Everyday Ways to Support Successful Aging: Nutrition

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Whether it’s “you are what you eat,” “eat better, feel better,” or some other adage, the message is clear: what you put into your body affects how well it functions. This is particularly true as you age. In fact, residents in Blue Zones, regions in the world where people live the longest, incorporate specific nutritional practices into their lifestyle. Here’s what they do and how you can apply these practices to support successful aging.

Building on Blue Zones

The regions classified as Blue Zones include: Sardinia, Italy; the Greek island of Ikaria; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica and Okinawa, Japan. Research in these places has found that residents share similar lifestyle traits known as the Power 9®.  We’ve discussed all these traits in past blogs [link], but two of which specifically relate to nutrition:

  • Hara Hachi Bu – Known as the 80% rule to stop eating before you feel full.
  • Plant Slant – Eat a primarily plant-based diet.

How to Do Hara Hachi Bu 

The Okinawans in Japan repeat this 2500-year old Confucian mantra before meals to remind them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full.  Blue Zones’ researchers believe, “The 20 percent gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it.” 

The trouble is most Americans grew up being taught the exact opposite. You’re supposed to eat until your plate is empty, regardless of how you feel because otherwise you’re being wasteful right? Compound that with the fact that “super-sized” servings have become the norm and it’s easy to understand why overeating is so commonplace.

What can you do? Essentially you can retrain your body and mind to identify when you’re no longer hungry, rather than full. Dieticians suggest eating slowly and staying focused on how you feel after each bite. Once you’ve eaten half of what you normally eat, take a 10-minute break to assess whether you should eat more or stop. This gives your stomach time to communicate with your brain just how full it actually is. 

If you deem it’s time to stop but don’t have the willpower, try getting the food out of your site by wrapping it up, putting it in the fridge for later, give it to someone else or toss it (to compost of course). Keep in mind that it can take 15 to 20 meals to reset the stomach’s muscle memory to get used to less food. Another Blue Zones tip? Eat your smallest meal late in the afternoon or early evening and then don’t eat any more the rest of the day.

Plant Slant in Practice

Residents in Blue Zones primarily eat beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils. They do eat meat, however only a handful of times per month and then it’s mostly pork.  They’re clearly on to something as a growing body of research suggests that this type of diet, often called the “Mediterranean diet,” not only helps with longevity, additional benefits may also include heart health, brain health and reduced depression and anxiety.

So what exactly is the Mediterranean diet?  Unfortunately there’s been a lot of back and forth about what this type of diet consists of but according to the Mayo Clinic, the main components include:

  • Consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats daily
  • Consuming fish, poultry, beans and eggs weekly
  • Moderate amounts of dairy products
  • Limited intake of red meat

Interestingly enough, other components of the Mediterranean diet are sharing meals with family and friends while enjoying a glass of red wine. The notion of drinking red wine in moderation is also one of the Power 9 lifestyle traits. Cannonau wine is most often cited by Blue Zones’ researchers.

To get started with the Mediterranean diet, the Mayo Clinic suggests you follow these tips:

  • Try for 7 to 10 servings a day of fruit and vegetables.
  • Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta. 
  • Try olive oil as a replacement for butter when cooking and on bread.
  • Eat fish twice a week such as fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout mackerel and herring; grill it instead of frying. 
  • Substitute fish, poultry or beans for meat in most cases; when you do eat it make sure it’s lean and in small portions.
  • Eat low-fat Greek or plain yogurt as well as small amounts of a variety of cheeses.
  • To lessen the need for salt, use herbs and spices to boost flavor.
  • As for red wine, limit yourself to one to two glasses a day with meals.

Nutrition Made Easy in Senior Living

Senior living communities, like ours, support these healthy nutritional practices and can make them easier for you to implement. In fact, one of the key benefits of life in a senior living community is the dining experience. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, residents enjoy chef-prepared selections in restaurant-style dining rooms that often feature daily entrees, an a la carte menu, Soup of the Day, fresh salad bar and delicious desserts. What’s more, menus are prepared by a dining staff familiar with your dietary restrictions and/or preferences and who may often collaborate with a nutritionist or dietician to ensure all your meals are healthy, well-balanced and in the appropriate portions.

senior living guide to aging well

For more information on how we incorporate the Blue Zones’ approach to nutrition in senior living, check out our Successful Secrets to Aging Guide!