What to eat after 50 to optimise your health
A few dietary changes can help us feel good as we age
So, you know the story: someone's Auntie Eileen lived happily and healthily until she was 99 despite the fact that she drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, never exercised and lived on a diet of chips and cream buns. So why bother with healthy living if it's all down to our genes, right?
Well, it's one way of looking at things, but betting that you will be one of the lucky ones or indeed unlucky ones is like playing a game of Russian roulette, because, for every one person who lives a long life of unhealthy choices, there are countless others who die prematurely because of them.
It's estimated that only 25pc of how long we live is genetically determined. What you eat and how you live are crucial factors.
In other words, it's not the cards we're dealt but how we play them that determines the final outcome. In fact, most risk factors for the big diseases of our modern world – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer's –are lifestyle related. They are affected by the food we eat, what we drink, whether we smoke, our stress levels and if we exercise.
Of course, not all age-related illnesses are avoidable, but diet along with other lifestyle choices will certainly improve your odds of adding years to your life, and life to your years.
When it comes to diet, there are no 'magic bullet' foods, so an all-round balanced diet is essential.
However, there are certain foods that deliver specific health benefits. These become even more important to our health as we age. Below are several foods that have been shown to have positive effects on common, age-related illnesses:
Apples and cholesterol
We're all familiar with the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away", but, have you ever wondered why?
Well, one good reason is that apples contain a type of soluble fibre known as pectin. In the body, pectin has the ability to bind to cholesterol and carry it out of the body via the bowel.
And, the story doesn't end there. There is also a group of powerful chemicals present in the fruit called polyphenols which have the ability to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.
Most of the pectin and polyphenols are in the skin of the apple so never peel if you want to reap the cholesterol-lowering benefits.
Cinnamon and diabetes
It's estimated that nearly one in four adults has either type 2 diabetes or a condition known as 'pre-diabetes', which means your blood glucose levels are higher than normal and you're on a slippery slope towards developing diabetes.
Fortunately, changing your diet can slow or even reverse pre-diabetes. Most dietary changes involve cutting down on sugars and refined carbohydrates.
However, there is one dietary addition that can also make a difference and it's very easy to do. Numerous studies have shown that cinnamon has the ability to improve blood sugar regulation and curb sweet cravings which is good news for those struggling to control their blood sugar levels.
Aim to have one teaspoon a day – just make sure that you don't swallow it all at once. Sprinkle a little over porridge, stewed fruit, smoothies and curries.
Beetroot and blood pressure
Beetroot is known to have a very beneficial effect upon blood pressure. It contains a chemical called nitrate, which our bodies convert into a compound called nitric oxide which acts as a powerful vasodilator. In other words, it widens blood vessels which allows blood to flow through more easily, bringing blood pressure down.
Cooking or fermenting beets can reduce the nutrients that lower blood pressure, so, in this case, you're better off drinking juiced beetroot to get the maximum effect.
If you don't have a juicer, beetroot juice can be bought in health stores. Aim for one to two glasses per day and include other nitrate-rich vegetables in your diet as well such as lettuce, rocket, cabbage and fennel.
Ginger and joint pain
Most forms of joint pain involve inflammation. Ginger is without doubt the king of anti-inflammatory foods.
In recent years, it has emerged that ginger can have a very beneficial effect upon patients suffering with osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. Patients have described a notable reduction in pain and improved motility of the joint.
Ginger contains a powerful group of chemicals that give it its characteristic zingy flavour and smell but also act as powerful anti-inflammatory agents. It also stimulates circulation so can be of great use in easing discomfort in cold, stiff joints.
Grate fresh ginger into curries, marinades and stir fries or simply add a couple of slices to boiled water and steep for 10 minutes for a refreshing tea.
Tomatoes and prostate health
In Ireland, prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men. One in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.
People who have diets rich in tomatoes, which contain the antioxidant lycopene, appear in some studies to have a lower risk of prostate cancer. Studies suggest that lycopene in cooked tomato products such as tomato sauce or paste may be more readily absorbed by the body than from raw tomatoes.
Eating lycopene-rich vegetables and fruits along with a small amount of oil also increases its absorption. Aim for approx 240ml of tomato products, including juice, paste, soup, passata or fresh/tinned tomatoes about three or four times per week.
Oily fish and memory decline
A number of studies show that reduced intake of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with increased risk of age-related cognitive decline or dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
One of the best dietary methods to slow down age-related memory decline is to increase your intake of omega 3 fats. This means eating oily fish at least twice a week as well as supplementing with omega 3 fish oils.
The best fish sources are mackerel, herring/kipper, sardines, salmon and trout.