Ask the Expert
Ask the Expert

Dole Nutrition Institute’s Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, shares tips for eating healthy as we grow older.

Dole Nutrition Institute’s Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, shares tips for eating healthy as we grow old

Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD

Nutrition and Health Communications Manager at Dole Food Company

As biomedical research continues to deepen our understanding of the processes of aging, a growing body of evidence reveals nutrition as an important driver of healthy aging.

For the many older adults in good health, good nutrition is protective--promoting a longer healthspan, better function, and quality of life. For those with chronic diseases and related disabilities, malnutrition and over-nutrition can exacerbate problems, with potentially serious consequences including longer hospitalizations, increased frailty, and higher health costs.

For a research perspective coupled with real-life nutritional advice, AFAR consulted Dole Nutrition Institute for this special two-part series.

Here, Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, Nutrition and Health Communications Manager at Dole Food Company, shares research-backed advice on nutrition and diet choices we call can make at any age to help us stay healthier as we grow older.

How do our nutritional needs change as we age, and does good nutrition in our younger years influence good health in later life?

As we age, there are several dietary factors that change. First, our metabolisms slow and our caloric requirements decrease—meaning, we need to eat less. However, older bodies are less efficient at absorbing and utilizing vitamins and minerals, so micronutrient requirements actually increase. This means there is an even greater emphasis on dietary quality. When you are younger, there is more room for discretionary calories like sweets; however, when you’re older, you usually are eating less food and need more vitamins and minerals, so nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables become very important parts of regular eating habits or diet.

There is also an issue of diminishing taste. In our later years (80s, 90’s and beyond), our taste buds don’t work like they used to, and we have a greater desire for foods that are salty and sweet. It is important to learn how to flavor foods with herbs and spices so we don’t rely on salt and sugar for food to taste good.

Food safety is another issue. Our immune systems weaken as we age, so washing produce, paying attention to temperature, and avoiding cross contamination are important. Safety is also an issue if seniors are on medications, as many medications interact with nutrients.

At any age, we all hear a lot of conflicting advice and confusing claims about foods, vitamins, and supplements. Are there any particular fruits and vegetables that have a real evidence base to show they can help with age-related conditions such as arthritis, stroke, cancer, or heart disease?

For most generally healthy people, supplements are unnecessary and nutrient requirements can be met with food alone. In fact, it’s usually best to get nutrients from whole foods because they provide a whole package of nutrition—vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, phytochemicals (in plants)—rather than nutrients in isolation. Everything in whole food works synergistically, which best promotes health.

Fruits and vegetables are certainly linked to disease risk reduction when regularly included in the diet. I wouldn’t say any fruit or vegetable is more important than the others; it’s essential to include a variety of foods and colors in the diet because we need them all for optimal health.

The Dole Nutrition Institute’s lab studies have shown compounds in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower may play defense against cancer cells. Research also has found blueberries can help lower blood pressure, and there is evidence that pineapple can aid in joint health. Variety is key to a healthful diet.

About one quarter of people over age 60 have type 2 diabetes, and millions more have prediabetes (often undiagnosed). An important response is to reduce the sugar in their diet, but many fruits and vegetables are high in sugar and other carbohydrates. What should older adults trying to manage diabetes try to eat, and try to avoid?

First, it’s important to note the difference between added sugar and natural sugar found in fruit or vegetables. The Natural sugar in fruit is less concentrated and is buffered by water, fiber, and other components of the whole fruit. Whole fruits contain lots of important nutrients for health like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

The easiest step to any healthful diet is to cut down on packaged, processed foods and instead focus on whole foods—fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and lean protein. Most of us know that soft drinks and desserts are packed with added sugar, but there are hidden sugars in foods like breads and sauces that don’t even taste sweet. 

You make a forceful case that eating fruits and vegetables offers many health benefits, but is it equally important what we do not eat? And do the good foods people eat have any power to override or undo the damage that low-value or fast foods may cause?

Dole recommends the 80/20 philosophy: 80% of the time your meals should be balanced and healthful, and 20% of the time you can splurge a little. I also firmly believe there are few “bad” foods--only bad portion sizes. The problem most people have is eating way too much of the bad stuff and not enough of the good stuff. And it’s not as simple as just adding more fruits and vegetables to an already unhealthy diet. The key is to make swaps.

An easy trick to think about is to “flip” the typical American plate. We are usually served a large portion of protein and a small side of vegetables. Instead, go for a big pile of veggies and a 3 ounce portion of protein. Or for dessert, instead of a slab of cake with a strawberry on top, eat a bowl of strawberries with a two-bite square of cake.

I also recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables cooked in a variety of ways. Prepare produce the way that you enjoy. Eating fruits and vegetables in any form is better than eating none at all. Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods, practice portion control, and eliminate liquid calories by drinking mostly water.

Is it ever too late to start eating better—and if not, what are your go-to whole fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-rich foods?

Ideally a person should strive to eat well for his or her entire life, but it is never too late to make a healthy choice. The positive dietary choices you make today can extend your longevity and seriously improve the quality of your golden years, even if you haven’t been eating healthfully for your whole life. A few places to start: add more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables to your diet, cut out overly processed foods or sweetened drinks, scale back on portion sizes, and switch from refined to whole grains. 

Incorporating fruits and vegetables into your routine is not as arduous or as expensive as many of us think. There is a perception that only organic produce is healthy, but there is nothing wrong with conventional produce if that’s what fits in your budget. Cooking at home is far less expensive than eating out, especially if you opt for the less-processed foods in the store. Buy commodity fruits and vegetables rather than pre-cut options and go for what’s in season.

Dole is thrilled to share a range of fact sheets and recipes on health and longevity that you can find at Dole’s chairman David H. Murdock has even shared his weekly, healthy, shopping list full of whole fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-rich foods to keep stocked in your kitchen, here.

Learn more insights from Dole Nutrition Instiute's Nicholas Gillitt, here.