidized. For carbs, Dr. Yu recommends steel-cut oatmeal, buckwheat or short-grain brown rice with wild rice mixed in for texture. These grains may be cooked as porridge, but first they need to be soaked overnight — just as nuts and beans should be — to eliminate protease inhibitors (which block protein digestion) and phytates (mineral-blocking agents). Flavor with sesame powder, cinnamon or that antioxidant super-food, gogi berries.
Alternatively, have a serving of a not-too-sugary fruit, such as a Granny Smith apple or a mix of berries. Instead of coffee, which overstimulates the adrenal glands and weakens the stress hormones, drink herbal or green tea, or hot water with lemon or lime plus apple cider vinegar. Avoid fruit juice, which is much too sugary. If you crave the citrus flavor of orange juice, have an orange segment or two instead.
Eat six to seven small meals per day, each half the size of your fist. Freeing yourself of the lunch-and-dinner mindset will help you avoid sugar lows and insulin highs. Before you start eating a standard-size lunch, cut off half to save for a couple of hours later. Just doing this will automatically lower insulin and sugar levels. Yet you won’t feel deprived, knowing the second half awaits you.
Do the same split in the evening. If you’re heading for a formal evening meal, have a snack two hours ahead, and eat just a small portion at the official dinner. After a month of half-and-half meals, Dr. Yu’s patients often forget about the second helping.
Never get hungry. Snack on half a fistful or nuts and/or vegetable morsels (like cucumber slices). Some of Dr. Yu’s patients have five small vegetable or nut snacks as an alternative to a big meal. Nuts, in particular, are nutritionally dense, high in proteins and oils your body needs.
Have limited amounts of cholesterol. Cholesterol is the stuff that the sex hormones (still being produced after age 50, albeit in limited amounts), stress hormones, and vitamin D (technically a hormone — not a vitamin at all) are made of. It’s part of every cell membrane in the body, and it insulates the nerves. For frying or spreading on the occasional slice of bread — or, preferably, a WASA whole-grain cracker — use judicious pats of butter. But don't overdo it.
Choose a variety of game and domestic meats — preferably from free-range animals — in paper-thin slices. To avoid eating meat in slabs, buy a kitchen scale and learn to downsize your portions. For most meals, aim for 3.5 ounces of meat, chicken, fish or seafood. Be sure to cut out any marbling fat (that’s where toxic chemicals hide). One of Dr. Yu’s favorites is Boar’s Head paper-thin-sliced rare roast beef. Try it as a roulade, flavored with a sprinkling of sunflower or broccoli sprouts and a smidge of high-quality mustard or horseradish.
Eat bitter greens, as well as other vegetables. Bitter melon (the cucumber-shaped gourd with the bumpy surface, sold in Chinese markets), nopales (the insulin-lowering pads of the Mexican prickly pear), kale, brussel sprouts, broccoli, chard, collard greens, arugula, spinach, tatsoi (an Asian green with spoon-shaped leaves): All of the above clean out the liver and intestines and lower your sugar levels. Try them raw or quick-stirred, steamed, flavored with avocado, walnut, macadamia nut or coconut oil, Celtic sea salt, pepper or black bean sauce. Sunflower, broccoli and pea sprouts are the most nutritious greens with the fewest calories.
Switch to natural sweeteners like Stevia or brown-rice malt syrup. These sugar substitutes avoid the blood sugar surge, followed by an insulin surge.
To lower your sugar and insulin levels, take two gymnema tablets three times a day. Some professional literature indicates that gymnema (sold at health food stores) helps regenerate the pancreas’s beta cells, which produce the insulin needed by the body to stave off sugar highs and diabetes.
Sprinkle anything sweet you eat with cinnamon. This spice also contains a chemical that lowers sugar and insulin levels.
Keep your wine consumption low. Wine may have health-giving benefits, but its sugar content is much too high, says Dr. Yu, who has treated many diabetic oenophiles.
Take a digestive enzyme supplement every day. This helps compensate for the loss of your own enzymes, and will minimize the bloating that often comes after a rich meal for those over age 50. Research has shown that these supplements shrink the pancreas’s beta cells. Dr. Yu recommends the enzymes from Enzyme, Inc., available through medical and nutritional professionals.