Can a Vegetarian Diet Be Healthy for Senior Adults?

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.

Couple chopping vegetables in their kitchen

Is a vegetarian diet popular with seniors?

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.

Seven potential benefits of a vegetarian diet for seniors

There are in fact a number of ways an older adult may be able to benefit from a vegetarian diet.

1. Slow down aging

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.

2. Promote healthier skin

The antioxidants found in plants help moisturize the skin, heal skin tissue and remove the molecules that cause premature aging.

3. Boost energy

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.

4. Improve brain function

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.  

5. Lower stress

A vegetarian diet can lower your levels of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone associated with stress.

6. Lose weight

Switching to a vegetarian diet typically means you increase your consumption of fiber and vitamins, which promote healthy weight loss.

7. Sleep better

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.

Diet tips for older vegetarians

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:

  • Eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Peanut butter
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Black beans
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Milk

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:

  • Hard fruits and vegetables can be difficult to chew, so consider softer alternatives such as applesauce or smoothies.

  • There are plenty of vegetarian meat alternatives made from soy or grains, so you can still get your hamburger fix by eating a soy patty, for example.

  • Talk to your doctor about using nutritional supplements to enhance your diet.

  • Some Medicare Advantage plans provide benefits for healthier food options and home-delivered meal services. And Medicare Advantage plans also typically offer fitness club memberships such as the SilverSneakers program.

Speak to a licensed insurance agent to learn more about how a Medicare Advantage plan could help you lead a healthier and more active lifestyle.

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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.

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