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Food for Life

Changing your diet as you age can help you look, feel better, and possibly stave off certain diseases.

En español | When Miguel Zuniga was a younger man, diet was not on his list of priorities. For years, he favored carne asada tacos and the fried foods of his native Mexico.

"I'd eat anything and everything," says Zuniga, 88, of Los Angeles. Not until his late 40s, after having symptoms of heart disease—the illness that claimed the life of his mother and a few relatives—did Zuniga begin to make changes to his diet. Slowly, step by bold step, he became a vegetarian, cutting out meat, fish, and fowl.

"It was hard to change," he says. "But I felt better. It helped me keep going."

Today, Zuniga prefers fruit, soy smoothies, and stir-fry vegetables, and credits his longevity and good health to the dietary changes.

Like Zuniga, many other Latinos are modifying their diets later in life. While some make the changes to feel better, others do so under doctor's orders to manage everything from lactose intolerance, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure to arthritis, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease—conditions that hit the 50-plus crowd the hardest.

<p>Focus on fresh foods, experts suggest, to ease into more healthful dietary habits.</p>

Going for the greens

Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, often recommends vegetarian and vegan (nothing animal-based) diets for Hispanic patients. That should be fairly simple, he says, because staples such as rice, beans, wheat and corn tortillas, and chili peppers are meatless.

"There are a lot of benefits to cutting out meat and dairy as we age," says Barnard, who has conducted numerous studies on Latino diets. "We've found that people feel better, their energy increased, and there was significant weight loss."

But cutting out meat has its drawbacks, says Tina Ruggiero, a nutrition expert in Tierra Verde, Florida. Vegetarians can lack important sources of protein. In addition, Ruggiero says, vegetarian, vegan, and dairy-free diets can lead to a decrease in calcium—essential for healthy bones—and vitamin B12—necessary for healthy nerve function as we age. Dietary supplements, specifically calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and a multivitamin, can supply these nutrients.

Finding a Middle Ground

Latinos who are reluctant to give up their meat, pollo, or queso fresco have another healthy alternative, says Ruggiero. They can eat lean meats and low-fat dairy.

Belisario Campana, 67, of Whittier, California, says that after he was diagnosed with diabetes seven years ago, he was hesitant to start a new diet. But now, he says, "Instead of heavy red meat, we have delicious baked chicken," says Campana. And this new diet, he says, has helped him maintain a healthy weight and keep his blood sugar at normal blood glucose levels.

Another alternative is a "flexitarian" diet, which includes reducing meat intake. A recent study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that going meatless one day a week reduced the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and cancer, and helped lower blood pressure and glucose, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels.

Changing your diet may not be easy at first, Rugierro admits, "but results—and grandchildren—are tremendous motivators to reducing disease risk, lowering health-care costs, feeling better both mentally and physically, and looking good."