We’ve often heard the phrase “you are what you eat.”  This sentiment was first spoken by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826 when he said, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”  It has long been recognized that nutrition has a direct impact on one’s health. The foods we eat are so important because they provide the nutrients our body needs to function.  A good diet can provide protection against chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, aid in healing, and boost our immune system. It is said that a 70-year old’s immune system is only about 25% as efficient as it was at age 10.  Because older adults are often not as active as they were in earlier years, they usually do not require the same number of calories they did previously. It is imperative that older adults choose their calories wisely to ensure they receive the necessary nutrients.  Because most chronic illnesses have been linked to diet, they are often preventable through diet and lifestyle changes.

What do we mean by “good nutrition”?  There is consensus that a healthy diet will be high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fiber, and low in red meats, sugars, saturated fats, cholesterol, and processed foods.  Don’t forget to hydrate! A great way to “spruce up” your water is to add fruits and vegetables. Try adding chunks of watermelon, cucumber, berries, or slices of citrus, to give it more flavor. Tuft’s University has a wonderful Pyramid Guide for Older Adults:

One of my very favorite research studies in graduate school was referenced by Dr. Rhonda Patrick. The study focused on the role of nutrition on chronic diseases.  Mice were divided into two groups – one fed the “normal” Western diet, high in sugar and fat, and the other group fed a healthy diet. Both sets of mice were genetically predisposed to develop certain diseases.  The mice who were fed the typical Western diet went on to develop those diseases. The other group fed a healthy diet, not only avoided the development of those diseases, but did not pass those dominant genes onto their offspring.  They were either in a recessive position, or not at all. This study exemplifies the importance of a healthy diet and the impact it has on not only one’s health, but the health of their offspring as well. The idea that we can turn genes off and on through lifestyle choices is a field called epigenetics, and it is encouraging to see how much control we actually do have over our aging experience.

I think back to the way my family ate when I was growing up.  I lived in Florida and we always had large vegetable gardens. I remember the summer evenings of everyone grabbing their bushel basket and snapping beans, shelling peas, shucking corn, etc.  I didn’t have the appreciation for those vegetables that I do now, but it gave me a great head start into life and the knowledge of how important those fruits and vegetables were to my health.  While the garden, for us, was a way of saving money, eating well these days can be more costly than loading up on the cheap processed foods. Here are some tips for eating healthy on a budget:

  • If you are able and it’s something you enjoy, have a vegetable garden.  It doesn’t have to be big, and there are many things that you can grow indoors with a hydroponic indoor garden kit (available on Amazon).
  • Shop your local farmer’s market when in season.
  • Shop for fruits and vegetables that are in-season, as they are often less expensive.
  • Check out websites like Misfits Market that offer fresh organic produce up to 40% off because they may not look “quite right” and have been passed up by local grocery stores.
  • Plan your meals but have some flexibility.  If you’re wanting to make a great wheat pasta dish with broccoli and mushrooms, but asparagus and peppers are on sale, switch them out.
  • Think about making meals with grains like farro, bulgar, or quinoa, as the grains go a long way, especially when vegetables are added.  Quinoa, by the way, is a complete protein all to itself.
  • Beans and lentils are also healthy choices and go a long way when paired with grains.  Combined, the beans and grains also make a complete protein. It is not necessary that they be consumed at the same meal – but on the same day.
  • Stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables when on sale.
  • Easy ways to get your nutrients are in smoothies (almond milk, kale or spinach, banana, blueberries or other berries, Greek non-fat yogurt, flax seed), grain bowls, and soups.