Study finds restrictive diets and nutrition advice for elderly may not apply

Are Special Diets and Nutrition Guidelines Forever?

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Family Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read my original blog here.


Have you ever wondered what the upper age limit is for dietary advice? I’m not talking about headline grabbing food fads, but the diet and nutrition guidelines issued periodically by the government and health organizations that tell us what we should be eating more of and what we should eat less of to maintain health and prevent disease.

It’s something worth thinking about if you’re approaching the upper age limit for advice on nutrition.

Food intake requirements are based on several age categories for those younger than 19 years to address the special nutritional needs of growing infants, children and adolescents. The only other special categories are for pregnant and lactating women. The rest of us are lumped into three big groups for anyone 19-30, 31-50 and 51 -70 years of age.

But what about all those people living into their 80s and beyond? Could they possibly expect the same benefits from following a therapeutic diet as a 55 year old? New research suggests the answer is no. In fact, there may actually be survival benefits to being overweight or slightly obese as we age.

Be prepared to take back some of the dietary do’s and don’ts you may have issued to your aging parents.

Researchers at Penn State University and the Geisinger Healthcare System have been tracking the diet and health outcomes of more than 20,000 older people for more than a decade. The findings published in the January issue of the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging focused on 449 individuals who were 76 years of age or older at the start of the study and followed for five years.

Using information collected in a series of 24-hour diet recalls obtained by telephone, the participants were categorized as having one of three different dietary patterns:

  • Sweets and Dairy – largest proportion of energy from baked goods, milk, sweetened coffee and tea, and dairy-based desserts, and the lowest intakes of poultry
  • Health-Conscious – higher intakes of pasta, rice, whole fruit, poultry, nuts, fish and vegetables, with lower intakes of fried vegetables, processed meats and soft drinks
  • Western – higher intakes of breads, eggs, fats, fried vegetables, alcohol and soft drinks, with the lowest intakes of milk and whole fruit

The researchers then used the subjects’ electronic medical records to identify whether they developed cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and metabolic syndrome during the five year period. They found no relationship between any of the dietary patterns and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome or mortality, but did see an increased risk of hypertension among those with the Sweets and Dairy pattern of eating.

Gordon Jensen, one of the authors and Head of Nutritional Science at Penn State University, said, “The results suggest that if you live to be this old, then there may be little to support the use of overly restrictive dietary prescriptions, especially where food intake may already be inadequate.”

This does not mean that people who have been following all the right diet rules can now abandon them. They can actually look forward to the best health outcomes of all. But for the rest of the over 70 crowd whose diets and nutrition habits have not been perfect, there may be no need to keep worrying about what you eat.

Posted in Aging, Calories, Chronic Diseases, Diet and Disease, Dietary Supplements, Dietitians, Eating Habits, FAMILY GOES STRONG, Family Traditions, Health Risks, Nutritional Needs, Therapeutic Diets and tagged , , , .

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