“Eat a balanced diet” is a piece of advice you’ll hear repeated by everyone from your general practitioner to the morning news anchor to your aqua-aerobics instructor. I must admit that I’ve been guilty of issuing this advice myself, without supplying enough detail to make it terribly useful.
What exactly are you supposed to be balancing? And how does that balancing act change as you get older?
Getting the Right Balance of Macronutrients
It’s definitely important at any age to balance the calories you take in (how much you eat) with the calories you expend (how active you are). You also want to find the right balance between making healthy food choices and enjoying the occasional treat. (After all, a life of nothing but high-fiber foods and green leafy vegetables just doesn’t sound like much fun.) But that’s generally not what nutritionists are referring to when we invoke the mysterious “balanced diet.” Usually we’re thinking about the balance of macronutrients — how much protein, carbohydrate and fat you’re taking in.
Picture your diet as a pie divided into three slices — one for carbohydrates, one for protein, and one for fat. According to the U.S. Institutes of Medicine, carbohydrates should be the biggest slice of your pie, ranging from 45 to 65% of your calories. Fats should be somewhere between a fifth and a third of your pie, and protein should be between a tenth and a third. Obviously, there are a lot of ways to slice that pie and still be within these guidelines. And as we age, we want to slice up that pie a little differently than we did when we were younger.
A Balanced Diet for Older Adults
Emerging research suggests that older people would benefit greatly from making protein a bigger slice of their dietary pie. That means, of course, that one or both of the other slices in your pie will have to shrink a bit. My “balanced diet” prescription for healthy older adults is for protein to make up about a quarter of your calories, with fat taking up another quarter, and carbohydrates held to about half.
There’s no need to break out the slide rule and atomic scales. Here’s how that translates into something that looks more like a menu you can eat every day:
3 Servings of Higher-Protein Foods
Good choices include fish, chicken, lean beef or pork, tofu or soy-based meat substitutes, or legumes. A serving is about 3 oz, or the size of a deck of cards.
2-3 Servings of Dairy or Other Calcium-Rich Foods
Good choices include low-fat yogurt or milk, calcium-fortified soy milk, part-skim ricotta or mozzarella, reduced-fat goat cheese. A serving is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese or 1/4 cup of soft cheese.
5 Servings of Non-Starchy Vegetables
Don’t panic: a serving is just 1/2 cup or about the size of an ice cream scoop.
2-3 Servings of Fruit
Choose fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit whenever possible. A serving is 1/2 cup.
2-3 Servings of Healthy Fats
4 Servings of Grains or Starchy Vegetables
Best choices include intact grains like rice or barley, whole grain breads, high-fiber cereals, or potatoes. A serving is one slice of bread, 1/2 cup of rice or cereal, or half of a baked potato.
1 (But Just One) Serving of Whatever Your Heart Desires
Chocolate? Frozen yogurt? A glass of wine? A piece of decadent cheese or pastry? A few pretzels and dip with the evening news? Go for it!
It’s not necessary to precisely follow this recipe every single day. But as a general template, it can help you make sure your diet is reasonably balanced. These guidelines also ensure that you’re getting the suggested amounts of calcium, vitamin D, fiber, fluids and other nutrients essential for healthy aging.
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