Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Plant-Based Diets for Seniors

"Old age isn't for sissies," one adage attempts to advise humorously. Despite the saying’s levity, it hits a little too close to the truth. The term "elderly" is the last life-stage known and listed in the human life cycle before death. Many aspects of an elderly person's life are designed to prolong it.
Frequent visits to doctors are scheduled for preventative care, a higher-than-average number of prescriptions are ingested to treat the common diseases that accompany old age and even potential problems are anticipated with measures such as a personal medical alert system or the installation of bathroom grab bars.

Special diets are often included in such life-extending efforts. Elderly individuals may forego added salt to help treat high blood pressure or eliminate candy from their diets to help with high blood sugar levels. More and more, physicians and nutrition experts are also advocating plant-based diets for seniors.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

A recent study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association underscores some of the benefits of a plant-based diet. Study participants who followed a vegetarian diet had better overall nutritional profiles than meat eaters, and their diets included more essential vitamins and nutrients than the non-vegetarians' diets. Vegetarians also ate healthier foods and had lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

Following a plant-based diet resulted in study participants consuming more dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates. Conversely, the study's vegetarians ate less cholesterol and dietary fats. Their diets also included fewer caffeinated beverages. Finally, the vegetarian diets in this study more closely followed dietary guidelines suggested by both the American Heart Association and the National Cancer Institute for all adults, young and elderly.

These study results have been replicated time and again by different organizations. An experimental study by the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society summarized their findings to report that vegetarians had fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease and were less likely to be overweight or obese. Multiple body systems appear to be affected. Vegetarians were also found to have fewer episodes of diverticulitis, gallbladder disease and inflammation of the appendix.

Meeting Your Nutritional Requirements

Overall, seniors have a more difficult time meeting their nutritional requirements than younger individuals. Elderly individuals, especially those living alone, often lack the ability to prepare and eat regular meals. The aging process itself often results in a decreased ability to digest and absorb vitamins and nutrients. Loss of teeth or poorly-fitted dentures can interfere with mastication. Furthermore, many medications taken by seniors can have side effects that interfere with appetite or digestion.

Although switching to a plant-based diet is the healthier choice, care and attention must be taken to ensure adequate levels of protein, vitamins and other nutrients while keeping in mind the usual decreased caloric intake needs of seniors. The American Dietetic Association's white paper, "Vegetarian Diets for Seniors," suggests a slightly higher protein intake of 1.0 - 1.25 grams per kilogram of body weight. Despite the absence of meats in a diet, this nutritional recommendation is easily met by eating nuts, grains, legumes and soy products.

Adequate calcium intake is necessary to offset the bone loss associated with aging. Calcium can be provided by juices and soymilks with added calcium, green leafy vegetables and molasses. Vitamin D is also a concern for the elderly due to the vitamin's decreased synthesis. Supplementation may be necessary if an elderly vegetarian does not ingest enough of this or any other vitamin through fortified cereals or beverages.

Tips for Implementing Your Plant-Based Diet

Ø  Many Medicare-supplement plans include coverage of a one-time or annual visit to a certified nutritionist. Visit one if you can to discuss your current situation and professional recommendations for transitioning to a plant-based diet.
Ø  Talk to your doctor about your change to a plant-based diet. She may opt to prescribe vitamin B12 and vitamin D supplements to avoid deficiencies. These prescription medications are covered by Medicare.
Ø  If you live alone, find a diet partner through your church, job or volunteer activity. Plan a weekly cooking session to prepare and freeze meals in advance. Your partner doesn't have to agree to be meat-free; they only need to be interested in easier access to healthy foods.
Ø  As a simple rule for nutrition and variety, aim for colorful meals. The more colors you have, the more fruits and veggies are likely present on your plate.
Ø  Ask the research librarian at your local public library for help in locating no-cost menus, recipes, cookbooks and other tips.

A plant-based diet for seniors or adults of any age need not require enormous change, expense or energy to find nutritious foods to enjoy and fulfill your nutritional requirements. Meat substitutes and soy-based products are now routinely available in supermarkets everywhere. Eat in a rainbow of colors and enjoy your improved health.

Photo credit: locutuset (sxc.hu)

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by Dustin Rudolph, PharmD
Clinical Pharmacist

Check out Dustin Rudolph's book The Empty Medicine Cabinet to start your journey towards better health. This step-by-step guide leads you through many of today's common chronic diseases (heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and more), giving you the facts on foods versus medications in treating these medical conditions. The book also contains an easy-to-follow guide on how to adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet as a part of an overall lifestyle change, producing the best possible health outcomes for you and your family. Hurry and get your copy today!

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