Saving Mum & Dad: Nutrition and Health For the Older Generations

Matt and I are big fans of our parents, they mean the absolute world to us and Fitter Food wouldn’t exist without their love, support, encouragement, advice and the occasional (ahem) financial assistance. They’re pretty legendary and our mission has always been to do what we can to insure they stick around as long as possible. You really have them to thank for this article as they were the driving force behind us working hard to research and understand the scientific evidence necessary to help them live happy, long lives.

10392066_1177917523702_7004452_nOn a more serious note it’s important to acknowledge you can’t always ‘save’ your parents. Despite being repeatedly cautioned about helping friends and family when training to be a nutritional therapist, Matt and I are definitely guilty of not holding back on the loaded looks and ‘you shouldn’t be doing that…’ lectures when it comes to both our parents. It can be difficult to stop yourself when it’s people you care about so much. It’s important for us to remember that everyone has their own choices and a desire for change must always come from within. You simple can’t control or force the decisions of those you love – trust me I’ve tried raiding cupboards and chucking items out of supermarket trolleys when they’re not looking! There is a time and a place to say your piece and offer constructive advice but it’s wise to not always create awkward or frustrating situations, especially during family or social occasions as you might not be invited along next time 🙂 Pick your moment and use it wisely!

Our parent’s generation have been incredibly misguided about health and nutrition, especially regarding the low-fat message that has been the mantra for good health since the 1970s. This has left many older people with a deep-rooted fear of fat and cholesterol, an obsession with fibre and an instinctive belief that ailments and illness should be treated via the GP and their magic ‘prescription’ wand. As a result people are forcing down museli, wholegrain bread, fat free spread, low fat cheese, skimmed milk and popping pills like smarties in a bid to lower their risk of disease, yet sadly all of this is likely to be doing them more harm than good.

What You Can Do

DSC_1116Popping home one day and announcing to your parents they need to relinquish the cardboard foods for butter, bacon and eggs just sounds too good to be true and they’re unlikely to be convinced by you when a GP has provided a comprehensive handout of written evidence that these foods should be limited or avoided at all costs. The best means of helping is to buy them some easy-to-follow nutrition books (I hear Paleo Primer is great 😉 ). Also send them useful articles from sources you know they will trust and acknowledge, many of these will provide an update on the current scientific literature including the government’s complete U-turn on fat recommendations. On birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s day or Christmas you can also buy health orientated gifts. For example try a Fitbit, dumbbells, a glucose monitor or a spiraliser.  Check out my Dad proudly showing off his new flat cap and scarf (for long country walks) and a copy of Brook’s Kubik’s Knife Fork & Muscle this Christmas. When you meet up or have them over for dinner introduce them to new healthy food and drink items they may not be familiar with and cook up your latest, tasty recipes from Paleo Primer. You’ll be surprised how you can effortlessly influence your parents by simply showing them an easy, enjoyable way to be healthy rather than judging and criticising their attachment to bread all of the time.

Ageing and Nutrient Needs

DSC_0092Older adults stand to benefit hugely from optimal nutrition as the aging process and inflammation  that accompanies it require more antioxidants and micronutrients to offer protection against chronic diseases. This is often matched with a declining appetite and reduction in total calorie consumption, one primal theory is that this evolutionary process means the elderly wouldn’t create a burden on the rest of the hunter-gatherer tribes. Although it’s rather more likely to be due to the decrease in muscle mass, slower metabolic rate and decrease in physical activity levels. The point here is that ideally every plate needs to be more nutrient dense than ever and there is absolutely no room for empty calories or processed foods.

Paleo or primal nutrition really comes into play in terms of the nutrition it can offer per mouthful; protein, healthy fats, controlled carbohydrates, fibre and micronutrients. Furthermore, many biological processes including digestion and energy production decline with ageing, creating a vital need for B vitamins, iron, CoQ10 and magnesium. Many foods advocated on a paleo diet offer a rich source of these nutrients, whilst the bread, cereals and low fat products recommended in government guidelines are pretty devoid of any nutrition and loaded with anti-nutrients which may damage the gut and inhibit absorption of minerals. The refined sugars, preservatives and additives will also compromise insulin health and fuel inflammatory processes in the body. Denise Minger provides a great insight in her book Death by Food Pyramid.

Cardiovascular Disease Prevention

A huge misconception amongst our parent’s generation is the causes and risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD). The original heart-health hypothesis suggested an association between CVD and consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol. The hypothesis was never proven scientifically yet political, pharmaceutical and commercial interests have driven the concept enabling the food and pharmaceutical industry to make a huge amount of money pushing low fat, ‘heart healthy’ processed foods and drugs to keep cholesterol levels in check. You can read more about this in The Great Cholesterol Myth.

Many people have cholesterol, blood pressure and other blood work checked on a regular basis and this data is often used to prescribe medication, most frequently statins or blood pressure lowering drugs. The problem here is that these physiological outcomes are a response to an underlying inflammatory issue that needs to be addressed. What we have traditionally perceived as a cause or risk factor for heart disease – including the laying down of arterial plaque – is in fact your immune system trying to adapt to an insult and inflammation within the body so the key is to prevent and reverse this process.

One of the best books available on this is Reverse Heart Disease Now by Dr Stephen Sinatra and it’s really worthwhile encouraging your parents to research heart health a little further before simply accepting a prescription as a solution. There are multiple nutrition, exercise and lifestyle interventions that can be hugely anti-inflammatory and implemented in conjunction with medication and GP recommendation or perhaps adopted as an initial plan of action before resorting to drug therapy.

Quick Facts

  1. Cholesterol is NOT primarily sourced from nutrition, it is actually produced by our body, so limiting intake is pretty ineffective.
  2. On average 70% of people are not affected by cholesterol in their diet. Some people have a heritidary condition known as Familial Hypercholesterolaemia where LDL cholesterol levels are higher than normal, a GP can diagnose this.
  3. Saturated fat does not affect blood cholesterol levels in most people, the exception is some people who have gene mutations which you can check via 23andme or DNA diet.
  4. Total cholesterol, HDL and LDL offer little insight into cardiovascular disease risks.  LDL and HDL particle number and size provide more of an indication but can only be tested privately, contact us if you wish to explore this option further.
  5. Homocysteine, triglycerides, fasted blood glucose and HS-CRP are some of the more accurate markers for CVD risks, you can ask a GP to test these to assess inflammation.
  6. Elevated blood pressure (Hypertension) defined as a systolic blood pressure at or above 140 mmHg and/or a diastolic blood pressure at or above 90 mmHg is one of the biggest risk factors for a coronary incident.


If your parents are taking statins they should read this review of the science, they offer a very small reduction in the risk of a coronary event and the side effects can have huge implications including liver damage, cataracts, kidney failure, cognitive impairment and diabetes. One observational study found a 48% increased risk of diabetes in healthy women taking statins. It’s also important to supplement with CoQ10 as statins will decrease the body’s natural production, increasing the risk of a heart attack.

Quick Nutrition and Supplement Tips For Cardiovascular Health

  • Eat Fitter Food – enough said!
  • Red yeast rice supplementation can be a natural alternative for lowering blood pressure alongside dietary and lifestyle modifications.
  • Dr Sinatra highlighted CoQ10, D-ribose, magnesium and carnitine supplementation can all enhance cardiac energy output.  There are some good supplemental formulas that contain these including Cardio Fuel or Biocare Mitoguard and BioNutri CardioMega Plus
  • Organ meats especially heart offer a nutritious source of the micronutrients that help fuel heart health and lower inflammation including B vitamins, carnitine and CoQ10
  • Magnesium is vital for heart health and 50g of 85% dark chocolate can provide 70-80g – BOSH!
  • An MTHFR gene mutation can inhibit an important chemical cycle in the body known methylation, the outcome in simple terms is elevated homocysteine (inflammation) and lower antioxidant status, you can test MTHFR status at 23andme or DNA diet.

Cancer Prevention

Cancer is also a disease driven by inflammation and therefore the risk increases with age.  There is still much confusion surrounding the origin and progression of cancer as a number of influences can initiate the disease including chemical exposure, viruses and inflammation. New theories are developing suggesting cancer may actually be a metabolic disease which would provide a new emphasis on nutrition and lifestyle factors in the prevention and protection from cancer. One incredible discovery has been the connection between sugar and cancer established in 1931 when Dr. Otto Heinrich Warburg won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that cancer cells use glucose as their preferred fuel. PET scans are used to diagnose and stage a cancer, this involves radioactive sugar being injected into the body at which point cancerous tumors will hoover up the glucose and glow. 

It’s been suggested the Paleo diet is great starting place as an anti-cancer diet, with an emphasis on fat as a primary source of fuel, the elimination of refined sugar, processed foods and cows’ milk all of which may increase insulin levels and insulin growth factor (IGF1) which may stimulate tumour growth.  The Anti Cancer Diet is a really easy book to read where the author David Servan-Schreiber details essential nutritional changes he implemented in his own battle against cancer, most importantly he also emphasises the need for daily exercise, sunlight exposure and mindfulness.  It’s also worthwhile reading his follow up book Not the Last Goodbye where he sadly lost his battle against the disease possibly due to the huge increase in stress and long haul travel in his life that came as a result of the success of the first book. There are some huge lessons to be learnt there and something I’m constantly lecturing my folks on right now (aren’t you glad I’m not related to you!)

If you have a loved one currently facing a battle against cancer and wish to explore your options and alternative therapies then Chis Woollams Everything You Need to Know To Beat Cancer is also an essential read. 

Joint Health Essentials

As we age joints become susceptible to brittle bone disease and residual inflammation from years of wear and tear. Our bones are much more fragile and breakable due to hormonal changes and nutrient deficiencies resulting in pain and disability. The nutrients needed for optimal bone health are calcium, vitamin D (which is primarily sourced from sunlight), phosphorus, magnesium, K2 and collagen. The following foods offer the most nutritious sources:

  • Full fat dairy (ideally unpasturised or fermented)
  • Bone broth or supplement with Great Lakes Collagen
  • Fish bones (Tinned salmon/ Sardines)
  • Green leafy vegetables (kale, watercress, spinach)
  • Fermented cod liver oil
  • Organ meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Sunlight

Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia Risks

BoneBrothAlthough different by definition all of these fall under the category of neurodegenerative diseases driven by inflammation and nutrient deficiencies. There is also a strong association between immune dysfunction and neurodegenerative diseases and with 80% of the immune system being located in the gut it’s imperative to prioritise gut health with age. Some simple steps include avoiding gluten, drinking lots of bone broth and eating live, cultured foods. Perhaps make or buy your parents a pot of raw sauerkraut or other fermented foods next time you visit. 

A recent article in the European Journal of Internal Medicine also warned of the dangers of excess refined carbohydrates and a lack of cholesterol within the diet as potential contributory factors towards the development of Alzheimer’s disease, to the point some researchers have likened Alzheimer to Type 3 Diabetes. Insulin sensitivity certainly seems to decline with age and as insulin plays a key role in memory formation it’s important to adopt the following hormone friendly nutrition and lifestyle habits:

  • Eat only unrefined carbohydrates; primarily root vegetables, 1-3 servings fruit, and potatoes.
  • Favour slow cooking and cooking with water (boiling/steaming)
  • Consume protein, fat and fibre at every meal
  • Daily consumption of raw egg yolks as a multivitamin – Emma Morano is 115 and credits 2 a day to her longevity.
  • 3-4 servings of oily, omega 3 rich fish every week
  • Antioxidant rich herbs and spices
  • Dark chocolate (for cognitive function of course!)
  • Daily exercise including walking, stretching and just generally moving for 30 minutes +

Patrick Holford writes extensively about the links between neurodegenerative conditions and elevated homocysteine plus low B vitamin status.  He suggests having homocysteine levels checked by a GP on a regular basis and taking his Cognitive Function Test, he’s also published a number of good books including The Alzheimers Prevention Plan, Food is better medicine than drugs and Say No to Arthritis.

IMPORTANT – a huge number of older clients I see have been prescribed Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI) as a result of persistent acid reflux (GERD). This is pretty relevant as PPI’s effectively stop the secretions of stomach acid, stomach acid is vital for the digestion and absorption of protein (vital for lean body mass), B12, folate, calcium, zinc and Iron. B12 and folate play an important role in lowering levels of homocysteine in the body. Acid reflux is often a symptom of an underlying digestive issue so it’s important to get this addressed by a nutritional therapist rather than simply stop a natural biological function.

Adult Onset (Type 2) Diabetes Prevention & Reversal

ChromiumInsulin sensitivity declines with age and although some diabetic risks may be genetic MOST are preventable through diet and lifestyle choices. In fact a study in Diabetologia demonstrated that type 2 diabetes can actually be reversed through dietary changes in 8 weeks (less in some cases!) Of course many people are not informed or aware of this and simply offered medications to either increase the secretion of insulin, suppress appetite or aid glucose transportation, again treating the symptoms NOT the cause. Blood sugar is largely governed by nutrition, physical activity, sleep health, stress and other factors that can easily be changed helping people regain control over their insulin output.

The side effects of many blood sugar medictions will also likely lead to more medications. Metformin in particular impacts upon digestion and depletes B vitamins, particularly B12 (one of the important B vitamins to lower homocysteine). The following are some essential steps that need to be taken to help prevent or reverse Type 2 diabetes. 

  1. Test blood glucose
  2. Ditch the processed foods, including bread, pasta, crackers, biscuits and cakes.
  3. Increase consumption of meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, seeds and stick to low sugar fruits and root vegetables for carbohydrates.
  4. Move daily (stand less, walk more, do more!) with something more vigorous inbetween like brisk walking, cycling or strength training 3-4 times a week. 
  5. Nutritional supplements can also be helpful, we cover our recommendations here, both alpha lipoid acid and chromium GTF have been shown to help improve insulin sensitivity.  A pharmaceutical grade fish oil, vitamin D and multi nutrient are also helpful. 

Aging and Exercise 

Mum exerciseBoth my parents fully understand the benefits of exercise for disease prevention and mental wellbeing. Mum is a little reluctant when it comes to the training but she’s still got it, check out her Muscle Mum videoMy Dad on the other hand loves it and if anything is guilty of forgetting his age and trying to train like he’s still in his 20’s. He would come to Fitter London classes and give everyone a hard time for not keeping up with him on the 100th burpee. One thing to inform your parents of is the importance of daily movement and that can be anything; walking, standing, stretches, household chores and gardening. My dad loves taking long walks in the local woods, whereas my mum would much rather spend a few hours trotting around TK Maxx but that’s cool because it’s still exercise. With age it’s important to be conscious of impact exercise and avoiding too much wear and tear on joints. Brooks Kubik has written extensively about adapting training with age in his Gray Hair & Black Iron (such a cool title) to ensure you can still reap the benefits of training (insulin health, endorphins, bone density and increased muscle mass) without contributing to further inflammation or increasing your risk of injury. Mark Sisson has also written numerous articles about adapting exercise with age. Daily mobility exercises are also incredibly important to keep joints healthy and functional, both Eric Kressey and Steve Cotter have some helpful YouTube videos and there’s a great post here by Valentine of Rawfit on the importance of mobility exercises for muscloskeletal health. 

Dear Mum & Dad….

I just want to say I’m so proud of you both for listening to me waffle on for the last 6 years and transforming your nutrition and lifestyle habits, I know giving up the builder’s brew and toast wasn’t easy but I’m so glad you stuck it out and remain dedicated to your health and longevity, especially as it means I can hopefully call upon you for babysitting duties sometime in the future 😉 Love ya xxxx