Who doesn't want to look and feel good into their golden years? The solution to a graceful aging process might just be on your plate.
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While there is no fountain of youth, the food you eat can either help or hinder your health into middle age and beyond. Here, Phyllis Famularo, DCN, RD, CSG, a dietitian with a specialty in gerontology, shares the most common nutrition mistakes that can inadvertently age you.
1. Eating Too Much Sodium
On average, Americans take in more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which is a lot more than the dietary guidelines' recommendation of 2,300 milligrams, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But eating too much sodium can lead to hypertension and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, Famularo says. This is especially problematic because our arteries, which already tend to harden as we age, become more vulnerable to the damaging effects of sodium. In fact, approximately 70 to 75 percent of older adults have high blood pressure, she says.
Fix it: Most of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed, packaged foods and restaurant fare, per the CDC. So, try dining out less and opt for low-sodium foods: Start by reading the nutrition info on food labels (20 percent DV or more is considered high in sodium).
And when eating high-sodium foods, pair them with high-potassium foods (like bananas, sweet potatoes or spinach), which can help neutralize sodium's detrimental effects, Famularo says.
2. Skimping on Vegetables
Not eating enough produce is linked to a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies, diabetes, heart disease and even certain cancers, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Fix it: Pile your plate with produce. From providing heart-healthy fiber to anti-inflammatory vitamins and minerals and free-radical-fighting antioxidants, the benefits of fruits and vegetables are endless, Famularo says.
3. Eating Too Much Added Sugar
From cookies to ketchup, salad dressings and soups, it's almost impossible to avoid sneaky sources of added sugar in foods. Sweetened beverages alone account for 47 percent of all added sugars in the American diet, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
But your sweet tooth can have a serious effect on your heart health. Taking in too much added sugar can contribute to higher blood pressure, chronic inflammation, weight gain, diabetes and fatty liver disease, which are all associated with a greater risk for heart attack and stroke, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Fix it: Read food labels carefully and aim for foods with no added sugars.
People assigned male at birth (AMAB) should get no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day while people assigned female at birth (AFAB) should aim for no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories), per the AHA.
4. Avoiding All Fats
While limiting saturated fats — which is thought to raise your bad cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease — is a smart strategy for overall health, you shouldn't forgo all fats in your diet if you want to age well.
Fats not only keep your body warm, but they're also fundamental for giving your body energy, supporting cell growth, protecting your organs and helping your body absorb certain nutrients, per the AHA.
Fats also insulate your joints, and one type of polyunsaturated fat in particular — omega-3 fatty acids — promotes heart health, Famularo says. Indeed, omega-3s can lower triglyceride levels and increase "good" HDL cholesterol levels, which can help reduce plaque buildup in the arteries and, consequently, decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Eating a diet plentiful in omega-3s may also lower your likelihood of developing cognitive problems, some types of cancer and eye disease, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: Incorporate more omega-3-rich foods into your diet. Some of the best sources include salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, sardines and canola oil, Famularo says.
5. Sipping on Soft Drinks
Not only can sweetened soft drinks hinder healthy aging by possibly hurting your heart health, but they may also be a bust for your bones, too. Case in point: A February 2020 study published in Nutrients found that drinking too many soft drinks daily is directly related to bone fracture risk.
With so many people choosing soft drinks over dairy-based beverages like milk that contain calcium, this is particularly problematic, Famularo says.
Fix it: Limit your soda intake and opt for healthier drinks that provide essential nutrients for bone health such as calcium- and vitamin D-fortified juices and milk, per Harvard Health Publishing.
6. Not Getting Enough Protein
Once you turn 30, you start to lose up to 5 percent of muscle per decade, according to Harvard Health Publishing. And while some degree of age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, is to be expected, it can lead to greater weakness and less mobility, and consequently, an increased risk of falls and fractures.
Your diet — particularly your protein intake — plays an important role in combatting sarcopenia and preserving your muscle mass as you age. However, approximately a third of older Americans don't get the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein (0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight), according to a July 2017 study in Contemporary Clinical Trials.
To make matters worse, sometimes your body's ability to break down and synthesize protein lessens as you age, which means that you might require even more of the muscle-building macro to fulfill your needs, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Fix it: Pack more protein into each snack and meal. The same study found that eating 1.3 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight significantly increased lean muscle mass, muscle performance and physical function in older men.
Still, Famularo points out that some may have difficulty chewing high-protein foods like meat due to dental or swallowing issues. So, to get adequate protein, focus on sources that are more easily enjoyed like dairy and eggs, she says.
And even though whole-food sources are ideal, you can also supplement your protein with protein powders if need be, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
7. Forgetting About Fiber
"Adequate fiber is the secret to ensuring that your GI tract functions well, maintains healthy bacteria and prevents the build-up of toxins that can lead to colon and other GI cancers," Famularo says.
Fiber is also fundamental for a healthy heart as it may help lower blood cholesterol levels and decrease your risk of heart disease, according to the USDA.
However, 95 percent of Americans fall short when it comes to getting enough fiber per day, according to a July 2016 paper in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
Fix it: The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend between 25 and 34 grams of fiber a day if you're under 50, or 22 to 28 grams if you're over.
"Consuming fruits, vegetables and whole grains daily can help you meet your fiber needs," Famularo says.
8. Drinking a Lot of Alcohol
The occasional cocktail is OK, but drinking too much booze daily can deteriorate your aging process.
"Alcohol abuse has increased in older adults in the past two decades and can have deleterious effects on health and wellbeing," Famularo says.
Indeed, over time, drinking too much alcohol can contribute to some types of cancer as well as liver damage, immune system disorders and brain damage, and it can also exacerbate other health conditions, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss and mood disorders, according to the National Institute of Aging.
What's more, "older adults are more sensitive to alcohol due to changes in body composition and often take medications that can interact with alcohol in a negative way," Famularo adds.
Fix it: Drink in moderation. People AMAB should stick to a maximum of two drinks per day while people AFAB should consume no more than one, per the CDC.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How to Reduce Sodium”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Sodium and Food Sources”
- American Society For Nutrition: "Millions of Cardiovascular Deaths Attributed to Not Eating Enough Fruits and Vegetables"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables"
- Harvard Health Publishing: “The sweet danger of sugar”
- American Heart Association: “How much sugar is too much?”
- American Heart Association: “Dietary Fats”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Why Omega-3s Are Good for You”
- Contemporary Clinical Trials: “Design of a randomized trial to determine the optimum protein intake to preserve lean body mass and to optimize response to a promyogenic anabolic agent in older men with physical functional limitation.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Preserve your muscle mass”
- USDA’s My Plate: “Grains”
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: “Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- National Institute of Aging: “Facts About Aging and Alcohol”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol”
- Nutrients: “High Consumption of Soft Drinks Is Associated with an Increased Risk of Fracture: A 7-Year Follow-Up Study”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “By the way, doctor: Does carbonated water harm bones?”