Powerful food pairings to dial up nutrients you need for healthy aging

Do you have to give up meat to be healthy? Should you be a carnivore or a vegan? A better question might be why does it have to be one or the other? While some people choose to be vegan (foregoing all animal products), vegetarian (not eating meat but including milk, eggs, and cheese), or flexitarian (mostly plant-based meals but with some flexibility), there is room for meat on a healthy plate. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently released for 2020-2025, takes a lifecycle approach. As we age, “resilience, stamina, independence, and mental clarity” are the goals for most aging Americans, says Dr. Heather Leidy, associate professor of nutritional sciences and member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Lean meat can provide the protein and nutrients needed to help us stay strong as we age. 

Americans like meat. Pandemic purchases proved that. Meat sales increased almost 20% during the past year and 43% of households say they bought more meat than before the pandemic.

But, to make every bite count, consider pairing a 3 to-4-ounce portion of lean meat with plant-based foods to boost nutrients needed to age strong. While meat, like lean pork, is rich in protein, vitamin B12 and zinc, plant-based pairings can add dietary fiber, B-vitamins, and a host of other nutrients that are often in short supply in our diets.

Recently, three food groups paired up to encourage us to balance our plates with both lean meat and plant-food favorites. USA Pulses, the Pork Checkoff, and Sorghum Checkoff make up Powerful + Pairings, a website filled with delicious recipes and reasons why these 3 foods make up a happy plate.

I’m sure you are familiar with pork, but did you know that pork is a versatile meat that checks all the boxes for good nutrition for older adults? It is a nutrient-rich meat of high quality, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle repair and maintenance. Older adults need about 30 grams of protein per meal…sounds like a lot, but easy when lean meat is part of the diet. A 3-ounce serving of lean pork, beef, chicken, or turkey has 24 grams of protein. A scoop of protein powder might also give you 20 grams of protein but is devoid of other nutrients.

And while there are fattier cuts of pork (hello, bacon), there are 7 cuts of pork that are lean by the USDA definition (less than 10 grams of total fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving). Pork tenderloin and pork sirloin roast are leaner still. An easy way to remember to choose lean cuts of pork is to look for the word loin or chop in the name.

Mediterranean Bean Salad

Pulses is a word you may not know when it comes to food, but you know them as a delicious vegetable found in global cuisine. Pulses are the term for the dry, edible seeds of legumes, including dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas (or garbanzo beans), and lentils. For a recent virtual meeting I was asked to make a side-dish with pulses and I choose a Mediterranean Bean Salad (you can find the recipe here) and it will be my new summer go-to salad. Pulses are good for people and the planet; a sustainable crop that puts nutrients, like nitrogen, into the soil.

Another sustainable crop is sorghum. You might be less familiar with sorghum as a grain but more familiar with it as a syrup. Sorghum is an ancient grain with a texture like rice or quinoa. It makes a great base for grain bowls, either on its own as a vegan option or paired with lean meat as a side. Depending on where you live, it can be hard to find so here’s a link to help you source sorghum. Check out this website for more on sorghum and recipes to learn how to incorporate it into delicious dishes.

Whatever you choose, remember it is the total dietary pattern that makes for good health. So, for meat eaters, keep the portions in check, pile on the veggies, eat healthy grains to make every bite count.

Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University. She co-authored Food & Fitness After 50, available online and other book sellers. And, for more timely tips on eating well, moving well, and being well, follow her blog by clicking here.