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Eating habits should be altered as you age, nutritionists agree

As America's first wave of baby boomers edges past 50, research shows they have less wriggle room in their diet than they did when they were younger.

Bodies and lifestyles change with age, so that people need to adapt the way they eat and take care of themselves, especially if they want to remain active and disease-free, experts say.

"The diet and health link is particularly important as you grow older," said Jeffrey Blumberg, professor of nutrition at the Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

"Even if nutrient requirements didnít change with age, we'd still have a problem," he said, "because as people grow older they became more sedentary, expend less energy and tend to consume less food. When you eat less but require the same amount of more nutrients, you've got a problem.

One solution to this dilemma is to choose foods with "greater nutrient density," or as dietitian Chris Rosenbloom phrased it, "quality calories."

But although older adults consume less food, current research shows they actually require more protein, said Rosenbloom. "Lack of protein can lead to muscle loss - something they can't afford - as well as lower immunity with the risk of infection and disease when the immune system is not kept strong."

There's more involved, though. Once into middle age, people become more susceptible to chronic diseases, Blumberg said.

Older people also increasingly susceptible to "oxidant stresses"; that is, they require stronger, defenses against "free radicals" those unstable byproducts of metabolism that can damage tissue. To protect themselves against such invaders, older people need more antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E and the carotenoids.

These are not conditions that suddenly appear at 55 or 62 or 75. "We start at age 50, when you begin to feel the effects of age," said nutritionist/dietitian Ronni Chernoff.

In addition to the need for protein, calcium for bone health, vitamins and antioxidants, Chernoff stresses the need for exercise to retain the lean body mass (muscle), dietary fiber for disease prevention and digestion, and especially water. Hydration is a serious problem for many older people, said Chernoff. Thirst sensitivity decreases with age, but people still need to get eight to 10 glasses of water a day.

So what's the best way to go about adapting the way you eat to accommodate aging? And what benefits can you expect?

Start with the wholesome foods you really like. Figure out which foods have which nutrients. For carotenoids, look to apricots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, greens, pumpkins, any foods with a lot of color. To increase B vitamins, look to enriched grains, cereal, pasta and rice. For fiber, choose whole-grain bread, brown rice, popcorn, dried fruits, oatmeal and beans and legumes.

Concentrate on protein. Some older people, concerned about their cholesterol, have abandoned such good protein sources as eggs and red meats. But four eggs a week and a little lean red meat are OK, experts agree.

Fear of fat keeps people away from dairy products, Chernoff said, but they are missing a good source of protein, vitamin D and calcium. "If you are sick of milk, try yogurt. Mix in into things."

Benefits from such dietary improvements are not always readily apparent. "What you really want to see is no effect," Blumberg said. "No heart attack, no cancer, no osteoporosis.

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