The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruit, vegetables, beans, wholegrains, olive oil and oily fish. Herbs and spices are a healthy substitute for salt. Research suggests the diet is good for your heart and may help ward off memory loss and certain cancers. One study in 2013 found the diet led to a 30% lower risk of heart disease and strokes. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) says more research is needed on whether the diet can help prevent rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, but says it has shown "to be beneficial for overall, and particularly cardiovascular, health as well as weight management". However, as with any diet, watch your portion size.
Add oomph with olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is a monounsaturated fat rich in beneficial plant polyphenols - natural antioxidants that give olive oil its green and yellow colour. Extra virgin olive oil can help achieve healthy HDL cholesterol levels in the blood and reduce harmful levels of LDL cholesterol, and also help control blood pressure. The monounsaturated fats of olive and rapeseed oils as part of a healthy Mediterranean style of eating also help to maintain healthy arteries.
Love your wholegrains
According to the British Dietetic Association: "Evidence is mounting that eating wholegrains regularly as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle may help to reduce the risk of many common diseases." The BDA says a diet rich in wholegrains helps maintain a healthy digestive tract and may reduce your risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Wholegrains retain more of their nutritional value than refined grains – especially protein, vitamin E, B vitamins, fibre, antioxidants and trace mineral iron, zinc, copper and magnesium. So why not add some wholemeal bread, wholegrain pasta, rice or crackers, oats, beans or barley to your diet?
Eating a handful of nuts every day could help you cut the risk of developing cancer and heart disease. In 2016 UK and Norwegian researchers reported that nuts can even reduce the risk of early death. However, experts caution that salted nuts, honey roasting or coating in chocolate would wipe out any health benefits
Fish for your brain
Research suggests that oily fish may benefit your brain as you age. According to one study in the US journal Neurology, fish oils may delay the loss of ageing brain cells by 1 to 2 years. Oily fish contain the essential omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, and are naturally darker fleshed oily fish such as trout, mackerel, sardines and salmon. So, top your salad with tuna or salmon as an alternative to chicken, and try to follow the NHS advice to eat fish at least twice a week, with at least one portion being oily. Omega-3 fats are also associated with lower cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as easing the inflammation that can damage artery walls.
Say yes to dairy
Dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium. They also provide protein to help maintain bones, muscle and support your immune system. For those intolerant to the milk sugar lactose, ‘live’ yoghurt may be tolerated as the lactose content is reduced by the probiotic bacteria. The calcium content of dairy foods isn’t affected by the fat content, so choose skimmed or semi-skimmed milk instead of whole milk for a lower calorie, calcium rich drink. Fermented dairy foods like yoghurt also have additional benefits in helping maintain digestive health, especially for the very young and very old.
Age well with antioxidants
Antioxidants are compounds believed to help protect the body against “free radicals”. These unstable oxygen molecules have been linked to cell damage and the ageing process. The British Dietetic Association says some flavonoids in foods "act as antioxidants, which may reduce damage to cell DNA and cell membranes". The three key antioxidant vitamins are beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E - found in colourful purple, red, orange or blue fruits and vegetables. For the greatest benefits, eat them raw and add them to your 5-a-day intake of fruit and vegetables, as recommended by the NHS.
Berries are rich in antioxidants. Strawberries, blueberries and acai berries are a rich source of vitamin C, anthocyanins and polyphenols, natural plant substances with powerful antioxidant activities. Frozen berries are just as good as they keep their polyphenol content. Some berries, such as acai, have been linked with anti-ageing properties, but that has not been substantiated by the European food regulator (EFSA), so you won’t see claims like that on UK packaged goods.
High fibre foods
Fibre rich foods are an essential part of a healthy diet. Wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta, pulses and beans are packed with fibre and are especially beneficial as you age. They can help prevent diverticular disease, aid digestion, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol and prevent constipation. You also feel fuller longer, so they can help you maintain a healthy weight. Aim to eat beans two to four times a week. Sprinkle your salad with chickpeas or use beans in place of meat in soups. Beans are also great if you have diabetes as they contain complex carbohydrates that help regulate glucose levels.
Value your vegetables
Vegetables and salad are rich in fibre and phytonutrients, loaded with vitamins and minerals and naturally fat-free. Research suggests these nutritional powerhouses also play an important role in protecting you from chronic diseases. The NHS recommends 5-a-day of fruit and veg and says dark, leafy greens like spinach are high in folic acid, which is known to lower raised homocysteine levels - high levels may be linked to heart disease. Carrots and sweet potatoes also contain beta-carotene, which helps skin and eye health and supports your immune system. Tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C and the antioxidant lycopene. In one study, men eating 10 or more servings of tomato products each week saw a 35% decrease in their risk of prostate cancer.
Slim down for good health
Maintaining a healthy weight is a key step to living and ageing well. We tend to gain weight as we age, which puts more pressure on joints and more strain on your heart. It may also increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease. It’s hard to avoid weight gain because ageing slows your metabolism and increases muscles loss. If you need to lose weight limit your between meal snacks, and boost the amount of vegetables or salad on your meal plate. Make sure that you’re eating because you’re hungry – and not because you’re bored, frustrated or tired.
Watch weight loss
Weight gain isn’t always the issue. Some people experience weight loss as they age and find it difficult to keep weight on. This can happen if you’re recovering from illness, an injury or if you have an underlying health problem. Aim to eat three meals a day and eat healthy snacks in-between. If you need to regain lost weight remember you need to include the high calorie, higher fat foods we’re normally encouraged to avoid. Eat the highest calorie item on your plate first, as filling up with lower calorie foods will limit your calorie intake. If you’re struggling to gain or maintain your weight check with your GP first to exclude a medical reason for weight loss. You may be prescribed liquid nutritional supplements to help you achieve your dietary goals.