Plant-based diets are increasingly popular among younger generations. For reasons ranging from concerns about animal cruelty to a desire to live a healthier lifestyle, many young adults are eliminating meat (including fish), dairy, and eggs from their diet.
Another demographic group beginning to explore the health benefits of a plant-based diet is older adults. For many, it is because of the growing amount of research that shows a diet inspired by the world’s “Blue Zones” might be key to living a longer, healthier life.
The Blue Zones are the regions of the world where people live the longest on average. Blue Zone residents tend to follow a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
In honor of Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month, we explore the pros and cons of a plant-based diet for seniors.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for Seniors
The risks for heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease increase with age. Research shows that diet plays a role in your risk for developing these or other chronic health conditions. Here’s how a plant-based diet can help:
- Improved telomeres activity: Plant-based diets increase the production of telomerase in the body. This is the enzyme that rebuilds the caps at the end of our DNA strands known as telomeres. That’s important because these caps are necessary for human life, but they shorten with age. Research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense found that following a plant-based diet for just three months can significantly increase telomeres and help to slow or reverse the aging process.
- Immune system boost: When your diet favors animal products, you are less likely to eat an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables. That not only puts you at risk for high cholesterol and heart disease associated with consuming animal products, but also prevents you from reaping the health benefits fruits and vegetables provide. The most common ones include a lower risk for cancer, a stronger immune system, weight control, improved energy, and better sleep.
- Improved skin health: A surprising benefit of a plant-based diet is improved skin health. People who follow a diet that limits animal products not only report feeling better, but looking better, too. Researchers say it is because fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. These help reduce inflammation and improve collagen synthesis in the skin. Both help the skin look younger.
What Seniors Should Remember About a Plant-based Diet
There are a few factors older adults should take into account when moving toward a plant-based diet:
- Calcium: This nutrient is important for preventing osteoporosis, a condition that is more common with age and is linked to broken bones and fractures. If you eliminate dairy, the most common source of calcium in most diets, you will have to find ways to work calcium-rich vegetables like kale, turnips, collard greens, broccoli, and spinach into your daily menus.
- Protein: Muscle mass in the body can begin to decline as early as our 30s. Protein consumption plays an important role in maintaining healthy muscle mass. If you eliminate protein-rich meat and dairy, it’s important to replace it with plant-based foods high in protein. A few examples include seeds, nuts, and legumes.
- Vitamin B12: As we age, our bodies don’t absorb vitamin B12 as well. It’s an essential vitamin that keeps nerve and blood cells healthy, among other functions. This vitamin is typically found in animal products, so moving to a plant-based diet can make it even more difficult. Talk with your physician for advice on a vitamin B12 supplement or injection.
If you need help transitioning to a plant-based diet, Forks Over Knives has a guide you might find useful. Plant-based Primer: The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Plant-based Diet covers topics ranging from what to eat to how to make substitutions in your favorite recipes.
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