A vegetarian diet has the potential to be quite healthy. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a vegetarian diet may be associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, along with lower levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, hypertension and body mass index.1
But should seniors eat vegetarian? Older adults have different dietary needs and may be affected differently by a vegetarian diet.
In this guide, we look at how a vegetarian diet can directly address the nutrition needs of seniors, including seven potential benefits seniors may experience with a vegetarian diet.
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A 2016 poll revealed that just 1.8 percent of Americans age 65 and over adhere to a vegetarian diet. Only 2.7 percent of people age 55 to 64 reported eating a vegetarian diet.2
The number of older vegetarians is quite low, so it begs the question of whether a vegetarian diet could be helpful or harmful to older adults.
There are in fact a number of ways an older adult may be able to benefit from a vegetarian diet.
A plant-heavy diet can increase the activity of telomeres, which are the rebuilding enzymes found at the end of a cell’s chromosome.
A study by the U.S. Department of Defense found that a plant-based diet can significantly increase the activity of our telomeres, which in turn can help slow down the effects of the aging process.3
Meanwhile, processed meat was found to do have just the opposite effect, shortening telomeres over time.
The antioxidants found in plants help moisturize the skin, heal skin tissue and remove the molecules that cause premature aging.
Energy is linked to our digestion. Because it’s easier for a senior’s digestive system to break down plant foods than meat, a vegetarian diet can create more energy throughout the day. And boosting energy is critical for older adults to get some daily exercise and maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle.
A plant-based diet can help lower the risk of cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s, and vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower have properties that can boost brain function and help you think more clearly.
A vegetarian diet can lower your levels of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone associated with stress.
Switching to a vegetarian diet typically means you increase your consumption of fiber and vitamins, which promote healthy weight loss.
Bananas, sweet potatoes, kale and nuts are all rich in vitamin B6, tryptophan and magnesium. These important vitamins and minerals help increase melatonin and create a healthy sleep cycle, which is especially important for senior health.
One potential risk of switching to a vegetarian diet is a loss of protein. Protein is highly important to a senior’s diet, because we tend to lose muscle mass as we age, and getting enough protein is necessary to help our bodies build muscle.
There are plenty of sources of protein that vegetarians can eat, such as:
As long as you consume protein from other sources, you can minimize the negative effects of cutting meat out of your diet.
A few additional tips for seniors who are considering a vegetarian diet include:
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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not healthcare advice. Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about your specific healthcare needs.
1 Kelly, D. Is It Better to Be a Vegetarian? WebMD Archives. Retrieved from www.webmd.com/diet/features/is-it-better-to-be-a-vegetarian.
2 How Many Adults in the U.S. Are Vegetarian and Vegan? (March 2016). Survey conducted by Harris Poll for the Vegetarian Resource Group. Retrieved from www.vrg.org/nutshell/Polls/2016_adults_veg.htm.
3 Fernandez, E. LifeStyle Changes May Lengthen Telomeres, A Measure of Cell Aging. (Sep. 16, 2013). University of California San Francisco News Center. Retrieved from www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/09/108886/lifestyle-changes-may-lengthen-telomeres-measure-cell-aging.
Christian Worstell is a licensed insurance agent and a Senior Staff Writer for MedicareAdvantage.com. He is passionate about helping people navigate the complexities of Medicare and understand their coverage options.
His work has been featured in outlets such as Vox, MSN, and The Washington Post, and he is a frequent contributor to health care and finance blogs.
Christian is a graduate of Shippensburg University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC.
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