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What Older Adults Should Know about Eating Bad Carbs

Aging brings about many changes. Your metabolism slows down, aches and pains become more commonplace and your mind may not be as sharp as it once was. With several areas of life working against you, it may be easy to let your food awareness slip and focus less on nutrition.

We talk about the importance of eating healthy as you age. More specifically, we explain the impact bad carbohydrates can have on your body and mind.

 

What are good carbs and bad carbs?

Modern advertising has trained our brains to view carbohydrates a certain way — mainly through a negative lens. However, the words “carb” and “bad” aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Carbohydrates, along with proteins and fats, are important macronutrients your body needs to function. There are three elements to each carbohydrate: sugar, starch and fiber. Ideally, you should strive to consume carbs with these three elements and avoid carbs high in sugars or added sugars.

During the photosynthesis process, plants produce carbohydrates and then use them as energy. Thus, humans consume most of their carbs when eating plants — fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. 

Behind the scenes, your body takes carbohydrates from food and converts them into glucose to use as fuel. As you know from driving a car, engines can’t operate without fuel. In this example, your body is the engine and carbs are the fuel source.

From there, carbohydrates are classified as either simple or complex. This is where the “good” and “bad” labels come from. 

Simple carbs

From a biological standpoint, simple carbs have one or two sugar molecules. The simple nature of these structures allows for faster digestion. Simple carbs are higher on the glycemic index — the length of time it takes your body to turn carbs into glucose — than complex carbs. 

The faster foods are digested, the faster blood sugar levels increase. The rapid release of glucose satisfies you instantly, but the feeling doesn’t last long — this is more commonly known as a sugar rush or sugar high

Common examples of simple carbs include fruit, milk, table sugar and processed foods. As you can see, not all simple carbs are bad. Fruit and milk contain vitamins necessary for your health. However, many simple carbs, such as white bread, white rice and white pasta, are stripped of their nutrients and provide minimal value other than causing blood sugar spikes. In other cases, sugars are added to packaged foods, desserts and drinks to make them taste better and improve their shelf life, but they contain no health benefits.

Complex carbs

Complex carbs are polysaccharides, meaning they contain more than three glucose molecules. Carbs that are better for you are lower on the glycemic index, meaning your body takes longer to digest them. 

Whole foods keep you feeling full longer because fiber, vitamins and minerals are slowly released into the bloodstream. Common examples of complex carbs include whole grains, legumes, sweet potatoes, oats and wild rice. Here is a breakdown of healthy carbs to add to your diet.

Complex carbs are vital for older adults because they are full of dietary fiber, including parts of the plants you eat that your body can't digest or absorb. 

Dietary fiber is either soluble or insoluble. Insoluble fiber isn’t absorbed and adds bulk to your stool. Soluble fiber enters your bloodstream, but it also helps soften your stool. Together, they assist your digestive system and bowels in moving efficiently, lowering your risk of constipation and other bowel-related disorders. In addition, the sugars, vitamins and minerals from complex carbs provide fuel for cells your body needs to function.

 

Carbohydrate health risks

Although the body needs carbohydrates for fuel, a diet high in carbs can be detrimental. Eating too many carbs, especially foods with added sugars, places a toll on the body because it must work in overdrive to process high blood sugar levels. 

Any unused glucose converts to glycogen and is eventually stored as fat so your body has an energy source. Over time, this can cause weight gain and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, a diet high in simple sugars can raise triglyceride levels and lead to heart disease, diabetes and liver problems.

A 2012 study by Mayo Clinic researchers found people over the age of 70 who consumed a diet high in carbohydrates and sugars were 3.6 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.

The researchers measured the cognitive function of 1,230 people ages 70 to 89, 940 of whom had no cognitive impairment. Four years later, 200 of the 940 started to show signs of memory problems, issues with language and struggles with thinking and judgment.

The study concluded what many other medical experts have said before — it’s important to eat a balanced diet of carbs, fat and protein. A moderate intake of carbs is acceptable as long as you don’t go overboard.

 

Worst carbs for seniors

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends adults over the age of 60 avoid foods with added sugars, saturated fats or sodium. Even though they taste good, these foods are all high in calories and low in nutritional value. Here are some examples:

Sugary drinks

  • Sodas
  • Sports drinks
  • Chocolate milk
  • Sweetened teas
  • Juice 

Processed foods

  • Baked goods
  • Desserts
  • Ice cream
  • Candy
  • Processed snacks (chips, cookies, etc.)

Refined foods

  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • White rice
  • Sugary breakfast cereals

 

How many calories does a person need a day?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends carbs amount to 45 to 65 percent of your daily caloric intake, with everyone eating at least 130 grams to help carry out basic bodily functions.

To calculate that percentage, we first need to know how many calories older adults should be consuming. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans say men over the age of 50 should at least 2,200 calories daily, while women should be consuming 1,600 calories per day. For men, this would amount to 990 to 1,430 calories from carbohydrates. For women, this number would fall in the range of 720 to 1,040 calories from carbohydrates.

These numbers vary by activity level and decrease the older you get. Below, you’ll find the recommended caloric range broken down by gender and activity level.

How Carbs Impact Older Adults

For reference, “sedentary” means no additional exercise, whereas “moderately active” is described as 1 ½ to 3 miles of activity per day. “Active” means you do more than 3 miles of activity per day.

Men

  • Sedentary: 2,000-2,200 (900 to 1,430 calories from carbs)
  • Moderately active: 2,200-2,400 (990 to 1,560 calories from carbs)
  • Active lifestyle: 2,400-2,800 (1,080 to 1,820 calories from carbs)

Women

  • Sedentary: 1,600 (720 to 1,040 calories from carbs)
  • Moderately active: 1,800 (810 to 1,170 calories from carbs)
  • Active lifestyle: 2,000-2,200 (900 to 1,430 calories from carbs)

 

Heart healthy diet for seniors

When eating carbohydrates, focus on quality instead of quantity. Be sure to make the most of your food choices.

Focus on eating fruits and vegetables, preferably fresh or frozen. Canned fruits and vegetables can be loaded with added sugars or sodium, so make sure you read the labels. Look for color when choosing vegetables. Dark greens, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and collard greens have plenty of vitamins and minerals.

Choose lean cuts of protein and include plant-based protein choices such as beans, chickpeas and lentils.

Eat at least three ounces of whole grains a day. This is a great opportunity to swap in brown rice or whole-grain bread instead of refined white rice or white bread.

Don’t forget to include dairy in your diet, either. Low-fat yogurt or milk has calcium and vitamin D needed for strong bone health. Strive for three servings a day.

Food may smell or taste bland as you age. Adding herbs and low-sodium spices to your food can liven up meals.

 

Talk to your primary care physician about how to approach your diet once you are over the age of 60. Schedule an annual wellness visit to stay on top of your health so your doctor can recommend any dietary modifications you may need.

 

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