When it comes to eating healthy, perhaps the biggest challenge for seniors and their loved ones is understanding what the words “normal” or “healthy” mean. According to Marie Gorski, the Regional Clinical Nutrition Manager for the food service provider Unidine in St. Louis, Americans have gotten used to a different standard of eating.

“Eating healthy in the Western World can seem like a daunting task,” she says. Marie and her team bring their expertise daily to the delicious and nutritious chef-prepared meals enjoyed by the Bethesda residents who live in long-term care, assisted living, and independent living settings.

“The ‘American Diet’ has been named one of the worst on a global scale,” Marie says. “Between excessively large food portions and sedentary lifestyles, Americans represent some of the highest percentages of obesity, heart disease, and chronic disease-related mortality rates in the world.”

You have heard for years about the importance of eating the right kinds of foods to reach and maintain a healthy weight. However, that pizza on the TV commercial looks really good–and not one person you see enjoying it seems to have a weight problem.

Marie points out that senior adults are particularly at risk for medical complications related to chronic disease. “This is due to their long-standing food beliefs and a decrease in activity,” she says, “but it’s never too late to make changes that can improve a senior’s quality of life.”

Let’s look at some ways we can all align our appetites with the needs of our bodies. The key is to create an eating “lifestyle” instead of temporarily and reluctantly going on a “diet.”

Tips for Eating Healthy

People are unique, so strategies for healthy eating will vary. Your activity level, the dietary requirements related to a chronic illness, and the metabolic rate at which your body naturally burns calories all can be part of the mix. Here are several tips to consider:

Practice mindful eating. Eat until you feel satisfied, not until you are full. It takes about 20-30 minutes for the brain to catch up to the stomach, telling you that you’ve have had enough to eat.

This requires a little planning and self-awareness. Mindlessly grabbing a couple of cookies, a bag of chips, and a soda leads to the consumption of unneeded calories and bad future food choices. First ask yourself: “Is this good for me?”

Cut your calories in half when eating out. Since restaurant portions are generally huge, one helpful strategy is to ask for a to-go container and fill it with half your meal to enjoy later. “You will still feel you had enough to eat at the restaurant, plus you have a second meal already prepared,” Marie says.

Eat breakfast. Some people recommend skipping breakfast, using the logic that this allows you to consume more calories later in the day. Marie believes that breakfast is an important meal for several reasons: “Overnight your body goes into fasting mode and starts to use sources in your body other than carbohydrates to essentially keep your brain alive,” she says. “The results? Your thinking can become foggy, and you may overeat at lunch to make up the calorie deficit.”

Eating healthy breakfasts is especially important for people with diabetes.

Marie’s recommendation is to keep breakfast simple; i.e. eggs, tofu, nut butter, and carbohydrates like toast, oatmeal, cereal, or brown rice. Drink fresh juice with no sugar added, or water.

Make a plan. Think about your day. Are you going out for a big dinner? If so, you should plan to eat smaller meals earlier in the day. “Remember, one ice cream sundae will not cause you to gain five pounds,” Marie says. “Your whole day’s caloric intake is what will make the difference.”

Stay active. Consult with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen. When planning a program, keep in mind that you are more likely to stick with a routine if you enjoy the activity. Walk, bike ride, do yoga, and if you are able, mix in some strength training (lighter weights with a higher number of repetitions). Find a friend or family member to help keep you on track. Marie advises meeting or talking with them daily. “Focus on your successes and keep each other accountable,” she says.

You still need to maintain a healthy diet, even when exercising. No amount of exercise will burn off all those extra calories you may be tempted to reward yourself with, simply because you were more active.

Ward off snack attacks. As you switch to–and stick with–a healthy diet, you will find that you are becoming more satisfied with the nutritious foods you are consuming. As an added incentive, you are looking and feeling better. Use the good momentum to help you remain consistent. However, food cravings may still show their sugar-coated, salt-laden, fat-loaded selves from time to time. Marie’s strategy—eat a high-fiber snack between meals to keep your fingers out of the cookie jar. Some suggestions: raw fruits (apple slices, grapes), vegetables (celery, carrots, cucumbers dipped in hummus), nuts, whole-grain crackers with light cream cheese, or popcorn (but not drenched in butter and salt).

Eat plant-based foods. “Time and time again, we see that people who live the longest lives with the least amount of chronic disease consume a diet that is primarily plant-based,” Marie says. Fruits and vegetables should be a part of every meal. “Even that scoop of ice cream after dinner can be topped with fresh fruit,” she says.

Consider meal kits. Don’t want to plan your meal? Meal kit services can help. These subscription food service businesses send customers pre-portioned and sometimes partially prepared food ingredients and recipes to prepare meals. The service includes calorie and nutrient information, so eating healthy is a breeze.

Marie recommends looking for companies that have dietitians on staff who monitor for nutritional accuracy.

You Can Do This

We don’t have to wait until New Year’s Day to make a resolution about eating well and maintaining a healthy weight. You can decide that today is the perfect time to begin. There will be setbacks, but they can only defeat you if you allow a small relapse to turn into a continuous string of bad habits.

The effort will be worth it because you are worth it.

Keeping a healthy diet is important for maintaining a healthy body. For more tips on keeping a nutritious diet, read our blog.