It is no secret that mobility-related concerns increase as we age. However, with mobility disability representing one of the major risk factors for morbidity and mortality – what can be done regarding diet?
It’s no stretch to say that nutrition and mobility are connected. If you are not reaching for healthier options due to limited mobility, you may want to after reading this article.
Age-Related Mobility And Nutrition Are Connected
Let us count the ways
Inflammation underpins nearly all chronic diseases that impact mobility, such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, cancer cachexia, and autoimmune conditions like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The inflammation-reducing Mediterranean dietary approach can help through its pescatarian leaning, plant-forward design, and emphasis on variety to meet diverse nutrient needs.
Malnutrition in elderly populations impacts physical, cognitive, and mental health. Dietary intervention can help each of these areas, from getting enough protein to maintaining lean muscle mass and meeting specific increased vitamin or mineral needs to simply drinking enough water to prevent dehydration.
Bone health optimization through diet and lifestyle may improve bone density and prevent fractures. Nutrition recommendations are well known in research, yet often challenging for the general public to implement.
Physical activity and nutrition are also closely linked: macro and micro-nutrients involved in performance, injury, and recovery, as well as timing, can help optimize everyday mobility.
Bottom line – It’s all connected. Nutrition is a controllable lifestyle factor that may improve or prevent a mobility-related concern.
What Does The Research Say?
While there is a need for more nutrition research on mobility, there is research that has identified associations between low levels of specific micronutrients, such as antioxidants and vitamins, with clinical measures of mobility.
Protein, vitamin E, carotenoids (i.e., vitamin A), vitamin D, and the trace mineral selenium are all nutrients that should be consumed through food to optimize body levels.
Overall, the research suggests – once again – a Mediterranean dietary approach due to its emphasis on variety from several food groups.
What Foods Can Help?
While animal-based foods are a great source of protein, consider adding more plant-based proteins such as legumes, tofu, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp hearts, and nuts. These foods often carry many of the mobility-related micronutrients listed above.
For example, the most concentrated dietary source of selenium is Brazil nuts! One Brazil nut a day (or every other day) is likely enough to ensure your daily needs. Nuts and seeds are great sources of vitamin E. So, how about adding mixed nuts to your routine?
To round out that trail mix with some antioxidants, particularly carotenoids, try adding dried goji berries as your fruit of choice. They are particularly high in a type of carotenoid called Zeaxanthin, which, together with lutein (also found in goji berries), are also important in vision!
For those with allergies to nuts – alternative food sources of selenium include fish, beef, fortified pasta, beans, rice, dairy, oatmeal, and eggs. Alternative sources of vitamin E include most vegetable oils (wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil), spinach, broccoli, kiwifruit, mango, and tomato.
Alternative vitamin A-rich foods include leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli), orange and yellow vegetables (carrots, sweet potato, squash), tomatoes, cantaloupe, bell peppers, fish oils, milk, and eggs.
Vitamin D levels are best optimized through supplementation and are covered in the bone health section below.
Keep Those Bones Happy And Healthy
Halloween may be over, but our skeletons still need some attention.
Osteoporosis is a disease where bone density is low and fracture risk is high. It’s precursor is osteopenia. Fractures will limit mobility; therefore, nutrition in bone health is crucial. Below are recommendations for optimal bone health in ages 50 and up are:
- Calcium intake of 1000mg (men) and 1200mg (women) per day. Ideally, you can meet this through diet, but if you avoid certain foods or food groups (i.e., dairy or dairy alternatives), this can be challenging. If deciding to supplement, try to aim for at least half of the recommended amount from food sources.
- Minimum supplementation of 1000IU vitamin D per day, especially during winter. In winter, we cannot produce vitamin D from the skin due to the lack of specific UV light from the sun. Note: Most physicians, dietitians, and researchers nowadays recommend more than 1000IU. I recommend between 2000-5000IU. However, I would not recommend going over 2500IU per day without speaking with your family physician. There is a potential risk, albeit low, of vitamin D toxicity.
- Resistance exercise – Not only does resistance activity help with strength and mobility, it also helps strengthen your bones and minimize the risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture.
- Many other nutrients are implicated in bone health, including protein, magnesium, vitamins K1 and K2, vitamin C, certain B vitamins, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, and omega-3. Due to the abundance of nutrients involved in bone health, the Mediterranean approach emerges once again as the top choice due to its emphasis on variety of whole plant-based foods. That said, magnesium and Vitamin K2 are comparatively limited in food sources. Excellent food sources of magnesium are pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and dark leafy green vegetables. Excellent food sources of vitamin K2 are natto (fermented soybean from Japanese cuisine), egg yolks, and aged cheese. The latter two are also high in saturated fat, so moderation is important.
In some cases, nutrient supplementation may be advised. Speak to your doctor or dietitian for an assessment and guidance on meal planning!
Can Cooking Methods Affect Mobility In Aging?
It has been hypothesized that foods cooked at high temperatures (Ex. Broiling, roasting, deep frying, oven frying, or grilling) can generate molecules detrimental to mobility and play a role in sarcopenia (i.e., low muscle mass). These molecules are called advanced glycosylated end-products (AGEs).
But please – do not fret over fried eggs or a one-pan oven roasted chicken and vegetable meal.
As always, in nutrition, moderation emerges as a key concept. This is currently a hypothesis, and the noted cooking methods are often necessary to prepare foods you love and foods protective for health. But it is interesting to consider that variety in cooking methods may also be an effective strategy.
Balance also emerges as a key concept since cooking foods can make some nutrients more bioavailable but deteriorate others.
I invite you to add a few raw meals or foods to your diet to switch it up. Try making overnight oats with berries and chia, or find ways to get raw fruits and vegetables into your weekly routine. While legumes in cans are technically cooked, avoid cooking further and add to salads and wraps; enjoy an unroasted trail mix; or experiment with fermented foods typically served raw like kimchi, sauerkraut, or natto.
Stay The Course – Work With A Professional
Remember, as we see with the cooking methods and AGEs – nutritional dichotomies exist everywhere and are often a source of confusion and need for more understanding. For example, cooking foods can also increase the bioavailability of some nutrients.
Here are a few more nutritional dichotomies that warrant a nutrition discussion with a professional: Cheese is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and Vitamin K2, but it’s high in saturated fat; Carbs are necessary for survival, but too much sugar causes health problems like insulin resistance; Fish contains anti-inflammatory omega-3, but large fish contain high levels of mercury; Coffee is packed with antioxidants, but too much caffeine can impact your health; High fibre diets are great for health, but select individuals do not tolerate some high fibre foods; organic products may not have pesticides, but may be lower in nutrient density or be higher in added sugars than their non-organic counterparts; Apples are high in fibre, but the seeds contain toxic cyanide.
In my experience, fear-mongering in nutrition news leads to restriction. Restriction often takes you further away from variety, balance, and moderation – the strategy that underpins the healthiest dietary patterns in the world— and is the strategy I recommend to reap the benefits of the food, while limiting any potential harm.
Remember, we can zoom in on nutrition details to help us understand relationships and concepts, but we need to be able to zoom out to observe the bigger picture.
The trail mix example above is just one example of how a single varied, balanced plant-based snack in alignment with a Mediterranean approach can check off several boxes for nutrition in mobility, and no cooking required! Lastly, while this approach was identified in the Mediterranean, it can easily be applied to many cultural food preferences.
Come stop by to see your local Preventous dietitians’ office to learn how to strategize your nutrition for better mobility throughout your life!
Registered Dietitian MSc