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To help fend off depression, achy joints and more, supercharge your diet with these nutrient-packed foods
“You are what you eat”: It’s a popular saying because it’s true. While no single food can halt the aging process, the foods you put on your plate can play a big role in aging well.
“Many health issues that older adults are most concerned about, from arthritis to osteoporosis, can be at least partly managed by good eating habits,” says Elizabeth Somer, R.D.N., a registered dietitian and editor of Nutrition Alert, a research newsletter. In fact, smarter eating can even help keep some chronic health conditions at bay to begin with.
Ready to help boost your brain power, fortify your bone health and more? Here are the foods to add to your grocery list.
The goal: Protect your bones
Eat more: Canned salmon and dried plums
Canned salmon is budget-friendly and convenient. And to help your bones stay strong, it does double duty: It’s a great source of protein and vitamin D.
Protein, a critical nutrient, is especially important for bone health. A 2017 study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that older adults whose diets were high in protein had less fracture risk than those whose diets fell short on this nutrient. Other research confirms this finding.
“Up to half of your bone weight is made up of protein, which is why it’s so important for strong, flexible bones,” says Somer. How much protein do you need? A good daily goal, she suggests, is at least 0.36 gram per pound of your body weight. So let’s do the math: If you weigh 150 pounds, aim for 54 grams of protein a day. A mere 3 ounces of canned salmon has 18 grams. That gets you a third of the way there.
Now about that vitamin D: It goes hand in hand with calcium. Your bones need vitamin D because it’s needed for proper calcium absorption. Over time, low vitamin D levels can speed up bone aging, Somer warns.
Most foods don’t have a lot of vitamin D, if any. That’s why salmon and other fatty fish species are so healthy. Canned sockeye salmon has about 40% more vitamin D than pink salmon does. That’s nearly a full day’s worth in a 3-ounce serving.
Snack time is another chance to give your bones a boost. If you like plums, you’re in luck: Dried plums are a good source of vitamin K, which helps certain bone-forming proteins, such as osteocalcin, do their jobs better. Just 2 dried plums a day can help slow bone loss, the Journal of Medicinal Food reports. Plums are also abundant in boron, a little-known trace mineral that’s essential for bone growth and maintenance.
Sneak them in: Think beyond the sandwich: Use canned salmon in fish patties and pasta salad, or as an alternative to meat loaf. Eat dried plums all on their own, or add them to oatmeal or yogurt for a nutritious hit of natural sweetness.
Help boost your nutrition IQ
Ready to expand your healthy eating knowledge — and more? Renew’s nutrition resources can help. Learn tips for portion control and making healthy food swaps, take an online learning course or dive into one of our many nutrition articles and videos. Sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Nutrition in the Quick Links section to get started. Not a member? Learn more here.
The goal: Safeguard your brain health
Eat more: Beets and avocados
Sweet beets look pretty on the plate and pack a nutritional punch. Their secret weapon? Compounds called nitrates. A Wake Forest University study suggests that nitrates may help increase blood flow to areas of the brain that are vulnerable to cognitive decline. In your body, nitrates are converted to nitrites, which help dilate blood vessels, improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body. Other good sources of nitrates include arugula, spinach, celery and parsley.
As for avocados, break out the guacamole and celebrate. In a study from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, older adults who ate an avocado a day saw significant improvement in their working memory and problem-solving efficiency. Avocados are rich in the antioxidant lutein, which can boost your brain’s operating power, the study authors say. Dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, are other good sources of lutein.
“Your brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue. That means it’s exposed to a huge daily dose of free radicals, which can damage brain cells,” says Somer. “Over time, that can contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking associated with aging. Fortunately, antioxidants like lutein can deactivate these harmful free radicals.”
Sneak them in: Roasted beets are a great side dish, and they can be blended into dips and soups. (Many grocery stores now carry vacuum-sealed prepped beets, so you can keep your hands clean.) Add avocado slices to salads, tacos and scrambled eggs. Or include cubed avocado in salsas for grilled meats and seafood.
The goal: Brighten your mood
Eat more: Brazil nuts and yogurt
Brazil nuts are a great snack to keep on hand for those “blah” days, says Somer. That’s because they’re rich in the mineral selenium. In fact, just a single Brazil nut provides more than an entire day’s worth of selenium. Why is selenium so great? A 2019 study in the journal Nutrients (along with other supporting research) found it to be a natural mood lifter that may help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Selenium has a balancing effect on “chemical messengers,” called neurotransmitters, that send mood-related signals from one part of your brain to another, Somer explains. Dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are 3 of those messengers that benefit from selenium.
Yogurt is another mood brightener. Emerging data from many sources, including the Journal of Neuroscience Research, suggests that your body has a gut-brain link. It turns out that yogurt contains probiotics, which help support what’s called your “gut microbiome.” A gut with a balanced population of microorganisms, the thinking goes, influences your central nervous system to help lower your odds of anxiety and depression.
Just be sure to choose plain yogurt to limit added sugar in your diet. A recent University of Kansas study suggests that eating (and drinking) too much added sugar could set you up for depression. Kefir, sauerkraut and pickles are other foods that contain probiotics.
Sneak them in: Try adding 2 chopped Brazil nuts (which equals 1 serving) to cereal, salads or homemade pesto. Or stir them into a bowl of plain yogurt sweetened with berries or other fruit. You can also use yogurt in smoothies or in batter for baked goods and pancakes. Yogurt is also a good replacement for sour cream or mayo in tuna salad or chicken salad.
Find a new favorite dish
Looking for healthier new recipes to tempt your taste buds? Browse Renew’s collection of recipes and get cooking. Sign into your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Recipe Library in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.
The goal: Tame inflammation
Eat more: Tomatoes and lentils
Inflammation is a natural process of your body’s immune system. When bacteria or an infection strikes, inflammation helps your body heal. But if your body stays in a constant, chronic state of inflammation, your body stays in a state of high alert. That can make your immune system turn on itself, possibly putting you at greater risk for heart disease, dementia, diabetes and certain cancers.
But eating more of certain foods can help. Tomatoes, for example, got high marks from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who studied the inflammation-slaying powers of various foods. Tomatoes and tomato sauce contain a slew of antioxidants, including vitamin C and lycopene. These can help slow down the production of pro-inflammatory compounds.
Lentils make the cut because of their fiber. A high-fiber diet in general, and especially one that contains more lentils, has been shown to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation that your health care provider can now test for. The trouble is, most people don’t consume nearly enough fiber. Working fiber-rich foods into every meal is key, says Somer. Inexpensive lentils, with 8 grams of fiber per half cup cooked, are ideal.
Sneak them in: Add sliced tomatoes to salads, pasta dishes, omelets and sandwiches. Tomato sauce can add fresh flavor to stews and braises for meats and seafood, such as salmon. Lentils make a great base for grain bowls featuring chopped colorful veggies. Add them to soups, stuffed potatoes or veggie burgers. Or use them in burritos instead of meat or beans.
The goal: Better manage arthritis
Eat more: Fatty fish and blueberries
Although you can’t cure your arthritis through diet, you may be able to choose certain foods to ease some of the painful symptoms. Rainbow trout, salmon and mackerel, for example, have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3s found in these fish are mentioned in various studies of the role of diet in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. A 2019 report in Frontiers in Immunology suggests that omega-3s may help lessen the impact of morning stiffness and even help reduce flare-ups of swollen, uncomfortable joints.
Why are omega-3 fats so great for cranky joints? Well, arthritis is largely an autoimmune inflammatory disease. Omega-3 fats, especially the EPA and DHA omega-3s found in seafood, have properties that can block pro-inflammatory compounds from forming. That, in turn, lowers inflammation in your body, including in your joints. Other fish that are high in omega-3s: arctic char, herring and sardines.
Blueberries are another food with arthritis-soothing powers. Fresh or frozen, blueberries have heaps of polyphenols, which are potent antioxidants that seem to ease pain, inflammation and joint stiffness in people who have various forms of arthritis, says Somer. In fact, in a survey of patients in Arthritis Care & Research, blueberries were named as the food most likely to improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Spinach also got high marks.
Sneak them in: Nearly any salmon recipe you like, can work for trout and mackerel, too. Try grilled or oven-baked fillets. You can also break apart the cooked flesh and add it to salads, pasta and tacos. As for blueberries, try them as a sweet counterpoint to savory sauces for meats and fish. Or sprinkle them into muffin batter or a green salad.
Put these foods into action for you
Now that you know why these superfoods are so important to your overall health, learn how to put them into action in your kitchen with Renew’s Healthy Aging Meal Plan. Sign into your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then type Healthy Aging Meal Plan in the search bar. Not a member? Learn more here.