Jane Olszewski loves food. An avid cook, she’s always on the lookout for great recipes, and will happily share her secret for a perfect grilled salmon. For a while, she managed a store that sold gourmet foods and cookware. Her North End neighborhood is her playground, chock full of treats. But Olszewski, 69, can’t indulge in cheesy risotto or her old favorite, veal chops. For two decades, she’s been fighting a blood-lipids disorder for which she takes four medications. And last Christmas she had a heart attack and needed a triple bypass.
It’s bad genes, Olszewski says — her father died at 54, and her mother also had heart trouble. So since she retired, in 2008, she has been fierce about her diet: no white sugar, minimal salt and fat, fish and beans for protein, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Plus she walks 2 miles a day.
“I’m not sure I won’t have another heart attack, but I’m certainly going to control what I can control,’’ she says. Luckily, she adds, “I love everything that’s good for me.’’
Olszewski has a particularly strong incentive to eat well, but just about everyone can benefit from a good diet and exercise as they age, doctors and nutritionists say. Not only will they stave off chronic diseases, but they will feel stronger, more energetic, and more alert.
It’s all about adapting to your changing body - and compensating, if needed, for earlier mistakes, said Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Clinic at Boston Medical Center.
“Most Americans gain a pound a year as they get older, and at the same time the aging process is causing a loss of muscle mass,’’ she said. “So by the time you’re over 60, half your body weight may be fat.’’ That makes it hard to move around, because your muscles are weaker.
“And right now,’’ she added, “the only way we have of avoiding this is to stay in shape, exercise like crazy, eat well, and not gain weight.’’
Yet most older Americans don’t do that, Apovian said. They may eat less as their metabolism slows with age, but what they eat is often highly processed, low-fiber, nutrient-poor food: white bread, macaroni and cheese, “comfort food with a lot of fat and a lot of calories.’’
What they should eat instead, she said, is “nutrient-dense’’ foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains that provide more vitamins and minerals in smaller servings. Older people may also be short on protein, further weakening their muscles. Apovian is now doing a study in which elders take a protein supplement between meals.
But eating well is tough for many older people, especially if they live alone, said Deborah Krivitsky, a nutritionist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It’s a huge issue,’’ she said. “Eating is such a social experience that particularly if people are socially isolated, they lose interest in food. So as they age and their metabolic dial goes down, they may be getting more obese but also more malnourished.’’
Aging, illness, and medications can also affect people’s sense of smell and taste, or suppress their appetite, said Dr. Heidi Auerbach, director of the outpatient geriatrics clinic at Boston Medical Center. And if they’re frail and disabled, it may be too hard to make a good dinner.
“The energy it takes to prepare a meal, or even to heat something up when you’re riddled with arthritis and back problems, is too much, so people become tea and toast eaters,’’ she said.
Melanie Pearsall, a nutritionist at the MGH outpatient center at Revere Beach, said even clients in their 60s often rely on “convenience foods’’ and eat out frequently. To steer them onto a healthier path, she tries to find out what motivates them.
“Often they want more energy, or maybe they’ve lost weight and are worried,’’ she said. “Or if in they’re in their 60s and expect to live into their 80s, they get very concerned when suddenly they’re 65 and have diabetes. That’s a good motivator.’’
Still, major changes can be daunting, Pearsall said, so she starts small.
“If someone’s using canned soups, it’s easy to look at lighter, lower-sodium canned soups,’’ she said. “And then I try to work with them: ‘Can you put a fresh food in with that? Throw a handful of frozen vegetables into the soup while it’s heating up - carrots, spinach, green beans.’ Then it’s like semi-homemade, and it really bumps up the nutrition.’’
Even simple substitutions can help, Krivitsky said, such as natural peanut butter - with no added sugar or hydrogenated oils - instead of commercial brands. Rather than canned foods, she recommends frozen fruits and vegetables, which are also inexpensive and keep well, but are more nutritious and not loaded with additives. She teaches classes on how to read food labels.
But like Pearsall, she tries not to stress her clients out, or take the joy out of eating.
“If they really like a piece of cake, I say, ‘Have it, enjoy it, but make it the exception rather than the rule,’ ’’ she said. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect - it just has to be better.’’
Zoe Finch Totten, CEO of the Full Yield Inc., a Danvers-based company that helps clients adopt a “whole foods’’-based diet, said a key starting point is to see food as a way to nurture your body.
“Food is absolutely central to our being,’’ she said. “It’s an incredibly powerful way to connect with yourself.’’ Plus good foods are a real treat, she noted: When people accustomed to processed foods bite into a fresh, crunchy red pepper, for example, “they’re amazed by how sweet it is.’’
Many healthy foods can be prepared quickly, Totten said. Her website, Thefullyield.com, has dozens of free recipes - and of course you can always make smoothies. Or it might be fun to find a “cooking buddy’’ or two, and get together once a week to make several dishes.
“It’s motivating, there’s the efficiency of cooking bigger quantities, and those same friends can also go walk or dance or whatever they like to do together,’’ she said.
For Olszewski, who’s gotten herself down to a trim 113 pounds - and her “bad’’ LDL cholesterol to a safe level - healthy eating is a passion. She’s at Whole Foods “almost every other day,’’ stocking up on fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish. She subscribes to Cooking Light and is always trying new recipes, though with good ingredients, she said, it’s mostly “a no-brainer.’’
Take that grilled wild salmon she loves to make.
“I have a smoked salt, and you just rub the fish with it, and grind pepper, and then you spray it with olive oil, saturate it with lemon juice, and grill it,’’ she said. “It is to die for.’’