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10 best and worst diets for people over 60

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Learn which senior diet plans help weight loss, disease prevention, and overall well-being

As you get older, the systems in your body change. Your metabolism slows down, the ability to absorb vitamins decreases, the density of your muscles and bones reduces, and your sense of thirst diminishes. As a result, if you’re over 60, you’re at higher risk of frailty, obesity, and chronic disease, which can lead to falls, broken bones, extended hospital stays, long-term disability, dementia, and more.

To combat the negative effects of aging, healthy senior diets with high nutritional value that nourish and strengthen the body are an important part of daily living. But with new diet trends constantly emerging, it can be difficult to decide which senior diet plans to follow. Before you try any of these diet plans, speak with your doctor or dietician to assess your current health and decide what is right for you.

1. What is the DASH diet?

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) plan limits the number of foods you eat that are high in sodium, added sugar, saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol. These include sweets, sugary drinks, and red meats. Instead, the DASH Plan emphasizes a balanced diet of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, fat-free or low-fat dairy, seafood, poultry, beans, nuts, and seeds. With a focus on portion control, this is one of the healthy senior diets that encourages consuming a variety of foods, including whole plant foods that contain potassium and reduce blood pressure, while paying attention to the amount and quality of carbs you eat.

Is the DASH diet OK for seniors?

Designed to keep blood pressure in check, the DASH Plan is excellent for people over 60, says Suzanne Dixon, registered dietitian. Convenient and simple to follow, the DASH plan includes many standard grocery items and is adaptable to meet your dietary needs and budget. With foods proven to provide some protection against cancer, osteoporosis, stroke, and diabetes, the DASH Plan has been also shown to lower blood pressure and is widely considered one of the best senior diets for weight loss. If you have an acute illness, you may need to cut back on some of the bulky, fibrous plant foods, Dixon says, but the DASH Plan includes good sources of lean protein, such as chicken and fish, which also help protect against loss of lean body mass and frailty.

2. What is the keto diet?

Designed to alter your body’s metabolism, the ketogenic diet focuses on burning fat, rather than carbohydrates, for energy — a state called ketosis. Dating back to the 1920s, the keto diet was first developed to treat epilepsy, but it has since been used more generally for weight loss and diabetes. A healthy keto diet focuses on whole foods naturally low in carbs, including fish, grass-fed beef and poultry, cheese, eggs, vegetables high in fiber, nuts, seeds, avocados, and berries.

Is the keto diet OK for seniors?

During the first few weeks on the high-fat, low-carb keto diet, you may experience negative symptoms known as the “keto flu,” including fatigue, bad breath, nausea or vomiting, and constipation or diarrhea. You also urinate more, which causes you to lose important electrolytes, such as magnesium, an energy mineral that helps burn fat and cut weight, says Dr. Carolyn Dean, Medical Advisory Board Member of the Nutritional Magnesium Association.

The keto diet is restrictive and complicated — a traditional caloric breakdown of the keto diet includes 70% from fats, 25% from proteins, and 5 percent from carbohydrates — which can make it hard to follow and lead to yo-yo dieting. Plus, many people, especially those over 60, on the keto diet risk consuming too many unhealthy fats from processed foods and protein, which can lead to heart problems. Although the keto diet has been shown to speed up weight loss and improve blood sugar levels in the short term, little scientific evidence is available to support its effectiveness long term.

3. What is the Mediterranean diet?

Based on foods eaten in Italy and Greece, the Mediterranean diet is full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and seafood. You can also eat dairy from yogurt, milk, and cheese in moderation and red meat on occasion. The Mediterranean diet excludes sweets, artificial sweeteners, processed meat, and highly processed foods.

Is the Mediterranean diet OK for seniors?

Similar to the DASH Plan, the Mediterranean diet encourages you to eat a variety of foods while being aware of the carbs you consume. The Mediterranean diet provides nutrients and antioxidants that your body needs to stay strong and healthy, and it has been associated with improved brain tissue and cardiovascular health, less inflammation, lower cholesterol levels, and a decreased likelihood of frailty in seniors, which translates to a lower risk of heart disease and heart attack, hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and diabetes. Aside from being one of the best senior diet plans for weight loss, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to provide the added benefit of reducing facial wrinkles and dark spots on the skin.

4. What is the Flat Belly Diet?

Former Prevention magazine editor Liz Vaccariello and registered dietitian Cynthia Sass created the heart-smart Flat Belly Diet based on the theory that monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) target and destroy belly fat while slowing digestion to keep you feeling fuller for longer and help prevent overeating. With the promise of weight loss in just over a month, the Flat Belly Diet consists of two phases: a four-day "anti-bloat" phase, which limits caloric intake to 1,200 per day from a prescribed list of food and drink, and a four-week eating plan, which allows three 400-calorie meals and one 400-calorie snack for 1,600 calories per day. Once you make it to the four-week eating plan, you'll be eating lots of fiber, which helps staves off hunger, and you'll never go more than four hours without eating. Although the Flat Belly Diet is targeted towards women, you can tailor the plan to your gender, age, and activity level, with more daily calories allowed for men.

Is the Flat Belly Diet OK for seniors?

No research has proven that the Flat Belly Diet is any more effective for weight loss than eating a balanced, calorie-restricted diet. Plus, the Flat Belly Diet is very restrictive, especially during the initial anti-bloat period, and can be expensive, with an online membership, guidebook, and specific food requirements.

5. What is the Paleo diet?

The Paleo diet is based on foods similar to what might have been eaten during the Paleolithic era 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. The idea is that by eliminating foods that became available after modern agriculture and farming changed the way humans eat, you can avoid or control “diseases of civilization,” such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, while losing weight along the way. Also known as the Stone Age diet, hunter-gatherer diet, and caveman diet, the Paleo diet includes meat, fish, poultry, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds and cuts out refined sugar, dairy, legumes, and grains. Although the Paleo diet eating plan is rather restrictive, you can choose one of three levels to follow based on your personal goals:

  1. Entry level, which allows three open meals per week
  2. Maintenance, which allows two open meals
  3. Maximal, which allows just one open meal

Is the Paleo diet OK for seniors?

Research has shown that meat eaters, when compared to vegetarians, experience higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. With muscle-building protein and fiber, both of which are filling, you’ll likely consume fewer calories than you would on the Mediterranean diet, but you’ll miss out on whole grains, legumes, and dairy, which are good sources of vitamins, calcium, and other nutrients that strengthen your bones and immune system.

And for some, especially people over 60 on a fixed income, a Paleo diet of wild game, grass-fed meat, and nuts may be expensive to maintain. U.S. News ranked the Paleo diet 19 out of 24 among the best diets overall. The nutritionists and specialists in diabetes and heart disease ranked the diet low in nutrition, ease of use, safety, and long-term weight loss.

6. What is the Flexitarian Diet?

Tied for second with the DASH diet among the best diets overall by U.S. News, the Flexitarian Diet is primarily vegetarian with the occasional addition of meat or fish. Balancing health benefits with environmental consciousness, the Flexitarian Diet makes vitamin-rich, veggie dishes a priority, while cutting down on eating meat and avoiding processed foods and sweets.

Is the Flexitarian Diet OK for seniors?

As its name suggests, the Flexitarian Diet is flexible and less restrictive than vegan or vegetarian diets. It has easy-to-follow guidelines that are less likely to leave you feeling deprived than other senior diet plans. Compared to the vegetarian diet, you could save money on plant-based proteins, such as legumes, and not have to worry quite as much about getting enough vital nutrients, such as B vitamins and iron. The Flexitarian Diet has shown success as a treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, and research has shown improvements in body weight, metabolic health, and blood pressure, as well as reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, which are all common concerns for people over 60.

7. What is the Ornish diet?

The low-fat, heart-healthy Ornish diet was developed by cardiologist Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito. The diet categorizes food into five groups, with one being the most healthful and five being the least. Fiber and complex carbohydrates are emphasized, while most foods with any cholesterol, refined carbohydrates, oils, excessive caffeine, and animal products are banned. Although, you can consume egg whites, some nuts and seeds, one cup of nonfat milk or yogurt, and up to two ounces of alcohol per day. The program includes getting no more than 10 percent of your calories from fat, exercising 30 minutes a day, reducing stress through yoga or meditation, and enhancing your personal relationships.

Is the Ornish diet OK for seniors?

Dixon says the Ornish diet is great for healthy, active people over 60, but she cautions that it may be too low in protein and healthy fat to support maintenance of lean body mass, which combats frailty and fosters strength and recovery. The Ornish diet may also be hard to follow, although you have some flexibility in personalizing the plan to make it work for you and your goals, whether you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, or prevent cancer.

The Ornish diet has been classified as heart-healthy and helpful with Type 2 diabetes, which has convinced health insurance providers that the Ornish diet is a great option for healthy senior diets. Medicare and many private plans cover Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease, a 72-hour intensive lifestyle intervention program based on the Ornish diet.

8. What is intermittent fasting?

A flexible, customizable approach to weight loss, intermittent fasting involves cutting back significantly on calories for short time periods. The idea of intermittent fasting is that as your body adjusts, you become satisfied more easily with smaller portions, and if you eat healthier foods throughout the process, you can also reduce cravings for unhealthy foods, such as refined sugars. Some popular intermittent fasting approaches include the following:

  • The 16:8 diet, or time-restricted feeding, where you fast for 16 hours a day but can eat whatever you want during the other eight hours.
  • Alternate-day fasting, where you limit yourself to 500 calories one day, then eat whatever you want the next, and then repeat that process.
  • The 5:2 plan, where you fast for any two days of the week, then eat normally during the other days.
  • The five-day-per-month fasting diet, where you eat 1,090 calories on day one from a mix of 56 percent good fats, 34 percent unrefined carbohydrates, and 10 percent protein, then eat 725 calories on days two through five from a mix of 44 percent fats, 47 percent carbohydrates, and 9 percent protein.

Is intermittent fasting OK for seniors?

Research indicates fasting has a variety of health benefits that make it a good option in senior diets for weight loss. Keeping metabolism levels high, boosting satiety, and reducing inflammation, fasting also reduces cholesterol levels in certain conditions and triggers stem cell regeneration, which benefit people over 60 with diabetes and cardiovascular disease in particular. Even during short fasts, research has shown nerve cells in the brain to be more active as they cope with stress, which could help them resist age-related diseases like Alzheimer's.

Yet intermittent fasting is not for everyone, particularly people with Type 1 diabetes, because it lowers blood sugar levels. Many people have trouble choosing the right foods, especially on fasting days, and experience mood swings, severe cravings — particularly for carbs — rebound overeating, disruption of sleep, and low energy levels. As a result, intermittent fasting can affect the amount of nutrients you get and can cause muscle loss while retaining body fat.

9. What is the HMR program?

The Health Management Resources (HMR) program is a lifestyle intervention designed specifically for rapid weight loss. It’s intended to have a long-term effect on the way you eat and exercise by developing lifestyle skills in how to eat more fruits and vegetables, increase physical activity, and make healthier food choices. The HMR program was developed more than 30 years ago by Lawrence Stifler, a behavioral psychologist and former president of HMR, and it offers two levels of participation:

  • The HMR at Home Program — also referred to as the Healthy Solutions Diet — which includes two phases. The Quick Start phase helps you lose weight as quickly as possible with an eating plan of HMR foods combined with fruit and vegetables you provide yourself and exercise with the goal of burning 2,000 calories each week. The monthly phase includes the addition of other healthy food options to your diet and focuses more on lifestyle changes while either maintaining your weight loss from phase one or continuing to lose weight at your own pace.
  • The HMR Decision-Free diet includes medical supervision because the recommended intake of 500 to 800 calories per day is so low. With the HMR Decision-Free diet, you eat only HMR meal replacements, forgoing added fruits and vegetables.

Is the HMR program OK for seniors?

The HMR program’s daily 3/2/5 structure — 3 meal replacement shakes, 2 entrees, and 5 servings of fruits and vegetables — is designed to keep caloric content low but steady throughout the day, so you feel full and satiated. The program is seemingly simple and convenient because it includes a variety of HMR foods, such as just-add-liquid shakes, heat-and-eat entrées, multi-grain hot cereal, and nutrition bars, that are delivered to you. The diet program can be followed at home, either as a self-guided option through the HMR app or with the support of weekly telephone group coaching sessions with dietitians and exercise physiologists or intensive in-person support at participating hospitals and medical facilities. Although you may need to temporarily limit social activities that center around food, the focus on lifestyle skills is meant to help you keep the weight off long term.

10. What is the Volumetrics diet?

With a focus on foods high in water content, the Volumetrics diet categorizes food into four groups based on their energy density, a concept developed by Penn State University nutrition professor Barbara Rolls. The idea is that by making subtle yet smart changes to your eating habits, you can lower the number of calories you eat while still enjoying breakfast, lunch, dinner, a couple of snacks, and dessert each day. Category 1 includes non-starchy fruits and vegetables, broth-based soup, and non-fat milk. Category 2 includes starchy fruits and vegetables, grains, breakfast cereal, legumes, low-fat meat, and mixed dishes, such as spaghetti and chili. Category 3 includes meat, cheese, pizza, French fries, salad dressing, bread, pretzels, ice cream, and cake. Category 4 includes crackers, chips, chocolate, cookies, nuts, butter, and oil. On the Volumetrics diet, you'll eat a lot of low-density food from Categories 1 and 2, limit your portion sizes of foods from Category 3, and keep high-density foods from Category 4 to a minimum.

Is the Volumetrics diet OK for seniors?

Although you don’t need to pay a membership fee to participate — and you likely won’t have grocery costs that are out of the ordinary — you may want to purchase “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet Cookbook” for ideas on how to incorporate Category 1 foods into your diet without getting bored. Use caution, though, when using any diet to lose weight. Kristen Beavers, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University, adds that older adults are more likely than younger populations to regain the weight they lose in fat, instead of muscle or bone.

Ultimately, the best diet plan for people over 60 is balanced and sustainable, so you can easily incorporate it into your lifestyle and stick with it long term. Finding a senior diet plan that’s right for your age, body, and budget can improve your quality of life, helping you stay active and independent for years to come.

Photo credit: iStock

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