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Super-agers: how they eat to live younger

Nutrition for healthy ageing
Photo: Nutrition and healthy ageing

We've all seen them. These super-agers who run marathons at seventy. They're the same ones on the beach after an ocean swim while others hit snooze on a Sunday morning.

Sadly, only a select few are destined for super-ager status; most of us slow down in our twilight years. So, what makes a super-ager? Is it genes, diet, lifestyle – or some magic combination of all three?

When we think about ageing, we associate it with decline, explains dietician Rhoda Lucas, who identifies as a super-ager, but it doesn't have to be that way. 

"While there is no one perfect solution for everyone, focusing on nourishing your gut, body and mind coupled with regular exercise is a great place to start!"

Exercise your way to longevity
Maintaining healthy body weight and gaining or preserving lean muscle mass is vital for the strength and health of bones as we age, explains Ms Lucas.

"As we age, our muscle mass begins to decline, so we need to be on top of our nutrition game.

It's also critical to adopt a regular resistance training routine at least three times a week to maintain lean muscle mass.

The loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, begins at 30. At this stage, the body will lose 3 to 8 per cent muscle mass each decade with a more drastic decline after age 60.

"It [sarcopenia] doesn't just affect your athletic performance or how you look in a swimsuit. It also impacts your longevity. The great news is you can turn this around and reverse it.

"The treatment is resistance training! Yes, that means lifting weights to stimulate your muscle fibres which in turn stimulates your bones and keeps them healthy."

So, if you've been walking and running to keep in shape, it's time to switch it up, according to Ms Lucas, because while great for heart, it doesn't build muscle.

The 2015 LIFTMOR showed heavy resistance training is safe and improves bone, function, and stature in postmenopausal women, and therefore can reverse age-related bone loss and sarcopenia.

"You are never too old to start resistance training."

Eating adequate protein is also vital to maintain or build muscle.

"Try to eat a good protein source at each meal."

Nutrition and healthy aging

Research shows a diet rich in whole foods and plants improves gut health, reduces inflammation and risk of disease, says Ms Lucas.

"I'm a huge fan of the Mediterranean-style diet. It's been found to improve brain health and cognitive capacity, including reducing the risk of dementia and reversing symptoms of depression.

"A Mediterranean diet is rich in plant foods, and people who consume at least 30 different plant foods a week have the greatest diversity of bacteria in their gut.

"Having a diverse population of microbes in our gut is what we need to strive for because it is associated with a healthier gut and a healthier mind."

The Australian Dietary Guidelines are based on the review of 55,000 scientific studies, which closely resemble the Mediterranean Diet.

"This eating approach, coupled with the latest scientific information on gut health optimisation, which includes the daily consumption of prebiotic fibres, is the best approach for ageing well."

Nutrition tips for healthy ageing

The following tips, which are based on the Mediterranean diet and the latest research on gut health, are essential for healthy ageing, according to Ms Lucas. 

Variety is vital

Eat a wide variety of whole foods and reduce processed foods.

"Processed foods, if eaten frequently in large amounts, can result in increased inflammation, a poor gut microbiota profile and ultimately an increased risk of disease and depression.

"There is emerging evidence that emulsifiers found in processed foods may contribute to gut and metabolic disease through alteration of the gut microbiota with an associated inflammatory response."

Paint the rainbow

Eat a rainbow of colours and include non-starchy vegetables with lunch, dinner and breakfast.

Include leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrot, capsicum, red cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans.

Broccoli is an anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer (and therefore anti-aging) powerhouse because it contains prebiotic fibres, antioxidants and vitamins and minerals (such as Vitamin C and calcium).

"Eat to two to three serves of fruit a day and include blueberries as often as you can.

"Researchers have uncovered new data to show blueberries, rich in vitamins A and C as well as the age-defying antioxidant anthocyanin, delay the ageing process and promote longevity.

"Multiple studies have shown blueberries slow age-related damage to brain cells and reduce inflammation in the body."

Don't hold the olive oil

Include 60 ml (3 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil into your diet every day.

"Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats on earth. It is rich in monounsaturated fats, and can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and may even be effective in fighting cancer."

Omega-3's, please

Include a daily dose of 30g of unsalted nuts (or a small, closed handful).

"Nuts are a rich source of omega-three fatty acids which are beneficial for heart health".

The best choices are almonds, walnuts, pistachios and ground flaxseed.

"You can add flaxseeds to granola, oats or a smoothie."

Feed your gut with fermented foods

Include fermented foods, such as reduced-fat plain Greek yoghurt or pickled vegetables (sauerkraut, kefir) daily.

"Fermented foods … not only boosts the food's shelf life and nutritional value but gives your body a dose of healthy probiotics — live micro-organisms crucial to good digestion and gut health."

Quality carbohydrates

Choose good quality sources of carbohydrates, such as oats, quinoa, wholegrain or sourdough bread, wholegrain cereals and starchy vegetables.

Pick plant-based proteins

Protein is an essential nutrient your body uses to build and repair muscles and bones and to make hormones and enzymes.

"Aim to eat protein at each meal and try to include more plant-based protein in your diet, such as legumes, tofu and tempeh.

"If you eat meat, limit animal flesh sources to once a day and red meat to 455g per week as per the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

"Include oily fish, salmon, mackerel or sardines two to three times a week for the added benefit of omega-three fatty acids."

The power of prebiotic fibre

Include daily prebiotic fibres to fuel healthy gut microbes.

"Prebiotics help your gut microbes thrive and are found in onions, garlic, green bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oats, custard apples, and dates."

Spice up your life

Herbs and spices such as turmeric and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory effects and can help reduce the risk of diseases associated with low-grade inflammation in the body, explains Ms Lucas.

"Keep a range of dried herbs and spices on your kitchen top to remind you to use them daily in your meals."

Hydration H2O

Aim for eight glasses or 2 litres of water per day (more on exercise days).

"Create a healthy habit of getting up in the morning and consuming two glasses of water to get the body ready for the day - ready to digest, absorb and get to work!"

Caffeine isn't mean

Caffeine has a positive effect on mood by stimulating the dopaminergic system in the brain, which is less active in those experiencing depression, says Ms Lucas.

"Caffeine has a positive effect on gut microbes.

"If you are a tea drinker, green tea has strong antioxidant properties and is rich in polyphenols which help reduce inflammation in the body."

Chocolate – go to the dark side

Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients and may play a role in preventing heart disease, boosting mood and enhancing gut health.

"Why not end the day with a little piece of dark chocolate - sorry white or milk doesn't count here."

So, what should your plate look like?

A round plate divvied into four parts should include: 1/4 protein, 1/4 whole grains /starchy vegetables (pumpkin, corn, legumes, sweet potato) and 1/2 non-starchy vegetables (the rainbow), says Ms Lucas.

"Take at least 20 minutes to eat your meal. Make mealtimes mindful and a time to spend chatting with loved ones or family.

"The research on nutrition and healthy ageing is exciting and is always expanding – it's key to healthy ageing!"

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.