Healthy Aging: Food Deserts & Alternatives
Your health and well-being should be important to you no matter what stage of life you are in. However, things like a healthy diet and proper nutrition can become even more important as you age, because your body can more easily become nutrient deficient.
While most people tend to assume it is their own behaviors that affect their diet, such as the foods they willingly or unwillingly choose to eat, there are other factors that can play a role in what they are consuming. The area you live in, for example, can determine what foods are available to you. If you live in what is called a “food desert”, you could lack access to the healthier foods you need to support your body as you get older.
This article will further discuss what a food desert is, how it impacts communities and certain groups, tips for healthy aging in a food desert, and how to find healthier communities that better support your lifestyle as you grow older.
What is a Food Desert?
In the simplest of terms, a food desert is an area or neighborhood that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. This means a lack of access to affordable fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and other essential foods that support a healthy diet.
Specific USDA guidelines for what makes an area a food desert include:
- Accessibility: the number of sources that provide healthy foods – i.e., grocery stores and markets – and how far away they are.
- Personal barriers: restrictions based on a person’s individual situations, such as lack of funds and not enough time to travel to shop at places that provide affordable, nutritious foods.
- Neighborhood indicators: lack of public transportation, or a lower-income area.
Primarily, food deserts tend to be rural areas that have higher poverty rates because these neighborhoods tend to have limited access to places that sell affordable and nutritious foods. It may seem paradoxical that you might live in farm country but have less access to produce; however these days there are less smaller, family owned farms selling their produce locally. More people live in rural areas who don’t have enough money or time to travel farther to shop at nicer grocery stores, and there is little to no public transportation to take people to areas with better food options.
How Food Deserts Impact Local Communities and Vulnerable Groups
Food deserts are on the rise in Canada and the United States, as inflated costs have forced more communities and groups of people into or near poverty. There are some groups that are more vulnerable than others, such as minority ethnic communities and older populations, because they lack access, have lower incomes, and can’t travel as easily.
Unfortunately, because food deserts don’t provide people with the healthy foods they need, there tend to be higher rates of illness and disease in these areas. Poor nutrition can affect the body in many ways, including lowering immune function. When an entire community has a weakened immune system, it allows for illness to spread more easily, which can be more devastating for older adults age 50+, seniors, the elderly, or anyone who doesn’t have good access to healthcare.
The Effects of Food Deserts on Older Generations
Food insecurity, which can happen when living in a food desert, affects many households with senior adults age 65+ in America. And when nutritious food is scarce, it can easily lead to malnutrition and other health issues. Even older adults between the ages of 50 to 59 are vulnerable to the negative impacts of living in a food desert.
As you age, your bodily functions slow down and can more easily become impaired, such as the ability to absorb nutrients. As such, it’s essential for older adults to maintain a diet packed with nutrients to help replace the nutrients they lack and lose more often. Thus, without access to healthier, nutrient-dense foods, your body will grow weak and more vulnerable to illness and disease.
Some of the most common health effects of living in a food desert include increased risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
Older adults who live in food deserts are also more likely to suffer from mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Poor nutrition can also affect your bones and muscles, which can result in pain, inflammation, and reduced mobility.
How to Avoid Food Desert Impacts and Find Healthy Communities as You Age
If you live in a food desert and struggle with food insecurity, there are ways you can improve your situation and still maintain your health. Your first option, if you have the means to do so, should be to move to a healthier community. Moving to a neighborhood that has better access to healthier food options can significantly improve your situation. Look for areas that have lots of grocery stores and farmer’s markets with abundant produce.
If moving is not an option, as it often isn’t for older adults, there are other ways to stay healthy and get the food you need. Look into food delivery services or meal kit subscriptions that can deliver healthy food right to your doorstep.
When shopping for food, opt for produce with a longer shelf life so you don’t have to shop as often or spend as much money. You can also freeze or preserve your food to extend its life. Vitamins and supplements can also help you replace the nutrients you are lacking in your diet.
Being more mindful of your eating habits can also improve your health. Avoid these common nutrition pitfalls:
- Eating foods with high sugar and / or salt
- Mindless snacking
- Eating close to bedtime
- Skipping breakfast or other meals
Your appetite can change significantly as you age, but it’s still important to eat regular meals to keep up your strength and energy levels.
Your daily activities or behaviors can also help you maintain your health as you age while living in a food desert, such as getting enough sleep every night, finding ways to manager your stress, staying active, and keeping your mind sharp by reading, writing, playing games, and socializing.
Living in a food desert can pose a threat to your health as you age, but it isn’t a hurdle you can’t overcome. If it’s an option, consider finding and moving to a healthier community. If moving is not an option, use some of the tips shared here to maintain your health despite living in an area with lack of access to abundant healthy food options.
You can also talk to someone about getting help if you need it. If you can’t move and are struggling to find the healthy foods you need, talk to family, friends, or a healthcare provider about how to get what you need and better manage your health. If you don’t speak up, others around you might not know that you are struggling, so you have to be proactive and take action yourself if you can, to ensure your nutrition needs are met.
*This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical or mental health advice, nor is it a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified physician or mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor or 911 immediately. This website does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, physicians, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on the Site or on other websites it links to. Reliance on any information provided by this website or other websites it links to, is solely at your own risk.*