Is there a best diet for older adults?
As we age, our metabolisms naturally slow down – it’s inevitable. This poses a unique problem for older adults because a huge component of weight loss is muscle mass. In a sort of paradoxical approach to weight loss, we cut calories but that causes us to lose muscle, which in turn slows down weight loss.
Rough deal though this may be, it simply means that older adults need to approach weight loss from a different angle in order to be successful. Ultimately with weight loss, we’re actually speaking of “fat loss” as the desirable part. Weight loss itself can mean fat, water, or muscle, and two of those things we don’t necessarily want to lose.
So how can older adults lose fat while retaining muscle and getting healthy? There are very key nutritive obstacles and hurdles to losing fat as an older adult but it’s okay because with a little knowledge and planning, you can completely change your outlook on fat loss, your health, and your well-being.
High protein + low calories = fat loss
While high protein has long been touted as something that will damage your kidneys or leach calcium from your bones, the truth is that it’s simply not true. High protein in the diet, as long as your kidneys are healthy, won’t put an extra strain on them or hurt you. In fact, protein is highly satiating, meaning meals full of it will keep you fuller for longer. This is step one of fat loss, keeping your protein high. High protein is also nitrogen-sparing, which is a fancy way of saying that it keeps your body from eating your muscles in a calorie deficit. More muscle means a higher metabolism which in turn means more fat burned.
The second part of this equation is keeping calories lower. Fat cannot be lost if you’re taking in more calories than you’re expending, and as we age, our bodies simply need fewer calories. Part of the dwindling of energy expenditure is because we lose muscle, so of course if we cut calories without keeping protein high, we’re going to burn muscle AND fat, and even though that equals weight loss, it’s not healthy. Just like there are plenty of overweight and obese people who have healthy hearts and bodies, there are plenty of skinny people who do not, so simply losing weight isn’t the answer.
A further concern with older adults looking to lose fat is the impact that cutting calories has on bone density and overall health. Cutting calories too much can cause calcium leaching from bones, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis. The loss of muscle from unfocused weight loss is also troubling, as it further reduces your ability to minimize aging-related weaknesses or the ability to recover from sickness or an accident.
Implementing this diet
The good news is that keeping calories lower is much, much easier to do when you’re eating more protein. Unlike carbs which flood your blood with glucose and raise your insulin, protein releases energy steadily, digests more slowly, and has a useful basis in nutrition. There are many essential amino acids found in protein-rich foods, but there are literally zero essential carbohydrates. Additionally, the insulin spike from carbs increases your hunger further, which causes an unending cycle of hunger and eating – not good for fat loss.
Fat is another essential nutrient with a host of hormonal and neurological needs, so keeping your fat intake medium is a good way to ensure mental clarity and health. Because fat and protein both play vital roles in simple functioning of your body (fat also helps your body absorb a host of vitamins and minerals), keeping calories low while ensuring you get proper nutrition means cutting empty calories. Most often, these take the form of grains, bread, and sugar.
By cutting grains, bread, sugar, and other processed carbohydrates in favor of satiating protein and fat, you will enter a state in which you can simply not be hungry. This will help your fat loss efforts while preserving your muscles, keeping your metabolism up, your body strong, and protecting your bones. While everyone needs a nutrient-dense diet, older adults in particular need to ensure that when they’re cutting calories they’re not cutting out nutrition. Focus on:
- Fresh vegetables – primarily leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Certain fruits like berries and whole apples, eating the skin in particular
- Avoiding grains and processed carbs (and processed foods in general). These are usually FULL of empty calories
- Healthy meat and seafood
- Healthy fats like coconut oil, avocados, nuts, and olive oil
Eat naturally and you’ll naturally lose fat
No matter how you frame it, the best diet for older adults is one where protein is high and calories are low – there simply isn’t any room for eating highly processed, empty calories. By preserving muscle, your metabolism will stay elevated, helping you burn fat quickly and easily and preserving your bones.
The easiest way to get to a state of effortless weight loss is to concentrate on eating whole foods, in particular, nutritious vegetables and fruits, meats, eggs, and nuts. When your food is full of nutrition, your body needs less of it, and when you’re eating less food, your body will be forced to burn that stubborn fat for energy, and in turn, you’ll lose weight in a healthy, controlled, and focused way.