Diet for a Lifetime

An expert guide to eating healthy during every stage of your life

From the WebMD Archives

You know the healthy-food drill: Eat less fat; get more fruits and vegetables; and under no circumstances forget your fiber! These are a few of the dietary rules that doctors say can keep us healthy and happy for life.

But while those are great guidelines, the truth is that our bodies are works in progress. New health needs -- and certain health risks -- appear during each decade of our lives. And that means our nutritional requirements change over time as well.

"It's not that we don't need the same healthy habits at 20 that we do at 40; it's just that as we age, the need can become more critical," says nutritionist Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical dietitian with New York University Medical Center.

And as we move through each decade, the impact of unhealthy eating also becomes greater, says nutrition expert Nancy Wellman, PhD.

"You will start seeing some physical results that can become very apparent as you age," says Wellman, director of the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Aging at Florida International University.

To help you get optimal good health out of each decade of your life, WebMD asked three experts to help chart a lifetime of nutritional needs.

Your 20s and 30s

If there's a time that personifies health and vitality, it's the 20s and 30s. But just because you feel great and your energy knows no bounds, don't make the mistake of throwing dietary caution to the wind.

Even if you're "young and thin and go to the gym regularly, what you eat still matters because it has a chemical effect internally -- and that occurs regardless of your age," says Heller.

While you might not see or feel the consequences right away, Heller tells WebMD that over time, certain foods can increase your risk for serious diseases.

Indeed, research recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that the more red meat women ate between the ages of 18 and 30, the higher their risk for high blood pressure later in life.

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The good news: The study also found that those who eat lots of fruits and vegetables reduce their risk of high blood pressure for years to come.

But it's not just your diet's effect on your future that matters. Nutritionist Jo-Anne Rizzotto, RD, says women need certain nutrients while they are in their 20s and 30s. Among the most important, she says, are calcium and vitamin D.

"Many young women associate these nutrients with adolescence, or with the postmenopause years," says Rizzotto, a dietitian and educator at the Joslin Clinic in Boston. "But the truth is, bone is still being laid down throughout your 20s. And without adequate calcium and vitamin D, your skeleton will not be as strong as you need it to be, now or in the future."

How much do you need? A minimum of 1,200 milligrams daily of calcium and 400 units of vitamin D, experts say.

In addition, the experts say, women in their 20s and 30s should pay special attention to these nutritional needs:

  • If you use birth control pills, take a multivitamin. Oral contraceptives can deplete zinc, magnesium, B-2, and other nutrients.
  • Balance red meat in your diet with poultry and fish.
  • Get enough iron. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you need 18 milligrams a day from age 19 to age 50. If your menstrual cycles are very heavy, talk to your doctor about taking more. Iron-rich foods include eggs, soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, navy beans, tofu, spinach, raisins, and enriched grains.
  • During your childbearing years, you need 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, particularly in the months before you plan to get pregnant. According to the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, foods high in folic acid include whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, broccoli, asparagus, avocadoes, peanuts, wheat germ, tomato juice, and orange juice.

Your 40s

As the saying goes, life begins at 40. Maybe that's because this is the decade during which you can really turn your future health around! Experts say that if you take good care during these middle years, you'll reap the benefits for years to come.

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Among the most important nutritional goals: Watch portion sizes. That's because it's during our 40s that we begin to see a significant slowdown in our metabolisms.

"If you don't overeat in your 40s, you will automatically eat less of the foods that are not good for you," says Wellman. "If you do overeat, you tend to eat foods that are less healthy."

Among the foods you should cut back on first -- if you haven't already -- are those high in unhealthy saturated fats, particularly from animal sources, Wellman says. This includes most red meat and full-fat versions of dairy products like cheese, milk, and ice cream.

"By the very fact that we eat more of these, and portion sizes are larger, they become the saturated fats we should cut first," says Wellman. (Other significant sources of saturated fat include coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter, all common ingredients in processed foods.)

Eating too many foods high in saturated fat may increase your levels of total cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol -- both risk factors for heart disease. While too much saturated fat is unhealthy at any age, experts say, in your 40s you're more likely to start seeing the negative health impacts -- particularly if you've been eating it for a long time.

Trans fats have also been a major dietary concern in the last several years. However, Wellman notes that a new FDA ruling requiring labels to list the amount of trans fats in processed foods has prompted manufacturers to use significantly less. "While it's still important to read the labels, this is now much less of a problem for most people -- saturated fat and calories are still the most important concern," says Wellman.

Instead of these unhealthy fats, experts say, choose moderate amounts of foods containing the "good" monounsaturated fats, like olive or canola oil.

"But do not forget that even healthy oils have calories, and watching calories is particularly important during your 40's because that's when many people begin to see evidence of weight gain," says Wellman.

This is also the decade to increase fiber; make sure you're getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day; and reduce your intake of sugar, starch, and sodium.

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"You may not see a direct effect in your 40s, but doing this now will help reduce your risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, or even heart disease in your 50s, 60s, and beyond," says Rizzotto.

Because this is also the time when your metabolism begins a noticeable slowdown, personal trainer Kelli Calabrese says, you must also take steps to prevent the proverbial middle-age spread.

"Your metabolism slows by about 5% every decade, and by your mid-40s that usually shows up as extra weight around your waist," says Calabrese, author of Feminine, Firm and Fit.

To counter the effects, increase your physical activity, Calabrese says.

No matter how you do it, keeping your weight under control can have benefits beyond a smaller dress size. Research published recently in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that the heavier a woman is, the more she is to be affected by hot flashes once the hormones of perimenopause (the stage before menopause begins) kick in. The study found that women with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 were more likely to report moderate to severe hot flashes than women with a BMI of 25 or less.

Finally, one beverage you should consider adding to your daily diet once you hit the big 4-0 is tea.

In studies of some 61,000 women, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that those who drank two cups of tea per day beginning as early as age 40 dramatically reduced their risk of ovarian cancer. And the risks dropped in proportion to how much tea they drank.

During your 40s, be sure to also pay attention to these nutritional needs:

  • B-complex vitamins, particularly folic acid; it can help regulate your levels of homocystine, a natural body chemical that may help protect you from heart disease. A multivitamin should supply all you need during this decade.
  • Calcium and vitamin D. You need 1,200 daily milligrams of calcium, and 400 mg of vitamin D.
  • Less iron. Begin reducing your iron intake, and once you're no longer menstruating, stop taking iron supplements.

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Your 50s

Once menopause is behind you, a lot of the symptoms you may have experienced in your 40s -- like hot flashes, fatigue, and mood swings -- will diminish and, eventually, disappear. The bad news: With the loss of estrogen comes a loss of protection from heart disease and a higher risk of osteoporosis.

So, experts say, this is the decade to really get to work on protecting your heart and your bones.

"If you haven't already added adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, now is the time to get serious about doing so," says Rizzotto. Be sure to have two servings a week of fatty fish such as tuna or salmon, a handful of walnuts at least twice a week, and try sprinkling soups, stews, or cereal with flaxseed.

Since less estrogen means less protection for your bones, continue to get enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Aim for two to three servings of low-fat dairy every day, Heller says.

You may also need to take a vitamin D supplement if you live in the northern sections of the country and don't get fortified dairy foods. Consider a calcium supplement if you can't get enough calcium from your diet.

Research findings published in the journal Osteoporosis International indicated that long-term use of calcium supplements, together with exercise, can be very effective in combating the loss of bone density that occurs with age. The study's authors suggest taking up to 1,700 milligrams daily of calcium for maximum bone protection. The National Osteoporosis Foundation, however, continues to recommend 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily.

The one mineral supplement you should stop taking as soon as menopause sets in is iron.

"Once you are no longer menstruating, you don't need iron -- and, in fact, taking it can do more harm than good," says Rizzotto.

In our 50s, Wellman adds, we should also cut calories at least 10% below the level we ate in our 40s. We should also get more physical activity.

"This is the decade when you may really begin to see significant weight gain, and all of the health consequences that go with it will start to become very obvious if you don't take steps to control it," says Wellman.

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Other important considerations during this decade:

  • New dietary guidelines recommend that everyone restrict sodium, but this becomes even more important as we age. The American Heart Association sets the limit at 2,300 milligrams, but the National Academy of Sciences says that as we get older, keeping our intake to 1,800 milligrams daily may be even more beneficial.
  • Get enough magnesium, which Heller says plays a role in some 300 chemical processes in your body. According to the National Institutes of Health, you need about 320 milligrams of magnesium a day. You can get it by adding whole-grain cereal, cashews, avocados, and spinach to your daily diet.
  • If you're taking a statin drug to lower cholesterol, you could benefit from supplements of coenzyme Q10. As we age, the levels of this antioxidant in our bodies drops, and statin drugs tend to deplete it as well, according to some recent studies. Heller recommends taking 100-120 milligrams a day to help increase metabolic energy and affect nerve impulses.

Your 60s and Beyond

As you head into your golden years, you'll reap the benefits of having taken care of yourself in previous decades. But even if you didn't do all you could when you were younger, you'll still see results if you start now.

"It's just never too late to start living a healthier lifestyle," says Heller. "There can be benefits at any age, and things such as losing weight, reducing the intake of saturated fat, and becoming more physically active can have an impact on your health no matter your age."

Since the risk of hip fracture and other bone breaks increase as you age, getting enough calcium and vitamin D becomes even more important. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, your calcium intake should remain at 1,200 milligrams daily, and you need between 400 and 800 units of vitamin D.

Since calcium supplements can sometimes cause constipation in older adults, experts suggest getting as much as possible from food. This means eating more low-fat dairy products, vegetables such as broccoli and kale, almonds, and calcium-fortified juices.

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You might also consider probiotics, the "friendly" bacteria found in live yogurt cultures and also available as supplements.

"As we age, our immune system gets a little less efficient, and since much of our protection comes from our gut, probiotics can help increase our body's ability to keep viruses and toxins from getting through the mucosal barrier," says Heller.

Also, Heller says, with age many of us lose the ability to efficiently absorb and use vitamin B-12. This often leads to anemia and other nutritional deficiencies. To combat the problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a daily B-complex vitamin with at least 2.5 units of B-12.

Also important: As we age, our need for fluids increases. Dehydration sets in faster, particularly in summer, or if you run a fever or suffer a bout of diarrhea.

"You don't have to drink water, but you should increase fluids as you age," says Wellman. The tip-off that you might not be getting enough: "urine is dark in color and/or has a strong odor. If that's the case, you need to add more fluids to your diet," says Wellman.

Your best bet is to sip fluids throughout the day, easing up in the early evening to avoid overnight trips to the bathroom.

Here are some additional nutritional considerations for your golden years:

  • According to a report from the WHO and the Tufts University School of Medicine, after age 60, fat should account for no more than 35% of your total daily calories if you're very active, and no more than 30% if you are sedentary.
  • You should maintain your folic acid levels at 400 micrograms daily.
  • Magnesium levels can be lowered to 225-280 milligrams daily. Your iron intake should be no more than 10 milligrams daily.
  • Opt for nutrient-dense foods whenever possible: fish, poultry, lean meat, low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals, nuts and seeds.
  • Eat more often. Five to six small, low-fat meals daily may help to control weight, blood-fat levels, and blood sugar, according to the WHO report.
  • Be certain to meet the RDA for vitamins A and C, as this may help protect brain function. The WHO report suggests 600-700 units of vitamin A and 60-100 milligrams of vitamin C daily.
  • As you get into your 70s and 80s, Wellman cautions, don't cut your calories too low: "In the event you do get sick, you can benefit from a small cushion of extra weight."
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Exclusive Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on January 20, 2006

Sources

SOURCES: Circulation, 2002; vol 105: pp 1135-1143. Journal of Inflammation, Sept. 30, 2004. Journal of the American Medical Association; vol 287: pp 598-605. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003; vol 78: pp 91-98. Extra Co-Enzyme Q10 for Statin Users -- Treatment Update 13 (2), 4-7, National Library of Medicine. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004; vol 79: pp 969-973. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005; vol 82: pp 1169-1177. Obstetrics & Gynecology 2003; vol 101: pp 264-272. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2005; vol 165: pp 2683-2686. Osteoporosis International, 2005; vol 16: pp 2129-2141. Keep Fit For Life - Meeting the Nutritional Needs of Older Persons, World Health Organization and Tufts University School of Nutrition and Policy Joint Report, 2002. National Osteoporosis Foundation: Boning Up On Osteoporosis. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Nancy Wellman, PhD, director, National Resource Center on Nutrition , Physical Activity, and Aging, Florida International University, Miami. Jo-Anne Rizzotto, MEd, RD, LDN, CDE, curriculum education specialist, Joslin Clinic, Boston. Kelli Calabrese, exercise physiologist; author, Feminine, Firm and Fit.

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