There may not be any “magic” good-balance foods, but there are numerous connections between our ability to balance and our diet. “Although balance can be affected by many things, maintaining a proper weight and getting the right nutrients to maintain posture, bone density and vision are integral to preventing falls and keeping good balance,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, manager of disease reversal at the Cleveland Clinic.
Balance: A Weighty Issue
We know that excess body weight carries multiple health risks — heart disease, diabetes and cancer among them. But research also shows that people who are severely overweight fall almost twice as frequently as those of normal or only slightly elevated weight. In fact, falls have been reported to be the most common cause of injury among the severely overweight. On the upside: According to a 2009 study from the American College of Sports Medicine, losing just 10 percent of your body weight can significantly improve your balance. “It makes sense — you can move so much better when you lose weight,” Kirkpatrick says. Instead of trying crash diets and gimmicks, a better approach to maintaining a healthy weight is to make a series of small changes. Your physician or a registered nutritionist can help you come up with a comprehensive plan, but a good place to start is with portion control, and eating whole foods low in saturated fat and high in fiber. When planning and shopping for meals, choose fruits, vegetables and 100 percent whole grains — and try to avoid added sugars (keep a watch out for sugars and syrups in the first five ingredients of a label), Kirkpatrick says.
Eat for Strong Bones and Healthy Joints
What we eat has a lot to do with the health of our joints and the strength of our bones — which has everything to do with our balance. By now, we’ve gotten the message about calcium and bone health, but that’s only half the story. “We’re seeing epic proportions of vitamin D deficiency,” Kirkpatrick says. That’s a problem because we need ample amounts of D to be able to absorb calcium, which is what keeps our bones strong. The main source of vitamin D is the sun — you need about 20 to 30 minutes of sunlight, without sunscreen, daily, Kirkpatrick says. The best way to safely get that dose is on brief excursions out of doors — taking a five- or 10-minute walk several times a day, for instance — not basking by the pool sans sunblock. You can also get vitamin D through certain foods (fatty fish like salmon, for instance, or fortified, nonfat dairy products), and it’s available as a nutritional supplement.
Maintaining a healthy weight is one way to promote joint health: Every pound you lose is four pounds less of a load on your knees, which lowers your risk for developing osteoarthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Some research indicates, by the way, a link between osteoarthritis of the knee and impaired proprioception (the body-brain connection responsible for balance); while researchers aren’t sure which comes first — bad joints or bad balance — eating to maintain both can only help. Certain eating plans, specifically what’s known as the Mediterranean Diet, have been shown to help combat inflammation, which contributes to the development of arthritis. In addition to being high in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains (and with them, anti-inflammatory compounds known as phytonutrients), a key feature of the diet is getting in more healthy fats and reducing or eliminating the unhealthy ones. “Eliminating the aging fats — like trans fat and saturated fats — and sugars in our diets will also help prevent inflammation in our bodies,” Kirkpatrick says. There’s also emerging research on folate and balance: One recent study showed that it may be protective against falls in older people; if you’re at risk for falls, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.
A Brainy Diet
If you’ve ever had that slightly dizzy feeling, you know how easy it is to get off balance. It could be a blood flow issue, which good nutrition can also aid. “A diet rich in fruits and vegetables with lean sources of protein, such as fish and chicken breast, and healthy fats helps keep blood flowing,” Kirkpatrick says. Among the “healthy” fats that keep your blood flowing well: omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and flaxseed. In addition to boosting heart health, omega-3s benefit brain function and vision. Given that your eyesight is critical to maintaining good balance, getting enough of these will help keep you even-keeled in a multitude of ways.
And don’t forget to spice up your meals with powerhouse spices like turmeric. Much recent research has uncovered that turmeric (found in curry power, turmeric powder and yellow mustard) helps preserve brain function and brings down inflammation. “It can help your brain act young,” Kirkpatrick says.