photograph by Darren Baker | Dreamstime
Healthy eating habits are essential to our overall wellness and longevity, and following a proper meal plan is the best way to maintain weight and health.
Christina Turner, MS, RD, LDN, clinical dietitian for Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, says proper meal plans are based on the individual. “Seeing a dietitian is the best way to determine your calorie needs and your protein needs because a dietitian will factor in age, physical activity, and medical history, as well as medications or supplements that may cause weight gain or weight loss.”
As we age, our metabolism slows down, and there is typically a decrease in physical activity, especially in women and men over 50. “This is a good time, especially for women during the menopausal phase, to decrease portion sizes and try to increase physical activity as much as possible,” Turner says. “You typically see deposits of fat around the abdomen, hips, and thigh area at that age, so any kind of extra activity that you can get in, 30 to 60 minutes a day, is recommended.”
Though, in general, Turner says there are no real differences in the way we should eat based on age, women over 50 need to make sure they incorporate enough calcium and vitamin D into their diets. “Ideally you want to have at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, which is pretty hard to attain, so having a calcium citrate supplement might be a good idea,” Turner says.
It is best to eat five to six small meals a day instead of the three larger meals that we typically eat. That’s not always feasible for everyone considering their schedules, so packing healthy snacks to eat throughout the day is suggested. That way, you can have something between meals and will tend to eat a little bit less when it’s meal time.
When meal time comes, you want to be aware of what you’re putting on your plate. “You want to have enough fruits and vegetables in your diet. That’s key,” Turner says. “Of course, that would be from fresh sources or frozen. You want to try to avoid cans as much as possible to limit sodium,” which is often used as a preservative in canned goods. She also suggests lean protein, like chicken, turkey, fish, tofu, or beans. It’s also good to include whole grains, like whole grain cereals, breads, whole wheat pasta, and brown rice. “Those are going to offer you some additional fiber to help you feel full, as well as add B vitamins,” Turner says. “And low-fat or fat-free dairy, such as milk, yogurt, or cheese, is a good thing to have in the diet because it provides calcium.”
Healthy snacks for between meals include things like raw nuts — almonds, walnuts, or pistachios are good — because they offer Omega 3. Those are good to have every day, but you only want about a handful — not more than that because they are high in fat. Some argue that the fat in nuts is a better fat, but what it’s really about is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat. “The nuts are going to provide more polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fatty acids. Those are the fats that do not clog the arteries, so they don’t harden and cause plaque,” Turner says. “However, nuts are high in calories, so we want to limit them for that reason, but they don’t have the saturated fat in them that leads to plaque buildup and heart disease.”
For people who have heart issues or high blood pressure, it’s very important to decrease sodium, so you want to try to avoid canned foods, canned soups, and processed meats, like bologna, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs. “Those foods tend to be high in sodium, so it’s best to avoid them. Sauces, too. People don’t think about it, but salad dressings, soy sauce, and barbecue sauce have a lot of sodium, so cutting back on those types of foods is what I recommend to my patients,” Turner says. “Also any kind of cake or cookie, anything that tends to be higher in fat, I would try to limit that as much as you can.”
Portion control is the best way to maintain weight. “Looking at choosemyplate.gov is a good example to give people a visual of what their plate should look like. The plate should be half-filled with fruits and vegetables,” Turner says. “Those foods are higher in fiber, and thus they fill you up quicker, so you don’t tend to eat as much when you have more fruits and vegetables in your diet, as well as whole grains.” Turner also suggests that people slow down when they’re eating.
Once you’ve eaten a moderate portion, wait 15 to 20 minutes before going back for seconds. “That gives the brain time to signal to the stomach that it’s full,” she says. “Also drinking water with meals or before meals can help you to feel fuller and not eat as much.”
It’s also worth noting that many people often feel that they’re hungry when in fact they may just be thirsty. “I do tell my patients, unless of course they’re on a fluid restriction diet, to try to drink eight ounces of water before they eat or if they feel hungry,” Turner says. “Drink some water, wait 10 to 15 minutes, and see if you’re still hungry.”
Turner says a good way to lose weight is to cut back 500 calories a day from what you are generally eating. That will lead to a one-to-two-pound weight loss per week. Of course, any kind of physical activity, 30 to 60 minutes a day, will also help with weight loss.
“Losing one to two pounds a week is what we call sustainable weight loss,” Turner says. “At the one-to-two-pound-a-week range, you’re actually losing weight and not just fluids that you would lose if you were dehydrating yourself or going on one of those diets where you’re basically breaking down glycogen and urinating out fluid.” The liver stores glycogen, which is composed of glucose molecules. It’s how we store our energy. If you have a calorie deficit, your body breaks down that glycogen for fuel, and when it breaks it down, it releases water, and you urinate. “The one to two pounds a week is basically a standard for what is considered healthy weight loss,” Turner says.
There really is no specific calorie range that is recommended for everyone, she says, because we’re all different, and have different needs. So all aspects should be evaluated by a dietitian to properly assess calorie requirements. “Research shows there’s not a magic combination of protein, carbs, or fat. It’s really just calories in and calories out,” Turner says. “You want to burn more than you take in. I think a lot of people have gotten caught up on low-carb and high-protein diets, and really, there’s no evidence to support long-term weight loss on those types of diets. It’s really just about reducing your calorie intake and increasing your physical activity.”