Plant-based diets are growing in popularity because of both ethical and environmental reasons. However, many individuals adopt a vegetarian diet because of its many health benefits. A vegetarian diet for seniors has been shown to strengthen the immune system, lower the risk of heart disease and stroke and improve overall well-being. A typical vegetarian diet includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. Because our nutritional needs change as we age, older adults need to watch their diets closely. Medications, a loss of appetite, or loss of taste can make it difficult for seniors to get the nutrients they need each day. However, vegetarian and plant-based diets provide several health benefits for older adults.
Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet for Seniors
According to Medical News Today, people following a vegetarian diet can benefit both physically and mentally. Those who choose to adopt a plant-based diet are also more likely to make decisions that promote an overall healthy lifestyle. While only 1.8% of older adults above the age of 65 eat a vegetarian diet, the benefits speak for themselves:
- Decelerates the aging process. Telomeres are the rebuilding enzymes found in our cells, which can affect how our cells age and regenerate. Some researchers believe that a diet rich in vegetables and other plants can increase the activity of telomeres and help slow down the process of aging.
- Promotes a healthy weight. Switching to a vegetarian diet for seniors can help an individual maintain a healthy weight as most eat high volume and low-calorie foods.
- Boosts energy. Our bodies break down plant-based foods more easily than meat and dairy products. Because of this, our digestive systems don’t have to work as hard when we consume a vegetarian diet, leaving us with more energy and strength.
- Promotes cognitive health. According to researchers at Boston University School of Medicine, a plant-based diet, especially one rich in berries and green leafy vegetables, can help slow down heart failure and lower the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
- Decreases the risk of cancer. Some studies suggest that those who eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in meat products have some protection from cancer compared to those who consume a non-vegetarian diet.
- Lowers the risk of diabetes. Because vegetarians and those who eat mostly plant-based consume a higher intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and often a lower intake of unhealthful fats, are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Avoiding Deficiencies on a Plant-Based Diet
While eating a plant-based diet offers numerous health benefits, some overall risks should be considered especially for older adults. Foods typically eaten on a plant-based diet are often low in calories and protein. which if not addressed can cause health problems and malnutrition. That’s why eating a balanced diet is important for seniors. According to Harvard Medical School, here are a few of the most common deficiencies and how to avoid them.
Calcium deficiencies– Calcium is one of the most important nutrients that support strong bones and teeth. In addition, calcium also ensures the function of our muscles, cells, and nerves. Older adults should aim to consume between 1,000 and 1,2000 mg of calcium per day. Those who eat mostly plant-based can meet their calcium needs by consuming calcium-rich foods such as almonds, dark leafy greens, figs, tofu, and oranges.
Prioritize deficiencies- Protein helps maintain muscle mass and strength, promotes bone health and other physiological functions. As we age, our bodies process protein less efficiently and need more of it. This is especially true when losing weight, or upon a diagnosis of a chronic or acute illness. Some plant foods such as soy products, legumes, nuts, chia seeds, and spirulina are excellent sources of protein. Older adults should aim to consume 7 grams of protein daily for every 20 pounds of body weight.
B-12 deficiencies– Vitamin B-12 is a nutrient that generates DNA, the genetic material in all cells, and helps keep our nerve and blood cells healthy. B-12 is found in poultry, meat, fish, and dairy products in addition to some fortified foods such as plant milk and fortified cereals. It can also be taken as a supplement but be sure to consult your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet as they can often cause problems with medications.
Tips for Getting Started
If you’re interested in adopting a vegetarian diet for seniors or consuming more plant-based foods, it’s important to consult your doctor. Receiving medical clearance is highly suggested as some medications or chronic conditions may prevent you from adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
When starting, take it slowly. You might consider combining different plant food sources, such as soups, salads, and smoothies, to maximize calories and nutrients. As we age, it’s not uncommon to experience a loss of appetite or difficulties with chewing and swallowing. Find different ways to get adequate nutrition in every meal.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
– Include protein in every meal
– Eat snacks or small meals throughout the day
– Include plant-based milk in your beverages such as tea, coffee, or smoothies
– Add olive oil to your meals. You can do this by adding oil to your salads and soups
– Add nut-butters to bread, in smoothies, or on top of dairy-free yogurt
Low iron can also be an issue for older adults who don’t eat a varied diet. Iron is responsible for making red blood cells that supply oxygen throughout the body. In addition, iron also supports a healthy immune system, heals wounds, and promotes cognitive function. Whole grains, green leafy vegetables, seeds, and dried fruits provide sources of iron. Older adults who eat a plant-based diet should diversify their diet by trying new things and experimenting with different recipes.
Prioritizing Nutrition at Maplewood Senior Living
A balanced diet becomes increasingly important as we age. That’s why our culinary team at our Maplewood Senior Living communities provides residents with new recipes, fresh ingredients, and healthy meals throughout the day.
If you’re interested in learning more about our offerings or scheduling a tour, please contact us.