Nutrition as we age
Nutrition is a key strategy we can use to help navigate ageing and optimise our health.
If you’re over the age of 35 years, then it isn’t news to you that things can change over time. From how your body responds to exercise, food, and other lifestyle factors, and why the ageing may mean taking a fresh approach to nutrition.
What happens as we age?
- We become less efficient at absorbing and digesting nutrients from food over time, we need these nutrients to help our body process and metabolise energy.
- For women, as oestrogen declines, we become less carbohydrate tolerant (oestrogen helps us use carbohydrate for energy) which means that more insulin is released in response to the carbohydrate we eat. This environment encourages fat storage (rather than fat burning).
- For men, lower total and free testosterone, combined with higher sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), diminishes bone strength and bone mineral density.
- Ageing brings with it changes in our mitochondria, the cells that produce energy in our body. There is a reduction in our ability to produce energy and an increase in reactive oxidative species (ROS), creating more inflammation. This is one of the reasons recovery from training takes so much longer the older we get. At the extreme end of this scale, we have damaged proteins (DNA material) that are not cleared out of our body quickly. The process that clears these out (autophagy) protects us from diseases such as cancer.
- Increased inflammation reduces absorption of nutrients and increases the degradation of tissue, such as collagen, raising the risk of osteoarthritis.
- The signal in the brain for stimulating muscle protein synthesis from the protein we eat diminishes as we age, so we need more to get the same response. In other words, it becomes harder to build muscle and to keep it on.
- Risk of dementia, leading to further neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, increases as we age. While the rates of these diseases are higher in women after menopause (potentially due to lower oestrogen in the brain), men are not immune.
- The number and activity of receptors that are responsible for producing hormones related to both our brain and our musculoskeletal structure decrease.
How can we minimise the impacts of ageing?
Simple lifestyle changes can help minimise the detrimental effects of ageing and promote greater health and wellness.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet. Make the most of your calorie budget and focus on foods that deliver the most nutrients for their calorie load, e.g. animal foods deliver both protein and micronutrients; vegetables provide fibre, vitamins and phytochemicals; naturally occurring fats supply energy and minimise the potential for inflammation. Fuelling the Force provides a great foundation to achieve this.
- Reduce your carbohydrate load as you age, to match the drop in insulin sensitivity. This helps control blood sugar levels and protect against elevations in blood sugar that accelerate ageing. Timing carbohydrate intake for after exercise will also aid recovery from training, as carbohydrate is delivered directly to the muscles.
- Do resistance training to help protect bone density and muscle mass. In physically inactive men, it can also increase testosterone levels.
- Prioritise your sleep. Sleep is our best recovery tool - the body goes through its physiological and psychological repair processes as it moves through the different phases of sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours a night.
- Move every day. Focus on the low intensity, steady state exercise that is often overlooked, particularly when working from home.
- Eat more protein. If you are 40 or over, eat more protein at each meal, to increase the amount of the amino acid leucine that is present. Leucine signals to the brain to increase muscle protein synthesis. The latest evidence suggests around 40g of protein per meal, which is the same as six eggs, 130g cooked grilled rump steak, 1.5 cups of egg whites, 180g grilled white fish, 330g tofu (that’s close to a whole block!), two eggs and one cup of egg whites. It's a lot! Want to find out more? Read this study for further detail about the role of protein and ageing here.
- Social connections. Having close, social relationships and being integrated as part of a social group are also important. Find out why by checking out this NCBI article.
Widely available, many supplement tout their anti-ageing properties. You may have heard of resveratrol and nicotinamide riboside (NR), or other nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) precursors.
Although these supplements may move the markers that are measured, such as improving insulin sensitivity or reducing blood pressure, they might not actually change functional outcomes, e.g. speed, power, endurance, brain power. Working on the big picture stuff with nutrition and exercise will have more of an impact, not just on ageing, but on a host of other health-related areas.
Read more about supplements and caffeine.