Your Nutritional Blueprint to Better Health
From fighting inflammation with your diet to adding vitamin D to your supplements, we take a look at some easy things you can do to improve your health as you age. Photo: fcafotodigital/Getty Images
What does the science tell us? Focus on fuelling your body with what’s proven to work for now and the future with these stay-strong strategies.
Our health as we age is a moving target. As part of the process of getting older, the elephant in the room is that we become more vulnerable to diseases, such as age-associated Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart, and illnesses — chronic or viral. It has become painfully obvious in recent times that we need to protect ourselves more to better take it all on.
Dawn Bowdish, the Canada Research Chair in Aging and Immunity and also a professor at Hamilton’s McMaster University with a focus on pathology and molecular medicine, says one of the key reasons older people can get sicker is comorbidity, or having one or more chronic disease or condition. So, how can we arm ourselves to better fight back against age-associated disease?
Bowdish breaks down the science, while we bring home a few easy solutions. All of which should be considered your blueprint for better health, starting now and through the rest of your life, pandemic or not.
Lose the weight
The Science Breakdown: “One of the things that we’re finding as the epidemic hit North America is that obesity also seems to be a bit of a risk factor,” says Bowdish. “Obesity causes inflammation and immune changes. And actually, it’s very similar from an immunologist perspective to premature aging.”
Bringing It Home: Whole and unprocessed foods are generally more filling and help manage weight, according to a multitude of studies. Choose foods that make you feel full without the necessity of larger portions and higher calorie counts: lean proteins such as fish, eggs and chicken, as well as Greek yogurt (with high protein); oatmeal; soups due to the high water/liquid content (check labels for high salt content, however) as well as vegetables, which in their whole, uncooked or gently cooked form, take longer to chew, which can help you feel fuller sooner.
Tip: If you’re a carb lover, choose boiled potatoes over processed foods like pasta; they hold more water and you’ll quickly feel satiated while still getting vitamins C and B6, and minerals such as magnesium and potassium.
Manage chronic disease and inflammation
The Science Breakdown: In a nutshell, people who manage their chronic conditions are also managing their inflammation, which helps the immune system do what it needs to do when it comes in contact with a new threat.
“Let’s use diabetes as an example,” says Bowdish. “People who have really huge swings in their blood glucose tend to be the ones who are most likely to get pneumonia or to be hospitalized for other infectious diseases.” People who can keep that blood glucose nice and steady tend to be at the least risk, she adds. “For viruses, it’s really not clear why that is, but we know that immune health increases with blood sugar control.”
Cardiovascular disease is another high-risk condition. It’s also known that heart disease increases inflammation. So, advises Bowdish, people who are really proactive in managing their heart disease, especially if they’re combining exercise and a healthy diet, will see a reduction in inflammation. “And also see their immune function going up.”
Bringing It Home: Herbs and spices that help fight inflammation, such as ginger, turmeric and garlic, as well as antioxidant-rich berries, tomatoes and green tea, along with nuts such as almonds and walnuts.
If you only take one vitamin supplement, make it D
The Science Breakdown: “The only vitamin that passes the science test with keeping you healthy from infection is vitamin D,” says Bowdish. And there’s sufficient evidence, she adds, that says living in the northern hemisphere like we do, we’re almost all certainly a little bit vitamin D-deficient. Supplementing with the sunshine vitamin does seem to prevent serious respiratory infections. [On the other hand, studies show that vitamin C, for example, is better absorbed by the body through the foods we eat, rather than through a supplement.] A caveat: “We still have no idea if that’s the case for [COVID-19]. It will take us a long time to figure that out.” Regardless, Bowdish believes that vitamin D is the only supplement worth spending the money on during this particular outbreak.
Bringing It Home: Aside from a daily supplement – Health Canada advises between 600 and 4,000 IUs for adults up to 70 years of age and between 800 and 4,000 IUs for those over 70 – dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, yogurt, white mushrooms and eggs (the D is in the yolk). If you’re not eating dairy, look for fortified orange juice. Fatty fish such as sockeye salmon, swordfish, sardines and canned tuna – even a spoonful of good old-
fashioned cod liver oil – are also sources of vitamin D and omega-3s, a known immune booster.
If you must be on a “diet,” make it the Mediterranean
The Science Breakdown: “The science is sound enough to suggest that it’s one of the ways to a healthy, happy life,” says Bowdish, “and is associated with longevity.”
Bringing It Home: Olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables are the hallmarks of a Mediterranean diet. Choose fish over meat, nuts as an energy boost and shy away from sugar as much as possible. Beans and legumes can be a budget-friendly staple, but be mindful of portion sizes as, although they pack a healthy fibre and protein punch, they can also be high in calories. A little goes a long way.
Tip: Yogurt with cultures, a.k.a. probiotics, aid in balancing the gut and may help stimulate your immune system to help fight disease. —Vivian Vassos with files from Tara Losinski
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2020 issue with the headline, “Your Blueprint to Better Health,” p.69.