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Macronutrients for Healthy Aging

Macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fat) make up the bulk of what we eat every day, and our body needs a healthy balance of each

By Abby McCoy

Throughout human history, we have searched for ways to slow down the aging process. As you add more candles on your birthday cake each year, your organs, cells, brain and muscles work at a slightly lower capacity than the year before, and are more prone to chronic health issues. 

Two bowls of healthy balanced meals with macronutrients. Next Avenue
Some fad diets severely restrict certain macro groups (or cut them out altogether) but your body works best with the right macronutrient proportions.  |  Credit: Monika Grabkowska

"Giving your body the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates provides significant benefits."

But you don't have to sit back and let the effects of aging snowball. A new push in the health care world has fought against ageism and embraced terms like "productive aging" and "successful aging." A myriad of activities and habits can improve how you age, and recent research suggests your diet has a huge part to play. 

Macronutrients like protein, for example, can help you hold on to muscle and keep your brain sharp. It turns out the right balance of macronutrients can help you ease into aging at your best. 

What Are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients make up the bulk of what we eat every day, and our body needs a healthy balance of each. The three main macronutrients are: 

  • Proteins
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats

Both macronutrients and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are important, says Malia Frey, nutrition expert, certified health coach and author of "Macro Diet for Dummies." Some fad diets out there severely restrict certain macro groups (or cut them out altogether), says Frey, but your body works best with the right macronutrient proportions.

"Giving your body the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates provides significant benefits," says Frey. "Simply put, when you consume a balanced diet, you provide your body with the best building blocks to help it perform at its best."

Proteins

Protein does a lot for your body, including the creation of hormones, infection-fighting antibodies and neurotransmitters (brain messengers). This macronutrient is your body's builder and repairman. "Proteins are crucial in building and repairing tissues …muscles, organs and the immune system," says Brittany Werner, RDN and Director of Coaching at Working Against Gravity.  

Carbohydrates

"Carbohydrates are your body's preferred energy source," says Frey. Once in your stomach, your body breaks carbohydrates (carbs) down into sugar, which it then uses for energy. "Carbohydrates are…particularly vital for our brain's optimal function," adds Werner. However, not all carbohydrates hold the same value. The healthiest carbs include plenty of fiber, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. 

Fats

While plenty of diets tell you to avoid fats like your least-favorite family member, you need fat to function. Fats help your body make hormones, store energy and keep your body temperature steady, among other important tasks. Like carbohydrates, some fats are better for you than others. Healthy fats like omega-3 found in fatty fish, flaxseeds and walnuts give you the most health benefits with the least health costs, says Werner.

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The Impact on an Aging Brain and Body

Now that you know what macronutrients do for you, we can talk about how they help you age better. 

Give You Energy

All three macros give you energy, but fats give you the highest return on energy investment – they pack more energy in a smaller amount. Carbs also give you energy, and healthier options help it last a lot longer. For example, if you eat a handful of Skittles, you'll start buzzing pretty quick, but experience a crashing dip in energy soon after. Snacking on some crisp veggies or a few whole grain crackers will keep you going without the sugar crash.

Boost Brain Health Function

All three macros give your brain a boost. "Glucose is the brain's primary fuel," says Werner, and glucose (sugar) comes from carbohydrates. Good carbs keep your blood sugar levels stable, which keeps your brain from getting tired, Werner adds.

Proteins influence your mood, concentration and how well your brain functions overall, says Werner, and fats (especially omega-3s) may even protect you against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

"Adequate protein intake can help preserve muscle mass and can even help you gain muscle…when paired with a strength training program."

Slow Muscle Loss

Proteins are your muscles' building blocks, so it makes sense that getting enough of this macro can help you keep your strength up. "Adequate protein intake can help preserve muscle mass and can even help you gain muscle…when paired with a strength training program," says Frey. 

Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight

As some adults age, keeping to a healthy weight can feel like a balancing act. Some gain more weight than their health care provider recommends, which can contribute to chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. But losing too much weight can also cause health issues, like osteoporosis and anemia. The right balance of macronutrients can keep your weight in the sweet spot.

Fight Disease

Your immune system is a complex network of cells and systems that help your body fight off infection, and the macronutrients you eat allow this system to keep you safe. Good nutrition can also prevent chronic diseases. In fact, one study found omega-3 fats protected people against cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Lower Inflammation

Inflammation is part of your immune response, but chronic inflammation can put you on the path to more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Here's where your good fats come to the rescue and tamp down inflammation throughout your body, lowering your health risk.

"Pay attention to how your body responds to different macronutrient ratios."

Maximize a Macro Diet for Healthy Aging

After all that information, where can you start? By tracking your daily macronutrients. Nutrient tracking is the foundation of the "macro diet," says Frey. But before you can figure out just how to set your protein, carb and fat goals, you first need to set a daily calorie goal.

Calorie Goals

Older adults need fewer daily calories, but your calorie goal is still very individual. You can use a calorie calculator to find out just how many you need daily, or you can follow the general guidelines of 2,000 calories per day. Once you know your calorie goal, you can count your macronutrients.

Calculate and Track Macros

Keep in mind that not all macros are equal in calories, and fats come with more than double the calories by weight than carbs or proteins. The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends these percentages of your total calories for the day:

  • Proteins: 10 to 35%
  • Fats: 20 to 35%
  • Carbs: 45 to 65%

If you're not a huge fan of math, this may sound overwhelming. And yes, you can track your macros by hand with a pen and paper. But you can also use various nutrient calculators to do all that work for you.

Focus on Protein for Healthy Aging

Don't know where to begin? Start by counting your protein. We all need more protein as we age, and new studies show protein can help you age better. "More and more peer-reviewed data shows how vital adequate protein intake is in brain function, muscle retention and overall health," says Werner.

Protein needs may vary by individual but a good general recommendation is to aim for 0.8g -1.0g of protein per pound of your ideal weight," says Werner. So, if you want to weigh 180 lbs, for example, you can shoot for 144 to 180 grams of protein each day.

"Pay attention to how your body responds to different macronutrient ratios," Werner adds. "Monitor energy levels, cognitive function and overall well-being. Adjust your diet as needed and be open to making changes as your health status evolves."

When in doubt, ask your health care provider for a referral to a nutrition professional who can help you sort all your macro needs and start you down a nutrition path that will pave the way for successful aging.

Abby McCoy
Abby McCoy is an RN of 16 years who has worked with adults and pediatric patients encompassing trauma, orthopedics, home care, transplant, and case management. She has practiced nursing all over the world, from San Fransisco, CA, to Tharaka, Kenya. Read More
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