As we grow older, our dietary needs change - just as our lives change, what with children leaving home, retirement, (sometimes) a less active life and susceptibility to health problems. It's all too easy not to give much thought to what we're eating.
Indigestion, bloating, feeling and looking tired, poor sleep, middle-aged spread, aching joints, constipation and muddled thinking - the number of complaints that are often shrugged off as age-related is enough to make you want to hide in a corner and eat chocolate. None of these is inevitable, though, and the good news is that diet can make a big difference. Cookery writer (and grandmother) Linda Doeser believes what we eat can make all the difference.
Linda started her career on the partwork Supercook in the 1970s and published her first book a couple of years later. Since then she's written so many cookbooks she's lost track. She's currently working on a project about how dietary needs change with the different stages of life.
Q: Should we actually eat less as we get older? I still don't understand why when I was 18 I could cut down on food and easily lose weight, but now I can't lose an ounce when I am as active (if not more so) as I was then. helshea
A: Our metabolism tends to slow down and so too does our digestive system as we get older. However, if you are happy with your current weight and level of activity, then why change your diet? It is worth bearing in mind that weight gain is quite insidious, so if your waistband does start to feel a little bit tight, then maybe that's the time to start reducing the size of portions. As for doing things at 18 that we can't do now, well…
Q: Recently a lot more supermarkets have started stocking granola. Is this actually any healthier than cereal like porridge or muesli or is it just a food fad? Wonkycross
A: Granola is just another term for muesli; it's the standard term for this cereal mixture in the United States. As long as it isn't packed with sugar, it's a perfectly healthy breakfast. So, too, is porridge.
Q: I really need some help with breakfast! I don't like milk (don't mind yogurt) and am struggling to find something relatively low calorie that will keep me full til lunchtime. I know porridge is the obvious answer but I don't care for the texture (too mushy) even if it's made with water. marcellamc
A: Toast, preferably whole grain, is an obvious choice, perhaps with some fruit to follow. Bananas are power houses of energy and a good way to kick start the day. Northern Europeans often breakfast on a selection of cheeses and/or cold meats so that might be a good idea for some days. Do you remember "Go to work on an egg"? Eggs are a great way to start the day and poached eggs, in particular, are not high in calories. Grilled (not fried) bacon with tomatoes will also keep you going until lunchtime if you have time to cook them in the morning.
Q: Could you please tackle flatulence. I experience far too much of it. I think it's the healthy foods, like porridge and fruit, that are the worst culprits so what can I do about that? I want to eat healthily, but I don't want the embarrassment! jingl
A: Flatulence can be an embarrassing problem and if it's very severe, it's worth consulting your GP because it could be a symptom of an underlying condition. Otherwise, try using herbs and spices that have digestive properties in the dishes that you cook – rosemary, sage, lemon balm, summer savory, caraway seeds and fennel, for example. Caraway seeds are the perfect partners for cabbage, a notorious source of windiness. I have no doubt that your table manners are impeccable but it's worth noting that eating slowly and sipping whatever you're drinking (not fizzy) will also help. If you're going somewhere special, then perhaps it would be wise to avoid any of the foods that cause excessive flatulence beforehand – pulses, cabbage family, Jerusalem artichokes and so on.
Q: I'm looking to supplement my diet with more foods containing tryptophan to improve my sleep pattern. Is it better to consume these later in the day generally, i.e. how quickly can they work? Dropstitch
A: Sorry to hear that you're having trouble sleeping. Tryptophan is an amino acid and so is present in protein foods. The brain converts it to serotonin which can reduce the time it takes to get to sleep by as much as 50% and also helps you sleep more soundly and longer. However, because other amino acids in protein foods are competing, tryptophan may not get to the brain as quickly as you like. Therefore, make sure that you combine your intake of protein with carbohydrates at the same time because they will clear the pathways, directing the other amino acids into the body cells. So don't just have chicken and salad – have some bread or rice salad or potatoes or pasta at the same time. The reason why milky drinks are traditional at bedtime is for exactly this reason – the lactose (sugar) in milk directs the amino acids other than tryptophan into body cells, allowing the brain to get on with converting it to serotonin. Finally, eating later at night is often a cause of insomnia. Ditto drinking alcohol late in the evening.
(To clarify: if lots of amino acids are, as it were, competing to be absorbed, the tryptophan may take longer to get to the brain. However, the presence of carbohydrates speeds up the absorption of the other amino acids into the body so the tryptophan sort of fast tracks to the brain.)
Q: Do you favour a diet from a particular continent i.e. a Mediterranean diet or do you favour a northern European diet as enjoyed by your (and my) ancestors? I certainly prefer the second option. optimist
A: I confess to an especial fondness for all things Italian, including Italian cuisine. Certainly, the high proportion of vegetables and fruit in the diet. Lots of fish, not a lot of red meat and the use of olive oil are to be recommended. The northern European diet tends to be rather heavier in its use of saturated fats and in its sheer quantity, probably because it's so much colder here. I don't think it matters which cuisine you favour as long as you make sure that you include as much variety as possible and don't take in more calories than you need.
Q: My brother and sister-in-law have been on the Dukan diet and to be fair, they have lost a lot of weight - but I don't fancy it because I don't trust quack diets. So what is the best way of losing weight if you don't have all those rules to follow about no vegetables for month and no carbohydrate ever? GranIT
A: I have absolutely no faith in diets that cut out whole food groups and, frankly, consider them quite dangerous. It is true that you can lose weight very rapidly with some of these fad diets, but as soon as you return to "normal" eating, you're likely to put it all on again. The only way to lose weight while consuming adequate nutrients and adjusting your eating patterns is to eat less. Sorry. You don't have to buy special foods – just make some sensible adjustments. Cut off all visible fat before cooking meat, remove chicken skin (that's where most of the fat is located), don't starve yourself but fill up with vegetables and carbohydrates rather than protein and fat. Tricks that help some people include serving food on smaller plates, not leaving a serving dish with food still on it on the table during the meal, eating more slowly, taking sips of water frequently during the meal. Also, not watching television or reading while eating helps you recognise the signal that your brain sends to tell you that you have had enough.
Q: My husband has been told he needs to eat more raw food (by a bloke in a gym!) I don't mind the odd piece of fruit, and I love salads, but he is insisting we need to eat bean salads. Is there any truth in the idea that uncooked food is better for you and is it so much better that it's worth the tedium of eating it? greatgablegran
A: There is some truth and there isn't. It's too sweeping a statement. Cooking can destroy some vitamins – the water soluble ones. However, cooking methods also matter. Steaming vegetables or stir-frying will conserve nutrients better than boiling in lots of water, for example. Some foods are better for you when cooked than when eaten raw. You can absorb more lycopene, a valuable anti-oxidant, from tomatoes when cooked – or canned, which is a kind of cooking – than you can from raw ones. Like most things to do with food and health, a wide variety is the keynote – so some salads and raw fruit and some cooked food will provide a balanced diet.
Q: I have already changed to a healthy diet but I would like to ask if dementia can be related to poor eating? My sister-in-law was a vegetarian and was told by a quack nutritionist that she was allergic to wheat, citrus fruit, dairy etc and was reduced to eating salads and some nuts. I wondered if that diet accelerated her Alzheimer's. Greatnan
A: I have already mentioned that I am utterly opposed to diets that cut out whole food groups (except, of course, on the recommendation of a proper nutritional scientist and dietician because of a medical condition). There is no evidence that such a diet would have accelerated Alzheimer's but that could be because no one has done any research on such a diet and dementia. It certainly wouldn't have improved her general health. There has, however, been some interesting research published recently that the omega 3 essential fatty acids found in fish oils possibly help to prevent the shrinkage of brain cells that characterise Alzheimer's. Oily fish can be beneficial in many ways, so it is always worth including them in the diet and if they help prevent or slow down the onset of dementia, so much the better.
Q: My husband has emphysema and heart problems so keeping to a tasty. healthy diet is really quite difficult.
Can you suggest any recipes that are really low or no salt, low fat, and not too many calories? I have tried adding herbs and spices to add some flavour, but I am not keen on too much of this, so this restricts me too. grannygrunt
A: It is interesting that there is now a suggestion that a high intake of salt affects the blood pressure of only certain susceptible individuals. However, this has not been proved and, in any case, how do you know if you are susceptible? It is less the salt that is added to fresh ingredients during cooking, or even at the table, than the salt that is locked into food that causes the damage. It is therefore sensible to avoid processed and manufactured foods whenever possible – ham, bacon, sausages, ready meals. Also check the labels on stock cubes, cakes and biscuits.
Herbs and spices do add flavour to food so that you can reduce the amount of salt. Other possibilities are lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice (lovely with chicken and white fish), balsamic or sherry vinegar, chilli sauce, nuts. I have only just discovered that soy sauce used as a condiment contains less sodium than table salt. You could also switch to low-sodium salt but don't do this if you or your husband have a kidney problem because these salts are high in potassium. Foods that are high in potassium – fruit, especially avocados, which are also high in unsaturated (healthy) fats, vegetables, nuts – help to lower high blood pressure. Tomatoes and bananas are also especially good.
Q: Do you think what you eat can have any effect on your skin - i.e. the old wrinkles and cellulite? I'm a sucker for creams and potions and magazines telling you to eat this and that to keep wrinkles/cellulite at bay (and have been for years, so maybe I know the answer deep down already) but just wondered what your thoughts were. GrandmaSheila
A: The skin does lose its elasticity as we age. Nothing in the diet is going to get rid of wrinkles – these are just the story of your life on your face. However, plenty of fruit and vegetables will help to keep your skin looking as good as possible with a healthy glow. They will also help your eyes keep their sparkle, which makes the skin look better too.
Q: I'd like to ask about eating 1) healthily 2) cheaply. I make lots of veggie soup which is cheap and healthy, but too many recipes designed to save penies do so by adding bulk such as cheese/pasta/starch. How do I lose weight and not spend a lot on my food bill? gracesmum
A: It is not true that you have to spend a lot of money to buy "healthy" food. Indeed, there's not really any such thing as healthy or unhealthy food (maybe sugar which is just empty calories and is the exception). Carbohydrates, such as pasta, are an important food group and it is not a good idea to reduce these, except as part of a general reduction in the size of portions. Cut visible fat off meat and remember that stewing steak is just as nutritious as sirloin. It is worth bearing in mind that the digestive system copes with fat far more easily than it does with some other types of food. Carbohydrates require more calories to be digested than fat.
Q: My friend (71) has lost her sense of smell and taste and now only really eats chocolate. She seems well enough and is not too thin. Should I worry or are there any ways of encouraging her taste to return? crumblygranny
A: How very unfortunate for your friend. She will almost certainly have lost most if not all her sense of taste if she has lost her sense of smell. Taste is quite a primitive sense and our enjoyment of food is much more closely connected to smell. I don't think there is even a medical solution to this problem and I certainly don't know of a dietary one. I'm sorry that I'm not able to help.
Q: My 35 year-old daughter has rheumatoid arthritis and I feel she could be more careful with her diet, although she is an excellent cook. Any advice? em
A: I am sorry to hear about your daughter. Arthritis is horrid. A well balanced, varied diet is important for everyone and your daughter might find it helpful to include a serving of oily fish at least once week, preferably more often. Sometimes rheumatoid arthritis is aggravated by certain foods. It can be difficult to tell which but if she thinks this might be the case, she should consult her doctor about trying an exclusion diet. It is not wise to do exclude whole groups of food without proper medical consultation. Howeveer, some people have found that avoiding the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers) helps.
Q: I have always lived by the maxim, "everything in moderation and a little of what you fancy does you good." Is there any reason to change that as I get older? mamie
A: How right you are and what a good maxim that is. The digestive system, however, does become less efficient with age so sometimes even a little of what we fancy may not be such a good idea, but as long as you are eating a varied diet and enjoying it, then good luck to you. Bon appetit.
Q: I'd like to drop a stone and am not interested in any of these celebrity diets etc - but how can I stop myself from being starving all the time? beeble
A: Weight is gained slowly and insidiously and losing it also takes time. It is a big mistake to starve yourself or skip meals. Yes, the only way to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than you expend. Try using a smaller plate and eating slowly so that you are aware of the signals that your brain sends to tell you that you are full. If you are suffering from hunger pangs, you might find four small meals rather than three larger ones each day is a more helpful pattern. While it is tempting to get off to a good start with dieting, it is better to aim at a steady loss of about 2lb per week. Good luck.
Q: Much is said about the benefits of oily fish. I like salmon, can't abide mackerel or sardines and always have a decent stock of tinned tuna. How much should I be eating, what should I be doing with it and what will it do for me? jakesgran
A: Oily fish forms a valuable part of the diet. Omega 3 essential fatty acids have numerous beneficial effects, including lowering the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood, alleviating inflammatory diseases, protecting the heart, reducing the risk of thrombosis and stroke etc. There is some evidence that they reduce the risk or, at least, slow down the development of dementia. The fish oils in oily fish are distributed throughout their tissues, whereas those in white fish are concentrated in the liver. The general recommendation is to eat at least one portion of oily fish per week. Eating more is probably better but there is a bit of a worry about toxins in the flesh resulting from pollution. Mercury is a particular worry.
If you like salmon, then the other oily fish you might like would be trout, salmon trout (also called sea trout) and swordfish, as well as fresh tuna. Unfortunately, canned tuna contains virtually no omega 3 as this is lost in the canning process. This is not the case with other canned oily fish.
Q: Can I please ask about zero cal meals for one that are at the same time nutritious, filling and prepare themselves?! jeni
A: Zero calories would not actually be a good idea, but preparing themselves would be wonderful.
Q: Is it true that you need to eat different foods after the menopause than before? If so, how should your diet change? pudding
A: A massive change in diet is not necessary. As we grow older our bodies become less efficient at absorbing and using the vitamins and minerals we need, so it is even more important that what we eat is packed with nutrients. Calcium rich foods help protect against osteoparosis so dairy, dried fruit, especially apricots and figs, sunflower seeds, canned fish with their bones e.g. sardines, oranges, watercress and broccoli. You also need vitamin D to absorb calcium, so include eggs, oily fish and butter.
Q: What tips do you have to stop me snacking between meals? I'm a complete chocaholic and just can't say no. WanderingRider
A: I suggest that you invest in some really good quality chocolate with a high proportion of cocoa solids (70 per cent). This is so rich (and expensive) that you will probably eat a lot less of it. Also, try having some fruit when you might otherwise have had an unhealthy snack. The only other way is not to buy anything that constitutes an unhealthy snack and exercising considerable willpower.
Q: I've heard that magnesium is good for helping to combat restless arms/legs...so what's the best thing to eat in order to help with this? CariGransnet
A: As well as fish, meat and chicken, magnesium is found in pulses, nuts, whole grain cereals, dried figs and sesame seeds. I know that a deficiency in magnesium can cause cramps and twitches, among other things, but I am not sure about restless arms and legs.
Q: Is microwaving veg good? jingl
A: It does help to conserve vitamins and minerals and, for that matter, colour and texture.