There is no question that food can have a powerful impact on well-being. The question is: which foods should we avoid and which should we embrace? The answer is not always as easy as it seems, and different sources will often give us conflicting answers.
Once a dietary recommendation is established as conventional wisdom in the public eye, it is much harder to change the preconceptions around these recommendations — even when scientists present new evidence that results in new recommendations. While understanding recommended dietary guidelines is important for people of all ages, it can be especially pertinent for seniors and older adults whose diets are affected by health concerns.
When it comes to restricting certain food groups, there are three dietary components that are commonly discussed: sodium, fats, and sugar. Adults and seniors who are navigating new dietary expectations or restrictions can benefit from a better understanding of the current research and suggestions surrounding these three elements.
Sodium Intake: Cut Back, or Stay the Same?
The current recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest that Americans should restrict sodium to a daily intake of less than 2,300 mg for people under 50 and 1,500 mg daily for those over 50 years old. They also report that most adults are actually consuming more than 3,400 mg of sodium daily — most of which comes from processed foods and restaurant meals, and not from your saltshaker.
However, some experts are now disagreeing with the CDC’s recommendations. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine published in the American Journal of Hypertension looked at a meta-analysis of studies and concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the CDC recommendations. The report states that low levels of sodium intake can have negative metabolic consequences, and evidence for the dangers of higher levels is insufficient. Their conclusion suggests a safe range of sodium intake is between 2,645 mg and 4,945 mg, which implies that many adults are consuming a safe amount.
It’s always best to consult with your doctor about your particular sodium levels, and what is best for you given your current health status. If they suggest lowering your sodium intake, try these easy tips:
- Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat diary.
- If an item contains 140 mg or less of sodium per serving, it’s considered low sodium.
- Use lemon juice and salt-free spices when cooking.
- Search for nutritional information before going out to eat, and opt for lower sodium dishes.
- Reduce your portion size when eating out.
Good Fat versus Bad Fat
The low-fat diet messaging of the 1980s is engrained in American culture, but it isn’t as simple as we once believed, and we’re still receiving conflicting messaging surrounding the consumption of fats.
We all know a high-fat diet isn’t good for anyone, but in recent years the conversation has shifted from “no fat ever” to “good fats versus bad fats.” The bad fats are saturated fats found in animal products and many processed foods, while the good fats (the omega 3 fats) are found in plants, nuts, and some types of fish. So we’re advised to eat fewer bad fats and more good fats.
However, there are serious questions surrounding this diet. The 2016 publication of results from a previously done study that was never published showed that while exchanging vegetable fat for saturated fat lowered cholesterol, there was no evidence that it resulted in lowered mortality from cardiovascular disease.
The CDC still recommends that men and women limit their total fat intake to no more than 33 percent of overall caloric intake, but these numbers may be different if you suffer from obesity or diabetes. To reduce fat intake, the CDC recommends:
- Look for foods low in trans fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol — 5 percent of the Daily Value or less is a low-fat option.
- Make sure your diet is rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins (like fish, chicken, beans, and lentils), and low-fat or fat-free dairy.
- Avoid foods cooked in partially hydrogenated oils and shortening.
Limit Your Sugar
It’s generally accepted that consuming a high concentration of sugar isn’t good for your health, but not many people understand why. While new evidence around salt and fat intake may be calling our previously held beliefs into question, the evidence surrounding sugar is only backing up what experts have been saying for years: High amounts of sugar is a contributing factor for many chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease.
Added sugar can be hidden in a surprising number of foods that you pick up every week at the grocery store. Not only can you find these sugars in the typical places, such as cakes, cookies, and other sweets, but also in foods such as bread and pasta sauce. Sugar Science, a group of researchers dedicated to educating the public on sugar’s impact on health, writes that there are at least 61 different names for sugar on ingredient labels, and that manufacturers add sugar to 74 percent of packaged foods.
It’s easy to see how hard it can be to limit your added sugar intake, even when trying to cook and eat healthy at home. The CDC recommends that added sugars should be limited to less than 10 percent of total daily calories (for example, no more than 200 calories from sugar in a 2,000 calorie diet). Look out for these popular added sugars in your typical groceries:
- Easily recognizable sugars, such as brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, molasses, and corn syrup.
- And more confusing terms, such as dextrose, fructose, and glucose.
Build A Better Diet
So what are we to do in the face of conflicting recommendations? It is true that once a belief about dietary recommendations is widely accepted, changing that belief can be difficult, even in the face of new evidence. One way to better know which recommendations make sense for you is to get regular checkups and consult with your doctor.
Eating fresh, natural foods and cooking meals instead of going out are some of the easiest ways to make better diet choices that will benefit your overall health. A little education and a sharp eye for added sugars, fats, and sodium can go a long way in improving eating habits for adults of all ages.