The later years of life are meant to be the spiritual years. They are not a time to indulge the palate in many varieties of rich and tasty foods, but to free the mind for contemplation and discovery of the delights of the soul. The lowering of metabolism which occurs after fifty not only aids our spiritual quest by forcing us to eat and sleep far less, but it also calms the body and mind so that we are able to sit quietly for self-discovery without the previous restlessness and mental disturbances. It is interesting to note here that many sannyasins, whether young or old, experience a similar lowering of metabolism, due to introversion and a lifestyle which is conducive to relaxation and peace of mind.
During youth and even middle age the metabolism is generally high and the digestive juices thus flow copiously. In old age, and also in spiritual life, however, with the lowering of metabolism, the gastric fires often burn very low, making large or heavy meals very difficult to digest. Therefore, elders as well as sannyasins who wish to live long, active lives, free from digestive problems, are recommended to gradually switch over to pre-digested foods which are natural, light and sattwic.
Sattwic foods increase longevity by purifying and balancing the body and mind. Having passed through the ambitious, highly active stage of life, rajasic foods which build the body and stimulate the mind, are no longer so necessary. Tamasic foods which are left over, stale or rotten should be completely avoided. These dead foods deplete the energy and inspiration, and increase the desire for sleep and withdrawal from activity.
A healthy diet is necessary for elders. As one grows older, there is a tendency to care less about the type and quality of food, but the older person should be sure that the food he eats is natural and contains adequate nutrients to maintain cellular life and rejuvenation of dying tissues.
Simple meals of fresh vegetables either raw, steamed, or cooked into soups; whole grains; legumes; fresh fruits and juices in season, keep you active yet tranquil, and provide a sufficient balance of vitamins, minerals and protein. This diet also contains sufficient roughage to avoid constipation. In winter, meals , should be substantial with more potato, oil, legumes and whole grains. Polyunsaturated oils made from seed grains and nuts should be used in place of vegetable oils and animal fats. If legumes produce wind, they should be soaked or sprouted before cooking. If cooked legumes are difficult to digest, make them into a soup and only drink the water. This will provide adequate protein. Sprouted grains and legumes are very nutritious, easily digestible, and aid the rejuvenation process. They can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked with other vegetables or in soups.
Generally speaking, the diet should be as fresh and natural as possible, using whatever grows locally in season. If the older person has any difficulty chewing or digesting natural foods, then the foods can be minced, pulverized or juiced. If there is difficulty in changing over to a more natural and healthful diet due to habit and taste preferences, processed foods should gradually be substituted, item by item, with a fresh equivalent until natural foods become desirable and habitual. Remember, if we wish to stay young, we must eat more 'young' fresh foods and less 'old' preserved or stored foods.
Animal products, fats, fried or oily foods, excessive white sugar, heavy or hot spices, salt, and stimulants such as coffee, tea and alcohol should gradually be put down and if possible eliminated from the diet altogether. The digestive system, liver and kidneys are no longer able to process and excrete them as efficiently as they did in youth, and toxins thus build up. Curd or cottage cheese can be taken in small amounts if required, but other dairy products, particularly butter, ghee, aged or processed cheeses, should be avoided as far as possible. Replace them with soya milk and cheese which are less mucus forming, easier to digest, and far more nutritious.
Non-vegetarians should not try to change over to the above diet overnight, but they can definitely cut down on red meat, taking mainly fresh fish and other seafood products which are far easier to digest and loaded with minerals and protein. They may also depend more on eggs, milk and cheese until their systems get used to the lighter, sattwic diet.
Eating in between meals should be avoided as far as possible. Otherwise, replace all snack foods such as crackers, spreads, chips, cakes and sweets, with a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable. Nuts should be taken very sparingly or avoided as they are too heavy to digest unless they have been freshly ground and made into a nut butter.
For those (young and old) who wish to live long and productive lives, moderation is very important.
Fat people rarely reach a ripe old age. Instead of three meals a day, take only two, and make the second one light. In old age the body no longer requires the same amount of food that it did in youth and it is necessary to. come to terms with this fact and make the required adjustments. We must learn to regard hunger as a sign of health, and to get used to feeling a bit hungry every day. When the digestive system is completely empty, it is in a state of rest, and only during such short intervals can the process of rejuvenation take place. On the other hand, too little food can also speed up the ageing process. Short fasts can be done in case of sickness, but otherwise stick to regular, small but adequate meals.
Those who are bored with life find it very difficult to take their mind off food, and they feel hungry all the time. This is a kind of mental hunger they are suffering from. But by thinking more about spiritual things and filling the day with yogic practices, plenty of japa and meditation, spiritual reading, satsang, charitable work and karma yoga, physical exercise, and many other creative activities, there will be no time to think about food, nor will it be of any great interest.
Many saints and yogis have become sq engrossed in spiritual life that after a while they forgot about food altogether, and their bodies continued in perfect health often for hundreds of years on higher sources of energy. Of course we cannot hope to become like them without spiritual training and grace, nor should we try to. But we can lighten the load on our digestive systems and increase our lifespan by decades by becoming less dependent on food and more involved in spiritual life. Self-realization, after all, is our real duty in life, and in old age especially we must make it our sustenance and only aim.