Senior school: cookery Class
As nutritional science advances, we know that we need far more than an apple a day to keep in top shape. Here, Meadhbh McGrath discovers the best foods for ageing bodies - and how to prepare them properly
It's easy to get stuck in a cooking rut. By the time we hit 50, most people have a handful of favourite meals and trusted recipes they repeat week in, week out. According to recent research, one in six office workers have been eating the same lunch every day for years, with the humble ham sandwich topping the poll as the most common choice. Most of us probably feel we have the same dinners on rotation too - with work, family and social commitments draining our time, meal planning and prep can be a pain, so we often fall into the habit of buying, making and eating the same things over and over.
But as people get older, we require different things from our food. "Particularly over the age of 55 we need more protein. Higher protein intakes, of up to 35pc of daily calories, may be beneficial in older age groups," explains Aveen Bannon (pictured above), consultant dietitian at the Dublin Nutrition Centre. "This is due to the fact that we lose muscle as we age and the body struggles to repair it efficiently. However, good dietary protein intake coupled with exercise can help maintain good muscle."
She adds: "For women, once post menopausal we have a drop in oestrogen levels which can cause a slight change in body shape, making it more likely to gain weight around the middle. Calcium becomes very important at this point too. This does not mean that the 'middle-age spread' is inevitable, it just means we need to make adjustments to maintain a healthy weight."
As well as the gradual loss of muscle mass, our bones become weaker and our skin begins to thin and lose elasticity. This means we need to make sure we're targeting these areas in our diet. For ageing bones, Bannon recommends increasing your intake of vitamin D, calcium and magnesium, found in dairy, oily fish, tinned fish and eggs.
You don't need to swap full-fat milk for skim, but bear in mind portion size. "Either option is fine. It depends if you want to reduce calories or perhaps have high cholesterol, but the most important thing is looking after your bones," says Bannon.
For healthy skin, it's important to evaluate both your diet and lifestyle. "In terms of lifestyle, the best thing you can do for your skin is to avoid smoking, limit alcohol and get plenty of sleep," she says.
"Alcohol consumption is a big issue as we age," Bannon notes, "Keep to the recommended alcohol guidelines [for men, 17 standard drinks over the course of a week, for women, 11 standard drinks over the course of a week] and aim for a few alcohol-free nights each week."
If you do end up overdoing it with food or drink, don't punish yourself the rest of the week by cutting meals or starving yourself. Instead, Bannon prescribes rehydrating and doing some exercise. "The next day, drink plenty of water and go for a long walk," she says.
You don't need to rule out ever having a Twix again, either. Chocolate bars and other treats are high in sugar and trans fats, but they're also delicious, so it's okay to enjoy an occasional treat.
To keep skin healthy, she advises drinking more fluids. "Most people don't drink enough water. In fact, the majority of us need more than the recommended 1.5-2 litres per day," she says. "Fortunately, all fluids count! A handy tip is to have a small glass of water before each meal and to keep a bottle of water in the fridge. To entice you to drink plenty of water, why not add some fruit juice to give your water a nice taste?"
As for caffeine, Bannon says two or three cups of tea or coffee a day is fine, but take into account what time you're drinking them. If you're having problems with sleep, try to find your cut-off point so you're not drinking too late.
Add more colour to your plate to improve ageing skin. "Fruit and vegetables get their colour from the phytocompounds that they contain. Phytocompounds are disease-fighting plant nutrients that protect our body from damage. They may also help keep your immune system healthy and reduce your risk for certain cancers and other diseases," says Bannon.
She adds that vitamin A is essential for healthy skin. "Beta-carotene, one of a group of red, orange, and yellow pigments called carotenoids and a form of vitamin A, is a powerful antioxidant. It protects the body from damaging molecules called free radicals. Over time, this damage can lead to general ageing of the body and skin," she explains, adding that good sources include orange and yellow fruits, as well as liver, butter, prunes, and eggs.
Also crucial for healthy skin is vitamin E, which can be found in avocado, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts and eggs. "They are antioxidants and are essential for the maintenance of healthy skin. However, in addition vitamin E can absorb some energy from ultraviolet [UV] light, thus playing an important role in protecting against sun damage," she says. Make sure you're getting plenty of vitamin C through your diet too.
"It helps your body produce collagen which is important for the strength and elasticity of our skin. Also, vitamin C is integral in wound healing, helping to mend any damage to our skin that can naturally occur in our daily lives. Fruits, vegetables and their juices are great sources of vitamin C," she says.
We all remember learning the 'five-a-day' mantra in school for fruit and vegetables. But that target has changed, with guidelines varying wildly and some experts advocating up to 10 portions a day for a longer life. Bannon says six a day is plenty, and to ensure you're eating some fruit or vegetable at every meal. To help make those healthy changes stick, she suggests: "Divide your plate into a quarter carbohydrate, a quarter protein and half colourful salad or vegetables."
Carbs have become a dirty word over the past decade or so, thanks to the rise of low or zero-carb diets. But Bannon emphasises that carbohydrates remain an important source of fuel, particularly fibre, although we need less of them as we get older. She advises watching portion sizes - remember to allow just a quarter of your plate for carbohydrates, not the mountains of potatoes you may be used to - and choosing high-fibre options like wholegrain bread, porridge oats and brown rice and pasta.
Fats, on the other hand, have enjoyed a bit of a revamp in the past year, particularly after a health report from the National Obesity Forum in the UK insisted "eating fat does not make you fat". Bannon recommends taking into consideration the quality of the fats. "As we age we need less calories but still need the nutrition, so making good food choices helps this. Include omega 3 essential fats and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats from olive or rapeseed oil," she says.
Bannon adds that essential fats such as omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, flaxseed and walnuts, play a critical role in normal cell functions, while zinc can help the skin too, as it stabilises the walls of our cells and is involved in cell activity and growth. It is found in meat, nuts, wholegrains, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, cocoa powder, peanuts and yeast.
Another important nutrient for healthy skin is selenium, found in Brazil nuts, tuna, wholegrains, wheatgerm, mushrooms and eggs, which is present in the cells of the skin and helps protect the skin from harmful effects caused by free radicals.
While supplements can seem like an easy way of filling gaps in your diet, Bannon says the only one people should definitely take is vitamin D, and try to get the rest through your diet first.
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How to expand your palate
Expand your repertoire of chefs: By midlife, most people have a familiar roster of chefs they trust, but Katy McGuinness, Weekend's restaurant critic and food writer, recommends trying Yotam Ottolenghi, if you haven't already. The Israeli-British chef has "revolutionised the way we eat over the past decade", she says, and you can find many of his recipes free online. "The flavours are exciting and vibrant, but not necessarily big on chilli heat which some find off-putting."
Get away from the idea that every meal has to include animal protein: The meat-and-two-veg is a staple of many Irish households, but we need to be eating more vegetables. "That can be hard if it's boring old steamed or boiled carrots and broccoli all the time," Katy says. "Roasting vegetables with spices is a great, simple way to maximise flavour. Take on the challenge of meat-free Monday and see where it brings you."
Take a cookery class: What better way to step out of your comfort zone than learning a whole raft of new recipes? You don't have to spend money, either - Katy suggests borrowing a cookbook from the local library and committing to one new recipe a week.
Don't always order the steak: Steak frites is a reliable favourite, but it's keeping you from discovering other truly delicious dishes on the menu. Resist the temptation of your usual order and give the lamb a try for a change.
Ask for restaurant recommendations: We all have our favourite go-to places, but Katy encourages breaking out of your routine. "Instead of always going to the same restaurant, ask someone younger to tell you about their favourite place - better still, bring them with you," she says. "Be open minded and try something new. What's the worst thing that can happen? It's only dinner!"
Give the foods you hate a second chance: As we age, we have fewer and fewer taste buds, and the ones we have become less sensitive. The nerves that send taste signals to the brain wear out, so the broccoli you've hated since childhood may no longer taste so bad.
Don't be afraid to ask for the recipe: Next time you eat something new that you enjoy, whether it's at a restaurant, a friend's house or abroad on holiday, Katy advises asking for the recipe or researching how to make it yourself at home.
Shop local: Instead of always shopping at the supermarket, Katy recommends trying your local farmer's market. "You'll find locally-grown fruit and vegetables and artisan products that aren't in the multiples," she says. "Cheese is a good place to start - there is such a fabulous selection of Irish cheese these days it's a shame not to explore it."
5 ways to maximise flavour and nutrition
1 When cooking a stir fry, never reduce the heat: Many of us are guilty of turning down the heat the moment we hear our vegetables start to sizzle, but this can often leave us with an "unappetising mush", says cookery tutor Edward Hayden. "Instead, cook the vegetables nice and quickly on the pan. During the cooking process I often add one or two tablespoons of water to the mixture and this instantly comes to the boil and partially steams the vegetables a little. The water evaporates quickly and then when the vegetables are cooked you can toss them in a little sweet chilli sauce or even some soy sauce."
2 Save yourself the fuss with a one-pot wonder: As well as cutting down on preparation and washing-up time, a one-pot meal can enhance the flavours of your food. "I often find that this process of cookery is perhaps the most flavoursome as you get a chance during the cooking of the dish to allow the flavour of the meat to infuse into the sauce and vice versa," says Hayden. "My favourite is to seal off some chicken breasts on the pan, add some chunks of peppers, mushrooms and onions, a tin of tomatoes and a pinch of crushed chilli flakes and then cover with a tightly fitting lid and cook on a medium heat for 25-30 minutes until cooked through."
3 Experiment with herbs and spices: Aveen Bannon cites cinnamon, which can add a warm flavour to sweet and savoury meals, including marinades for lamb or beef, curries or rice dishes. "Recent research has shown great benefits with cinnamon helping blood glucose levels," she says. Hayden's saving grace in the store cupboard is a jar of dried crushed chilli flakes. "Used conservatively they can add a great depth of flavour to lots of dishes - adjusting the amount you add to suit the palettes of your diners. I often add them to soups, slow cooked casseroles and I frequently add them to a little oil and then smear that on raw breasts of chicken, lamb chops or pork fillets before cooking to add a robust coating."
4 Add fruit to savoury dishes: "You will often find prunes in my beef stews, apricots in my herb stuffing for lamb, lemon and lime juice in my salad dressings and marinades, pineapple and sultanas in my fruity chicken curry and wedges of apples fried up on the pan to serve with my pork chops," says Hayden. "I also sometimes boil a little cooking apple with potatoes and mash the two of them together to make an apple potato puree to serve with pork. It not only adds great flavour to the potato but will assist you with the digestion of the pork."
5 Get clever with your freezer: Hayden recommends making a large batch of Béchamel sauce (white sauce) and dividing it up into mini freezer containers, before adding different embellishments to each, such as sautéed mushrooms, grated cheese, chopped chives, wholegrain mustard, crispy fried bacon lardons and sautéed leeks. "You're thus creating a whole suite of sauces for the freezer to call upon at a later time," he says.
Edward Hayden will appear at Savour Kilkenny, October 27-30. For more, see savourkilkenny.com