After 50, your body doesn’t digest food the way it did when you were younger. Your metabolism slows down, and you’re more likely to lose muscle mass and see changes in your weight.
As a result, it takes a little more thought and effort to make sure you get enough nutrition and stay a healthy weight, says dietitian Nancy Farrell.
“I’m not into telling others that they should avoid specific foods,” says Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Rather, it is more about making the best food selections and choices for you.”
Conditions related to unhealthy diets -- like diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, and strokes -- tend to happen more often as we age. So people over 50 need to watch their calories a bit more closely and eat less food with added sugar or a lot of solid fats, like the ones in butter or shortening.
Experts say men over 50 who are moderately active should get between 2,200 and 2,400 calories a day. For women, that number is about 1,800 calories. Keeping track of that is easier since the government started requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, says Bess Dawson-Hughes, MD, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
“I was just flying back from North Dakota, and I went to a place to get a chicken sandwich to take on the plane,” says Dawson-Hughes, an endocrinologist and director of her center’s Bone Metabolism Laboratory.
“The chicken sandwich had 300 calories in it. One single cookie they were selling had 350 calories. If I hadn’t seen those labels, I would have grabbed a cookie along with the chicken sandwich.”
That’s the kind of knowledge that comes in handy when you’re trying to stay healthy over 50. But there are still some misconceptions out there that experts are trying to clear up.
Myth: Since my metabolism is slower, I need to eat less.
Not necessarily, Farrell says. As you age, it may be harder for your body to take in and use vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, or iron. And some medications can make that even harder.
Plus, many adults don’t get enough vitamin D, which you need for bone and muscle strength. This is usually because they don’t have enough dairy in their diets or they don’t get out in the sun often.
That means you may need to eat more of some things and less of others to make sure you get the right nutrition. For example, you may need to eat more protein and get more exercise to make up for the loss of muscle mass, Farrell says. Or you may need more fruits and vegetables, Dawson-Hughes says.
Myth: Supplements are good for you, so more is better.
Since your body has a harder time getting nutrients from food as you age, many older people take calcium or vitamin D supplements to help keep their bones strong. But the benefits don’t build up in a straight line, Dawson-Hughes says.
“In the case of calcium, if you keep eating more and more and more, you’ll absorb a lot of it, and it’ll come out in the urine -- but it has increased your risk of having kidney stones in the process,” she says.
Talk with your doctor about which supplements would be right for you and how much of them you need.
Myth: I’m not hungry right now. It’s OK to skip a meal.
There are benefits to keeping a regular schedule.
“Your body is a bonfire,” Farrell says. “If you’re having a bonfire in your backyard, you’re going to throw another piece of wood or a log on it to keep that fire burning. That keeps the metabolism up and running. … The caveat is you’ve got to throw the right quality and a nice quantity, not overdoing either.”
Myth: It’s too late to change my habits.
“I see patients who have major illnesses and chronic disease states that are getting worse, and they are seeking to slow the process,” Farrell says. “They are wishing they would have been more serious about health and nutrition in their younger years.”
But while it may be tougher to change some habits the longer you’ve had them, “it is never too late or too early to work on behavior changes in any phase of life.”
If you’re worried about your weight, go with foods that pack a lot of nutrition without a lot of calories. These “nutrient-dense” foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice, and beans and nuts. Lean meat, eggs, and seafood also fall into this category, along with low-fat milk and cheese.
And skip the deal meal at your local drive-through, Farrell says. Sugary drinks or desserts, foods made with butter or shortening, or foods made from refined grains, like white bread or pasta, pack more calories with less nutritional value.
“Things that don’t add any nutritional value but add calories will be satisfying and make you feel full, and then you will become deficient in nutrients that are important,” Dawson-Hughes says.
Myth: It’s all about diet.
Good nutrition isn’t always about what you bring home from the store. Sometimes the challenge is getting to the store in the first place.
Lots of things can affect how well you eat as you age. Losing teeth might make it harder to you give up certain foods, for example, or your senses of taste and smell may change as you get older, Farrell says.
“Warm chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven don’t have the same effect anymore,” she says.
And some seniors have physical problems that make it harder to get around, or they don’t have transportation. Financial problems, depression, or isolation are more common as people age, too.
“Loneliness is a directly related to poor nutrition,” Farrell says. “It’s so important for us all to stay involved in the community.”