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Why It’s Never Too Late to Change Your Diet

August 29, 2017

It’s never too late to start eating healthy, according to the findings of one recent study.

Honestly, this is advice every doctor probably has given to patients. But this recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, adds to a growing body of scientific research that supports the idea that dietary changes later in life can have a positive impact on your health.

In the study, researchers used models to assess death rates of about 74,000 men and women who participated in two studies from 1998 to 2010. They examined study participants’ dietary changes in the 12 years before the study using the Alternate Healthy Eating Index–2010 score, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet score.

From 1998 to 2010, nearly 10,000 of the study’s participants died. Researchers found participants who had changed their diets to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in the 12 years before the study had a lower risk of early death. Study participants who had poorer eating habits had between a six to 12 percent higher risk of dying early compared to this group.

The study found that the healthier a person ate, the lower the risk of premature death. For every 20-percent increase in diet score, participants had an eight to 17-percent reduction in their risk of early death based on the three indexes researchers used. They also had a seven to 15 percent lower risk of death due to heart disease.

Researchers say a 20-percent improvement in diet is very doable for most people with simple substitutions. Replacing one serving of processed foods or foods high in saturated fats with healthy fats or proteins like nuts, legumes or avocado is a simple way to accomplish this. 

The study shows that even small dietary changes — regardless of how old you are — can make a difference. For seniors, this is especially important. Eating a balanced diet filled with whole grains, fruits and vegetables can lower your risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Reducing the amount of saturated fats, sugar, sodium and processed foods in your diet also can lead to dietary improvements. 

If you don’t know where to begin, start by reviewing the new dietary guidelines federal health officials released last year. The new guidelines include recommendations such as eating eight ounces (or two pieces of fish) a week, limiting sugar and saturated fat to just 10 percent of calories a day and only eating about one teaspoon of salt a day.

Portion control and paying attention to food labels also can help. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also made changes to food labels to reflect the actual serving sizes people eat and the amount of added sugar in food products. When you know better, you do better, so being a more conscious consumer also can help you make positive changes to your diet. 

If time or budget is an issue, start by making small changes and choosing easy-to-prepare, healthy foods like unsweetened instant or frozen oatmeal, frozen vegetables or rotisserie chicken. Also make sure you get enough fiber. Nuts, beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are all good sources of dietary fiber, so try to replace unhealthy snacks, meals or sweets with some of these foods to begin your dietary shift. My favorite snacks are celery with almond butter or unsalted popcorn  and peanuts. Another small change with a big impact is adding garbanzo beans and chopped fruit to garden salads.

I am constantly inspired by my patients to see the way small changes over time have a big impact, even at an advanced age. An older gentleman with diabetes came to see me four months ago and wanted help improving his blood sugars. Together we set new goals at the monthly follow-up appointments. Through increasing his exercise regimen to four days per week, and replacing chips, burgers and ice cream with apples, lean turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread with veggies, and oatmeal with non-fat milk, he achieved amazing results.

Our bodies change as we age, but it’s important to do everything we can to stay healthy. Get regular exercise a few times a week, even if it’s just a brisk 30-minute walk. Eat nutrient-dense foods that are filling and contain antioxidants and vitamins that can reduce your risk for various chronic conditions. Think berries, spinach or even ground flax seeds. Even though it’s better to form healthier habits early, as the research study and patient story shows, it’s never too late to make dietary changes that can lead to a healthier life.

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