She grabs the handle of her shopping cart and immediately turns the clanky wheels to the perimeter aisles of her local grocery store. It’s there, on the outside, that Christina Spencer finds the most nutritious foods to put inside her body.
Spencer is an autoimmune certified health coach and integrative mental health nutritionist who specializes in helping teens dealing with autoimmune issues brought on by food. She, too, suffers from an autoimmune disorder and chose long ago to concentrate on eating healthier foods rather than popping pills. Those healthier foods are always found on the perimeter of grocery stores, she says.
“Think about it,” says Spencer, who owns a consulting business called Caippuccino Health. “The fresh produce is always on the wall. The deli counter with fresh meats, fish and poultry is on the other wall. The processed and unhealthy foods are always on the inside aisles. I stay away from those.”
Spencer takes a holistic approach to nutrition and knows that the fuel we put into our bodies has a direct effect on our performance. Put leaded, low-octane fuel into a race car and it may not complete a lap. Fuel up with clean foods and watch the engine purr and accelerate through the day. If you aren’t sleeping well, Spencer says, it may be a thyroid or adrenal issue brought on by poor diet.
Clean foods to Spencer are those found on those outer aisles. A very small percentage of her grocery store purchases are not raw foods. And with those raw food purchases, Spencer knows there will be the need for meal prep, but no preservatives.
“If the food you buy at the store doesn’t rot in a week, you probably shouldn’t be eating it,” she says. “There are exceptions to that, of course, such as beans, rice and quinoa.” Spencer spends a couple of hours each Sunday preparing meals for the week. Sure, that can get boring, she says, but she changes the menu up every week. The meal planning and prep she does help to keep her food costs down and her nutritional values up.
“For budgeting purposes and overall health, preparing foods at home is key,” says Kim Caudill, a Roseville-based registered dietitian. “If you are not eating most meals at home, I would recommend upping the percentage. For example, if you eat lunch out five days a week, try for just two days of making your own lunch. It takes about three weeks to make this a habit, so commit to three weeks to make small changes.”
Caudill, who owns Lifestyle Nutrition & Dietetics, says meal prepping saves money because her clients buy in bulk and freeze anything not to be consumed in a week. Caudill also recommends buying in-season fruits and vegetables for the best prices; shopping at local farmers markets for fresh produce; purchasing whole poultry, fruits and vegetables and cutting them up yourself; and, when cooking dinner, making double portions and putting the extras in containers to eat for lunch the next day.
“Processed foods are shelf stable due to the additives that may include high sodium content, added sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and fat in the form of hydrogenated oils,” Caudill says.
“All of these can lead to health issues including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. As a registered dietitian, I am an advocate of knowing what you are putting into your body. Therefore, reading labels and being able to recognize all of the ingredients as actual foods is very important.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says there are more than 40 different kinds of nutrients in food, and they can be classified into seven major groups: carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, water, proteins and fats.
Spencer says a misconception that many people have about fat is that it’s all bad. That’s just not true, she says.
“There are lots of good fats,” Spencer says. “Avocados and nuts have wonderful fats that our bodies need. Our brains are about 70% fat, and if you’re not eating enough of the right kind of fat, then your brain isn’t operating at an optimal level.”
Cary Nosler says the only oil he adds to his meals is extra-virgin olive oil. Better known to Sacramentans as Captain Carrot, Nosler was a mainstay on the Sacramento airwaves, first as a DJ at KZAP and then as a health and fitness expert, where he got his moniker. Now 78, Nosler lives in Pasadena on a working farm—an urban farmstead, he calls it.
He says his steamer is his most important and most used kitchen tool. He says he’s no longer a vegetarian because his body needs protein and its amino acids as he ages, and they are hard to come by in sufficient amounts when you’re eating only, well, carrots. His sons treated him to a filet mignon dinner for Father’s Day, and he chowed down. But lighter fare is the norm for Nosler, who doesn’t look like he’s pushing 80.
“I just cooked in the steamer some Swiss chard, chicken thighs, some tempeh and jicama,” Nosler says. “Tempeh is fermented soy beans and plays a great role in gut health. It’s a pro- and pre-biotic. Jicama is a resistant starch and goes straight to the colon. I’ll season all that with some EVOO, and maybe a dash of apple cider vinegar, and it’s delicious.”
Nosler says he weight trains four times a week. Lifting weights and getting his daily requirement of protein helps him keep muscle mass and good bone density. He says that there’s long been a myth that older people shouldn’t lift weights. It’s the exact opposite, he says.
“In older people, our bodies start to cannibalize our bones and muscle tissue. So we have to combat that or we start to waste away, lose coordination and suffer falls,” Nosler says. “We have to weight train to maintain function. I can’t stress this enough.”
The medical term for the loss of muscle mass as we age is sarcopenia. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that beginning as early as the fourth decade of life, skeletal muscle mass and skeletal muscle strength decline in a linear fashion, with as much as 50% of mass lost by age 80.
Muscle mass accounts for up to 60% of total body mass, so any changes to this important, metabolically active tissue, the report continues, can have profound consequences on the older adult. Those consequences of sarcopenia include loss of function, acute and chronic disease states, increased insulin resistance, fatigue, falls and, yes, mortality. Studies have shown that weight training for older women is even more important and can combat a number of chronic ailments, including arthritis.
Nosler says these bits of nutrition and health hints are settled science. That’s not always the case with other health and nutrition schools of thought. Nosler references the recent medical debates on the virtues of eating eggs, ditching all fats from diets and carbohydrates.
“It can get confusing,” Nosler says. “Science always needs validation from within and I still get studies sent to me every day. I see ascending research in the benefits of vitamin D, for instance, which became especially important during the COVID lockdown. Vitamin D still remains one of the most underutilized vitamins around. Well, it’s actually a hormone and not a vitamin.”
Vitamin D is important for people of all ages, but especially for older adults, Nosler says. Vitamin D is required to help absorb calcium from the gut into the bloodstream, where it helps create bone density. It’s mostly produced in the skin when sunlight hits it. We absorb about 10% of our daily vitamin D requirement from healthy foods, the USDA reports.
“Most people aren’t getting enough vitamin D,” Caudill agrees. “Our bodies are so complex that calories alone or exercise alone does not determine our health and body weight. There are many things that play a role in our health, including calorie and protein content. Are we getting enough overall nutrients? What’s the state of our gut health, meaning are you pooping normally? And there’s always are you moving and exercising daily? The current recommendations are that we get 150 minutes of exercise a week, minimum. That would be about 20 minutes a day. Go on a walk, do yoga or stretch at home. Getting in a daily routine is more important than the intensity to start.”
Exercise, coupled with smart choices about nutrition, will lead to healthier outcomes no matter your age.