Healthy eating and healthy aging go hand in hand: The more nutrient-dense foods you pile on your plate (paired with other good-for-you habits like regular exercise and stress management), the greater your likelihood of longevity.
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But eating certain nutrients in excess can increase your odds of developing some chronic diseases and aggravate your ability to age gracefully.
Avoid the potential damage and live longer by limiting these seven nutrients.
Excessive sugar can sabotage your health, especially as you age.
Taking in too much sugar may increase your risk for diabetes and raise your triglyceride levels, potentially leading to heart disease, says Phyllis Famularo, DCN, RD, CSG, a dietitian with a specialty in gerontology. What's more, a diet high in processed foods, including sugar, is associated with obesity, she adds.
Instead, try your best to incorporate more vegetables into your meals, stick to smaller portions of carbohydrates and review food labels for added sugars, says Angel Planells, RDN, FAND, a dietitian with expertise in aging and older adult nutrition and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you want to age healthily, nix nitrate-containing foods from your daily diet.
Nitrates are compounds used to preserve and improve the appearance of certain foods including processed meats like ham, bacon, deli meat and hot dogs, Planells says.
In excess, nitrate-containing foods — which also tend to be high-sodium products — may lead to heart disease by causing the arteries to harden and narrow, Famularo says. And they also appear to be related to the development of diabetes, she says.
Plus, some research has concluded that eating these foods in high amounts may increase the incidence of a variety of cancers, Planells adds.
The takeaway: While it's OK to enjoy these now and again, try to narrow these nitrate-rich foods from your diet.
While you need sodium to survive, in surplus, it can wreak havoc on your health. "Too much sodium can lead to hypertension and heart disease," Famularo says.
Unfortunately, it's all too easy to overdo it in the salt department. That's because some foods — like highly processed packaged foods or restaurant food items — can contain as much as 1,400 milligrams of sodium per serving, Planells says.
For context, it's recommended that we get below 2,000 milligrams of sodium per day, Planells says. Still, the average American gets over 3,200 milligrams daily.
Again, checking food labels is key. Anything with a 20 percent Daily Value (DV) or above is considered a high-sodium food. To slash your sodium, opt for foods that are under 700 milligrams per serving and bump up your fruit and vegetable intake, Planells says.
4. Trans Fat
Artificial trans fats — man-made substances used to enhance the taste, texture and shelf-life of processed foods — are such a hindrance to health, they were deemed unsafe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Here's why: Trans fats can raise your bad cholesterol (while lowering your good cholesterol levels) and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
What's more, a diet high in trans fats can harm your brain health, too. An October 2019 study in Neurology found that people with higher levels of man-made trans fats in their blood had a greater likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
And while the FDA banned them from most foods, a product may be considered "trans-fat free" if it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, Planells says. Though that sounds like a teensy amount of trans fats, these small servings can add up over time.
To avoid the trans-fat trap, limit your intake of fried foods, fast food, animal-based foods (such as red meats and dairy), margarine, non-dairy creamer, crackers, cookies, cakes, pastries and some frozen foods (like pizza), Planells says.
5. Saturated Fats
Like trans fats, saturated fats in excess amounts can inadvertently increase your risk for developing certain health problems as you age.
A diet high in saturated fats coupled with high-sodium foods can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions, Famularo says.
Famularo recommends limiting saturated fats to 10 percent of your daily calories. One way to do this is by cutting your intake of animal products. "The push to plant-based diets is the best way to reduce saturated fats found predominantly in animal foods," she says.
Planell agrees you should pack your plate with plants like fruits and veggies, and choose whole grains, legumes and healthier fats like olive oil.
6. Folic Acid
Folic acid is a B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, beans and enriched breads and cereals. It aids the body in making new cells and is especially important for pregnant people as it helps prevent neural tube defects in the growing fetus, Famularo says.
But, "some research has indicated that too much folic acid in older adults can cause peripheral neuropathy (a type of nerve damage)," Famularo explains.
Consequently, always talk to your doctor before taking folic acid supplements.
We require iron for many functions, including the transport of oxygen from our lungs to all the other parts our bodies, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
But, as we age, our iron needs often change. For example, once a person goes through menopause, the requirement for iron significantly drops, Famularo says.
And if you continue to get more iron than your body needs, it can do damage to your health. Indeed, excess iron can build up in tissues, particularly in the liver, pancreas, heart, joints and brain, and may contribute to certain types of cancers and diabetes, Famularo says.
So always check with your doctor about whether it's safe to take an iron supplement.