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3 BIG Questions: Tara Hammes

3 BIG Questions: Tara Hammes 3big.jpg

Healthy eating tips to age well

By Debbie Gardner

     As the manager of healthy living and nutrition for the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, the nonprofit member agency for the 350 Councils Aging in Massachusetts, Tara Hammes shares healthy eating tips through talks at Senior Centers across the state. A veteran of nutrition work with 25 years of experience, she has been working exclusively with older adult nutrition needs for the past 10 years.

        Hammes recently gave a talk on nutrition and aging well at the Pleasant View Senior Center in East Longmeadow, and Prime asked her for nutrition advice for readers. Here’s what she shared:         

Q: Nutrition needs change as we age. What are the top things to keep in mind for healthy eating to age well?

        “I really encourage folks to do the best in eating well the way that they can, as people have varying amount of money, of energy and of ability/mobility. You don’t have to subscribe to ‘fresh is best,’ philosophy, I like to say canned, frozen, juiced or dried are all good options as well. Frozen meals can definitely be an option, but you really have to watch sodium for the most part, and the cost as they are not cheap. For once in a while, they are ok, but if that is all that you have the ability to eat, try to choose he healthiest ones you can.

        “For those who primarily rely on frozen meals the favorite food I recommend is frozen veggies. If you are having frozen meal, add a little extra frozen vegetable, even half a cup. What gets in the way of healthier eating is people thinking they have to have vast quantities of fruit and vegetables; a little bit throughout the day and it will add up.

        “I also like people to think when they are eating or shopping – will this item help my body, or will it not be as beneficial as another choice?  You don’t need to eat perfectly; I’m not going to tell someone not to eat sweets if they have been eating sweets all their lives.  Its more about the choices – in this country its availability and portion control we really need to watch.”

Q: Inflammation is a hot topic right now in disease cause and prevention. So is eating to prevent it. Is this hype, or good dietary advice?

        “It’s a little bit of both. There is some research that shows it is real, but not all pathways are fully understood. The good news is the types of food that are anti-inflammatory are the type we are supposed to be eating to prevent chronic disease in general.

        “There is evidence for a potential effect of anti-inflammatory eating on chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and there is more and more evidence coming out that the types of foods we eat can influence our cognitive decline and some Alzheimer development. It is the hot topic. The Mind Diet ( is my absolutely favorite diet plan to recommend. It’s been out for about 20 years and most people still don’t know about it.

        “What anti-inflammatory diets do not have an effect on is rheumatoid arthritis. Some sources say it does, but the research really is not there.

        “What is anti-inflammatory eating? It’s really what we’ve been hearing from our grandparents and our parents – eat your fruits and veggies and your plants. Beans are the part of that diet people are unfamiliar with. We grew up learning the four food groups and meat was heavily focused on, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on plant protein sources and that’s one of the hardest shifts for people to make.

        “When you talk about anti-inflammatory eating, there’s also lots of concern about the effects of consuming ultra processed foods – what I call the ‘rectangle foods’ – things in the center aisles of your grocery stores like breakfast cereals, Rice Roni, Hamburger Helper, those types of things.”

Q: Many widowed elders turn to frozen meals instead of cooking for just one. What are some alternatives, or suggestions for quick and healthy solo meal prep?

        “What I like to do is have [people] think about what they can do with one pot, one pan, one sheet pan, one bowl, what can [they cook] with that piece of equipment?

        “I actually cook for one often, and my go-to is that one pan on the stove. I open a can of black beans – you don’t have to buy low sodium, save the 30 cents and just rinse them – and add some canned fire roasted tomatoes, some of chopped garlic from a jar in the fridge, some frozen pepper slices and maybe if I have it, have some corn. I sauté it all in a little olive oil and top with cheddar cheese - I always have cheddar cheese in my refrigerator – or sour cream or maybe you have a small cup of avocado or guacamole.  If you have tortillas, make a burrito or use it as filling for a quesadilla. You’re just opening cans and adding some frozen veggies! And if you make a big batch, you have it for a couple of meals.

        “You can also use [cooking for one] as an opportunity to try something new. The USDA has a Recipe database ( and  I live on it! You can enter an ingredient and do a search – they are filed by cost, type of cooking equipment, etc., and it has recipes by cuisine. It’s really helpful, and the recipes are smaller yield – one or two – it’s also a nice tool for cooking for a crowd.

                “Another suggestion is to stock the pantry with basics, and my go-to food, frozen veggies.  Just add a little bit to every meal – a few broccoli florets with a dash of salt and pepper. When cooking for one, the foods that are important are the foods that are high in micronutrients, the phytochemicals, the fiber. The nutrition research is like medical research, it’s always changing. We need to keep learning, so why not keep eating the important foods?”