Proactive Health and Proactive Aging: Nutrition is Key
Arianna Ferrini, PhD
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines healthy aging as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.” Functional ability refers to having the capabilities that enable a person to meet their basic needs, learn, grow and make decisions, be mobile, build and maintain relationships, and contribute to society.1
Healthy aging is a synonym of active and proactive aging, and it emphasises the need for action across multiple sectors to enable older people to remain a resource to their families, communities, and economies.
Taking your own health into your hands can be very empowering. But how can you be proactive when it comes to your health? Lifestyle and nutrition are the first places to start. Although none of us leads a stress-free life, trying to decrease stress levels in your daily life is a gift you can give to your body. Your mental and physical health will thank you.
Nutrition is also one of your best allies when it comes to proactive health. Specifically, the so-called functional foods. Functional foods deliver additional or enhanced benefits over and above their basic nutritional value. Although they should not be seen as an alternative to a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle, they can boost many aspects of your health, including immunity, brainpower, and mood. 2 Let’s see what they are.
Foods to boost your immunity
Researchers all over the world are exploring the links between lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, stress, and the immune system. Although there is not a single food that can strengthen your immune system, eating a balanced diet packed with fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, unsaturated fats, and whole grains is always a good start. Variety is the key to proper nutrition. Here are ten foods that you can regularly incorporate into your diet to make sure your immune system is always at its best.
- Citrus fruits - Popular citrus fruits include oranges, grapefruits, clementines, tangerines, lemons, and limes. They are extremely rich in Vitamin C, which is one of the most powerful antioxidants essential for the immune system. 3 Kiwis and papayas are also extremely rich in vitamin C.
- Blueberries – blueberries are rich in molecules called anthocyanins, which are flavonoids. Flavonoids are crucial in keeping the respiratory tract’s immune system healthy and ready to fight any invader. 4
- Red bell peppers – perhaps surprisingly, red bell peppers contain three times more vitamin C than oranges. 5
- Broccoli and spinach – other great sources of vitamin C.
- Garlic – the benefits of garlic to human health have been known for centuries, and garlic is present in almost every world cuisine. However, it has only recently become clear that some compounds contained in garlic, like sulfur-rich compounds such as allicin, have immunomodulatory effects. 6
- Sunflower seeds – these seeds are rich in vitamin E, a potent antioxidant that also improves immune function. 7
- Almonds – almonds are another great source of vitamin E. They also contain iron, zinc, manganese, and magnesium, all minerals that contribute to a responsive immune system. 8 Other foods rich in vitamin E are avocado and dark green leafy vegetables like kale.
- Shellfish – this might seem surprising to many, but some types of shellfish are rich in zinc. Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune response and is crucial for the development and maintenance of many cell types of the immune system. 9
- Turmeric – this bright yellow-orange spice that gives the distinctive color to curries has so many health benefits. The active ingredient of turmeric is called curcumin, and it is known to have strong anti-inflammatory effects. In addition, studies showed that curcumin also has immune-modulatory actions and can activate B cells and T cells, the key players of the immune system. 10
Foods to boost your brainpower and fight cognitive decline
The right diet and proper nutrition can help you boost your brain health and maintain a healthy memory. Research shows that the best brain foods are the same ones that protect your heart and blood vessels, meaning that balanced nutrition can lower your risks of several conditions, including cognitive decline and cardiovascular diseases.
There is not a single food that can ensure you maintain a sharp brain as you age. The most important thing you can do is follow a healthy and diverse diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. You should try to get protein from plant sources and fish and choose healthy fats, like olive oil, rather than saturated fats, like butter.
Here’s a list of foods that are good for your brain and your memory.
- Fatty fish: These are always at the top of the list when we talk about brain food. Salmon, trout, sardines, mackerels are all rich in omega-3-fatty acids, which have been shown to slow down cognitive decline. An interesting study found that regular consumption of fish (all kinds of fish, fatty or even non-fatty fish) increases grey matter volume and improves brain structural integrity. 11
- Green leafy vegetables: Leafy greens such as broccoli, spinach, kale, and chard are rich in nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. We know from research that these plant-based nutrients help slow cognitive decline and protect your memory.
- Blueberries: Blueberries have so many health benefits it is almost hard to keep track of them all. It all comes down to their high content of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, for example, anthocyanins and flavonoids. Some of these health-boosting molecules accumulate in the brain, making blueberries an excellent ally for your memory. A 2012 study by Harvard found that women who consumed two or more servings of blueberries and strawberries each week delayed memory decline by two and a half years. 12
- Green tea and coffee: Coffee and green tea are rich in antioxidants, which are very good for your brain’s health. The caffeine contained in both coffee and green tea improves alertness, mood, and concentration. Lifelong coffee/caffeine consumption has also been associated with the prevention of cognitive decline and reduced risk of developing stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. 13 This means that in moderation (not to disturb your sleep), coffee and green tea are a brain-boosting addition to a healthy diet.
- Nuts: Nuts, and walnuts, in particular, have been linked to heart and brain health. Similar to fatty fish, walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries. That’s good for both the heart and brain. Nuts are also rich in Vitamin E, which shields the cells from oxidative damage, helping slow mental decline.
- Dark chocolate: Good news! Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are packed with a few brain-boosting compounds, including flavonoids, caffeine, and antioxidants. One study, including over 900 participants, found that those who ate chocolate more frequently performed better in a series of mental tasks, including some involving memory, than those who rarely ate it. 14 According to research, chocolate is also a mood booster, and having a good mood is always nice for our overall health.
- Pumpkin seeds: These seeds are packed with healthy nutrients that can contribute to your brain’s health. They have very high levels of zinc, a mineral essential for nerve signaling, and magnesium, a mineral essential for memory and learning.
- Oranges: by eating a medium orange, you get all your daily dose of vitamin C in one go. And vitamin C is essential to protect brain cells from degeneration.
- Eggs: Eggs are not only rich in proteins. They are also a good source of several nutrients important for the brain, including vitamin B6, B16, and choline. Choline is essential for the synthesis of a chemical messenger called acetylcholine, which helps regulate mood and memory.
Take care of your microbiome
The microbiome, the trillions of microbes living inside our guts, is more than a passive bystander. Its role in metabolism, immunity, circadian rhythm, and even mood regulation is now well established. There are specific foods that keep your microbiome balanced and healthy. These are:
- Probiotic foods like kefir, yogurt with live active cultures (check the label!), fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha tea, kimchi, and miso. Probiotics are commonly referred to as “good bacteria” because they compete with potentially harmful bacteria in our gut, and they support the immune system. Live yogurt and kefir contain a large number of probiotics called Lactobacilli, a group of bacteria that start the fermenting process in milk.
Kefir, for example, is a fermented drink that is greatly beneficial for health. Probiotics feed off foods high in polyphenols like nuts, oils, berries, red wine, and dark chocolate. Therefore, combining them is a good idea to improve the diversity of our microbiome and help our “good bacteria” thrive.
- Prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, bananas, and seaweed. Interestingly, prebiotics are food for our gut bacteria. They are non-digestible compounds that stimulate the growth and activity of our gut microbes. In general, foods that are rich in fibers are a good source of prebiotics.
Nutrition is key to healthy aging and is the first step to take if you want to be proactive regarding your health. Research shows that variety is key. Try to include as many different foods as possible in your daily diet and eat plenty of functional foods like the ones highlighted in this article.
Arianna is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London (UK). She holds a PhD in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine from Imperial College London (UK) and an MSc in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology from the University of Florence (Italy). She's an enthusiastic science communicator and works as a freelance writer and editor.