Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
As we age, prioritizing our health becomes increasingly important. Good nutrition plays a key role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases and maintaining overall well-being — especially in later stages of life.
But, what exactly should we be eating to promote vitality and healthy aging?
Yahoo Canada spoke with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp, on the best nutrition tips for aging adults who want to protect their heart and muscle health. She explained older adults typically have lower calorie needs than younger folks, but "they actually have similar or even enhanced nutrient needs compared to younger adults."
Here's what you need to know.
Researchers recommend the MIND diet. What is it?
Canadian dietitian Sharp said one of the best diets as we age is the MIND diet — a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (a whole foods diet limiting sodium intake).
"Research suggests that folks with the highest mind diet scores had significantly lower rates of cognitive decline, to those who have the lowest score," Sharp explained.
The MIND diet approach emphasizes:
antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables
lean proteins (especially plant-based)
essential fats like omega-3s
While there's no magic "superfood," incorporating nutrient-dense options can enhance your diet.
Lean proteins like fish and some poultry, and plant-based proteins like beans and legumes, are important for supporting muscle maintenance and preventing muscle loss. They also provide B12 vitamin which we absorb less of as we age.
Greek yogurt is another "calcium and protein powerhouse," aiding in maintaining bone and muscle mass.
Berries, with their antioxidant-rich profile, are linked to reduced cognitive decline and a lower risk of dementia. Healthy mono-unsaturated fats found in foods like fish or olive oil are important for heart health.
The MIND diet also recommends limit highly processed high sugar foods, such as pastries, fried foods, red meat and added fats, like butter and margarine.
How mindful should I be of sugar and salt consumption?
Sharp said the current recommendation around salt intake is no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, and no more than 10 per cent of calorie intake from sugars daily.
The MIND diet suggests restricting sweets and pastries to four servings per week.
But Sharp advises to be mindful of hidden sodium in processed foods. "A lot of people don't realize that sodium is not just what what you put on your meal at the table. We really want to focus on a lot of the ultra-processed foods."
This means opting for fresh herbs, lower sodium seasonings and reducing reliance on convenience and fast foods.
Can food help boost my immune system?
While you can't "boost" your immune system through diet alone, a nutrient-rich diet can support it, Sharp claimed.
Key nutrients, largly found in plant-based foods, contribute to the growth and function of immune cells, including: iron, vitamins A, C, D, E and zinc.
Lots of colorful foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes, some greens, fatty fish — that's really what we want to be focusing on.
Those antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals, which can help to contribute to chronic disease, the dietitian explained.
How can I transition to a healthier diet later in life?
For those looking to transition to a healthier diet, the key is to take gradual steps.
"They always say 'it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.'... The last thing you need is to jump in too hard, too fast, and then just immediately throw in the towel," Sharp claimed.
Start with small changes, like eating one meatless meal a week. Other baby steps can include:
slowly cutting back on on red meat and eating more poultry or fish
serving fruit with your cookies at snack
swapping white bread for whole grain
mixing whole grain high-fiber cereal into your refined usual choice
choosing nuts instead of chips
"Just making those tiny little tweaks over time and seeing how they feel, and then going from there and kind of building as you go," Sharp said.