The Internet is littered with research concerning nutrition, but there is an absence of information pertaining to nutritional needs as we grow older. Our nutritional needs vary throughout our lives, and understanding how to eat as we get older is vital when it comes to staying healthy.
Key nutrients like B12, protein, vitamin D, and calcium are paramount at any age but are increasingly important as we get older. Recent studies have shown that a plant-based diet can help keep us younger, longer.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Help Us Age More Gracefully?
Dr. Dean Ornish has shown that eating plant-based foods can actually slow the aging process, reduce the risk of disease, and keep us healthier.
One of the main reasons for this? Telomeres.
What are Telomeres?
One way to slow physical aging is by keeping our telomeres, the protective caps at the end of a chromosome, intact.
When cells divide, a portion of our telomeres wears down. Once the protective coating is gone, our chromosomes are compromised, which causes the body to go into repair mode, thus slowing down cell growth. Telomeres essentially keep our genetic makeup youthful, so once they start diminishing, we experience aging from the inside out.
Don’t fret, though! There are ways to keep our telomeres stronger. Exercising regularly, not smoking, and eating a telomere-protective diet rich in plant-based foods are just a few ways to keep our DNA from fizzling out.
In a study conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish and scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, findings showed that eating a plant-based diet actually boosted telomerase activity – the enzyme responsible for keeping telomeres long.
A follow-up study was conducted that showed telomere length had actually increased within the plant-based diet group. To make things even more interesting, an additional study linked diets rich in carotenoids, the organic pigments found in many fruits and vegetables, to longer telomeres.
Decreased Risk of Disease
Telomere length isn’t the only concern associated with aging.
As we get older, our risk of disease increases significantly. Cancer, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inflammation, and arthritis are all ailments whose risk factors increase as we age. Fortunately, it has been shown that a diet rich in plant foods can prevent, decrease, or even reverse some of these ailments.
Tucked inside of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains reside chemical compounds called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals help keep cellular structures strong, strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, and slow the growth of cancer cells – among a plethora of other benefits. Plant-based foods are also rich in nutrients such as fiber, beta-carotene, antioxidants, and lycopene that can help fight cancer and cleanse the body of toxins and excess hormones.
Reduced Risk of Hypertension
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, affects millions of Americans each year. Fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and frequent headaches are all symptoms that should be monitored by a doctor via routine checkups. Hypertension can lead to heart disease and stroke, so it is important to take steps to keep your blood pressure regulated by frequent exercise and healthy eating.
A study of vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and meat eaters was conducted to see how diet impacted blood pressure readings, and the results showed that the vegan group was taking the least amount of antihypertensive medications along with displaying the lowest blood pressure readings of any group. Hypertension can be linked to genetic factors, but unhealthy lifestyle choices reign supreme in increasing your chances of high blood pressure.
Heart Disease Prevention
In the United States, the leading cause of death is heart disease.
Risk factors include elevated stress, inactivity, and obesity. One of the biggest risk factors can be diminished simply by changing the way we eat, yet millions of Americans continue to abide by the Standard American Diet (SAD).
The Western Diet, which is full of processed meats, high saturated fat intake, and excess cholesterol, can cause obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, which are precursors for heart disease.
Diets rich in plant-based foods (which are low in saturated fat and high in fiber) have shown promise in preventing, slowing, and potentially even reversing our number one killer.
Plant-Based Diet Nutrition
As we get older, our nutritional needs change.
We no longer require as many calories, but nutrients like B12, protein, vitamin D, and calcium are as important as ever. That being said, can aging individuals get adequate nutrition without eating meat, dairy, fish, and eggs?
The short answer is yes, but it is important to talk with your doctor and figure out your unique needs. Some of the nutrients you should pay most attention to are as follows.
Most of us know by now that low calcium levels can lead to diseases like osteoporosis – the reduction of bone density that makes individuals susceptible to breaks and fractures.
As we age, our risk of osteoporosis increases, so proper calcium intake is non-negotiable. Some people fear that a diet lacking in dairy products would be insufficient in calcium, but green leafy vegetables, beans, and fortified plant-based milk often provide more calcium than dairy milk, without the artery-clogging cholesterol or the need to breed sentient beings into existence only to suffer needlessly before imminent slaughter.
Doing what you can to avoid supporting the dairy industry isn’t only good for your health and the animals, but it’s great for the environment as well.
Protein is another nutrient that cannot be overlooked as we get older because we tend to lose muscle mass as we age. Luckily for you, beans, nuts, seeds, oats, and various other plants offer us nutrient-rich protein sources with the added benefits of vitamins and minerals. Protein shakes and bars can also be a delicious protein-packed treat for those with a sweet tooth.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so it is important to eat a wide variety of plant-based foods to ensure proper intake of each essential amino.
Quinoa and soybeans are two of the few plant foods that are complete proteins on their own, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids needed in adequate amounts.
Luckily, creating complete proteins from plant-based foods, like mixing vegetables, beans, and rice, is a delicious way to get all the nutrients you need in each meal.
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that is often overlooked on a plant-based diet since the only vegan sources come from supplementation and fortified plant foods.
Some benefits of vitamin B12 include aiding red blood cell formation, assisting proper neurological functions, and giving folate a boost in DNA synthesis. Vitamin B12 can also make you feel more energized, which is important for aging individuals that suffer from fatigue. Many daily vitamins include adequate B12 doses as well as fortified foods like nutritional yeast or breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found in ultraviolet rays from the sun as well as dietary supplements.
It is essential for people of all ages, but especially older individuals since it promotes calcium absorption and bone growth. Calcium and vitamin D are vital in protecting older adults from osteoporosis.
Among those mentioned, a plant-based diet is rich in other vitamins, minerals, and amino acids necessary for proper cell growth and repair, brain, heart, and lung function, and overall optimal health.
How to Improve Nutrition on a Plant-Based Diet
There is a multitude of delicious ways people of any age can obtain proper amounts of essential nutrients. Balanced meals, nutritional shakes, and daily supplements are among the most effective.
Filling your plate with colorful foods such as beans, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fruits is a nutrient-packed way to ensure proper nutritional goals are met while consuming healthy food that is also delicious. Combining plant foods will pack your plate with vitamins as well as provide essential amino acids that create a “complete protein.”
As mentioned above, quinoa and soy are complete proteins on their own, so incorporating these foods into your diet each day is highly recommended.
If eating whole foods like beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables is not an option, companies like OWYN and Perennial are changing how adults intake their nutrients. There are plenty of nutritional shakes on the market, but there are not many wholesome, dairy-free options available.
Companies like OWYN and Perennial use wholesome ingredients like peas, flax, almonds, and rice which provide protein, vitamins, calcium, and fiber. You can use them in a smoothie or enjoy them alone for a boost of energy and plant-based nutrients.
Daily supplements can also be effective, but sometimes are not absorbed as well as the whole food sources and may not provide other beneficial nutrients like fiber. Incorporating a multivitamin can be helpful if you are not able to eat a variety of foods to ensure proper nutrition, or as an extra precaution.
Aging is complicated from the inside out, but that does not mean we should lose hope and succumb to the aches, pains, and diseases that are “expected” later in life.
Eating a rich plant-based diet and fewer (ideally zero) animal products can help keep our bodies working how they should and keep them healthier in the long-term. As with any lifestyle choice, consulting your doctor and listening to your body are important steps to optimal health.
Eating a diet filled with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and the cancer-fighting compounds found in plants, in addition to frequent exercise, can help keep your body working properly and ready for the many years to come.