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Plant-Based Diets for Seniors

February 25, 2020

If your doctor has been asking you to lose weight, improve your heart health or control your blood sugar, he or she may have suggested a plant-based diet. It’s a great way to take more control over your health. By replacing processed foods and sugar with more fruits and vegetables, and limiting consumption of meat, you can help prevent or reverse diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. You may even discover some delicious new foods and favorite dishes.

What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

Plant-based diet benefits are many. Increasing servings of fruits and vegetables improves overall health and wellness for seniors, often reversing side effects of heart and immune diseases. This type of diet centers around whole, minimally-processed foods, limits or avoids foods that come from animals and focuses on food that grows from the ground or on trees. A list of foods in a plant-based diet includes:

  • Vegetables: Plenty of vegetables including leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, carrots
  • Fruits: Any type of fruit including bananas, grapes, avocado, apples, strawberries, citrus fruits
  • Root vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, beets 
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Whole grains: Oats, brown rice, buckwheat, whole wheat

Several variations on plant-based diets exist. To some people, plant-based means strictly vegan, and avoids any food that comes from an animal. That means no meat, no fish, no dairy and no eggs. Others consider themselves variations of vegetarian. Pescatarians eat fish in addition to a plant-based diet. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but not dairy. Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, but not eggs. 

Image of plant based salad with fruits, greens and beans
Everyone’s nutritional needs are different, so the strict vegan diet that works for some may not work for your needs. For instance, you may still need the occasional protein boost from fish or chicken. Talk with your doctor to determine the best diet for you. 

As a rule, to get the most out of a healthy plant-based diet, fruit, vegetables, starches, legumes and grains should cover most of your plate. In other words, plant-based foods should be your main course. Think of meat as a side dish or — better yet —  the garnish.

Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for Seniors

Plant-based diet research promises you’ll see results in just a few weeks of eating a plant-based diet. Once you’ve reduced or eliminated animal products from your diet, expect the following changes:

  • Your heart health will improve. The American Heart Association notes that improved heart health is a major plant-based diet benefit. The organization says that replacing saturated fats with an equal number of calories from mono-unsaturated fatty acids from plants might lower the risk of heart disease deaths and death from any cause up to 15 percent.
  • You’ll feel younger because you LOOK younger. Plant-based foods help to moisturize skin and heal skin tissue, helping you can look and feel younger.
  • You’ll forget less. Broccoli, blueberries, green tea, cauliflower and chickpeas lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and lower the amount of cortisol, which is associated with stress.
  • You’ll lose weight. Plant-based diets replace cholesterol, sugar and fat with proteins, vitamins and fiber. Hint: Combine this kind of diet with a moderate exercise program (30 minutes, 5 times per week) and in addition to dropping pounds, you’ll also build muscle.
  • You’ll sleep better. Plant-based foods like bananas and kale are packed with Vitamin B6, tryptophan and magnesium. These nutrients boost melatonin levels needed for a good night’s sleep.
  • You’ll have more energy. Beans, leafy greens and chia seeds will all put a little pep in your step.

Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for You?

Together with your family or caregiver, talk to your doctor or nutritionist before making a major change to your diet. In your consultation, carefully discuss any plant-based diet pros and cons — and how to address them. For example, some seniors may need calcium from whole milk to combat osteoporosis. Others may need more protein to maintain healthy muscle mass. Your care team will help develop a plant-based plan that will deliver the nutrients your body needs.

How to Begin a Plant-Based Diet

When you are ready to start a plant-based diet, you don’t need to go full-vegan to get the best heart and health benefits. First, focus on eating more vegetables, whole grains and fruits in place of unhealthy foods. Then, start to choose less processed foods. For instance, replace white rice with brown rice. For inspiration, turn to sources you trust. The American Heart Association offers great recipes for dishes ranging from appetizers to one dish meals and snacks.

Focus on nutrients, as prescribed by your nutritionist or doctor. A quick internet search will help you discover, for example, several surprising sources of protein in foods like guava, asparagus, quinoa, chia seeds, pasta, kale and oatmeal. For calcium-rich foods, turn to sesame seeds, chickpeas, chia seeds, bok choy, almonds, black-strap molasses, coconut milk and sea vegetables. 

Experiment. Try foods you’ve never tasted before. Challenge yourself to make veggie versions of foods you love. For instance, substitute beef with a grilled portobello mushroom for a hearty burger. You’ll be surprised at how many foods you love have plant-based equivalents. Vegan mayonnaise, for example, can be made from cashews.

Remember: It’s never too late to make this change, even for seniors. With a plant-based diet, you’ll soon be feeling better, looking better and ready to tackle whatever comes your way. 

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