Blog Post

These seven superfoods support good health and nutrition in seniors

By Alicia M. Colombo

The term “superfood” has gotten a lot of use lately. It describes a food that is nutritionally “dense,” meaning the food contains a high amount of nutrients per calorie. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, superfoods are thought to be linked to the prevention of disease and are believed to offer several health benefits beyond their basic nutritional value. The nutrients in superfoods typically include antioxidants, polyphenols (micronutrients in plant-based foods), essential amino acids,
and vitamins and minerals that can assist the body in maintaining good health.

So what are these superfoods, and how can they help you stay healthy? Andrea Quartez Byrd, a registered dietitian and the dietary manager at Mercy Life (North Hancock site), which provides medical and supportive services for seniors, recommends the following seven superfoods for older adults. “These superfoods should be included as part of a healthy diet,” she said. “They are beneficial for all age groups, but they all work to keep the body strong and help protect against conditions that are common among seniors.”

Blueberries

Darkly colored berries are rich in vitamin C; potassium; and antioxidants, plant-based nutrients that fight the oxidation process that damages your cells. The nutrients in blueberries have been shown to lower inflammation and the risk of heart disease and cancer. They also boost urinary tract health by inhibiting bacteria from binding to bladder tissue and helping to prevent urinary tract infections.

“Blueberries are not always popular with seniors,” said Byrd, “but I like to suggest it because of the health effects. I try to encourage people to eat more. I suggest they try adding them to morning oatmeal and to salad.”

Greens

A diet rich in dark green, leafy vegetables, or “greens,” can lower the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Research by Harvard University indicated that a higher intake of greens was strongly associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Greens are also n excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, which helps maintain bone health.

Popular greens include kale, collards, turnip or mustard greens, arugula, spinach, and Swiss chard. An easy, healthy way to incorporate greens into your diet is to steam them, without adding oil or butter, to enjoy as a side dish with your dinner. “They can also be used in green smoothies, which is great for people who don’t like the taste of greens alone,” Byrd said. She suggests making a “superfood smoothie” by combing foods such as kale, yogurt and blueberries.

Salmon

Wild salmon and other foods rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are known to offer protection against cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and the effects of overall aging. DHA, better known as omega-3 fatty acids, is considered an essential nutrient for brain health and helps to maintain normal brain functioning, according to Byrd.

If the cost or availability of fresh salmon makes it difficult to consume regularly, consider purchasing frozen filets that are more readily available and less expensive. Salmon filets can be baked, broiled or grilled and served atop a green salad or with steamed vegetables. Other sources of omega-3 include nuts, particularly almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios; and flax or chia seeds. These nuts and seeds can be sprinkled on green salads, mixed in yogurt or added to smoothies.

Whole grains

Whole grains offer a “complete package” of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Whole grains are a good source of B vitamins and phytochemicals, which are natural chemical compounds in plants that research has found play a role in disease prevention. “Whole grains help with blood sugar control and are great for diabetics,” Byrd said. “They release sugar slowly during digestion, so this will cause a steady energy flow.”

Whole grains also contain a lot of fiber, which aids in digestion and is recommended for seniors. Oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa and barley are all examples of whole grains.

Legumes

Legumes, such as beans and peas, are good sources of complex carbohydrates and protein. They also contain fiber and research suggests they help to lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease and aid in weight management. Research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that a diet rich in plant-based foods, including legumes, lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and, for those who have diabetes, improves both glycemic and lipid control. NIH research also shows that regularly eating legumes may help lower total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Legumes also are rich in potassium, magnesium, and fiber, which have a positive impact on blood pressure management.

Common types of beans include kidney, cannellini (white), navy, fava, black, pinto and soy (edamame). Peas can include green peas, black-eyed peas, chickpeas and lentils. A legume salad can be made from a combination of cooked legumes, chopped herbs, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Consider adding cooked legumes to prepared rice, quinoa, beef stew, chili and soups.

Yogurt and other probiotics

Yogurt and other fermented foods contain probiotics, which is “good” bacteria that helps to regulate digestion and lessen inflammation. “Probiotics provide good bacteria for the gut, which helps to build a stronger immune system,” said Byrd.
In addition to maintaining regular digestive health, probiotics can help treat conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and diarrhea.

Yogurt is probably the best known and most easily accessible probiotic food. But soy drinks, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, and Korean kimchi (fermented vegetables) are also great sources of probiotics.

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is rich in polyphenols, antioxidants, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, zinc and selenium. Frequent eaters of dark chocolate may experience a host of heart-healthy benefits, including lower blood pressure, LDL (“bad) cholesterol and risk of heart disease. One of the reasons dark chocolate is especially heart-healthy is its inflammation-fighting properties, which reduces cardiovascular risk. A Swedish study found that women who ate more than 45 grams of chocolate a week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke.

But there is one major caveat. Only dark chocolate that contains 60 percent or higher cocoa has a health benefit. Due to its high caloric count per serving, chocolate of any variety should be consumed in moderation. Diabetics should choose a sugar-free option, recommends Byrd. “When people taste a higher concentration of cocoa, they are surprised by the lack of sweetness,” she said.

“You won’t be tempted to overeat.” While no food is a cure-all or “magic pill” for good health, these superfoods pack a nutritional punch that makes them worthwhile for seniors to incorporate into their diets.