When it comes to staying healthy, we often are given advice on why you shouldn’t do some things — smoke, consume excessive amounts of alcohol, remain sedentary — and why you should do others — like eat right. But what is generally lacking in this advice is the “how” and “what.” How should someone who is, let’s say in their thirties or forties, be eating compared to someone who’s in their sixties or seventies? What choices should these two age groups be making in terms of nutrition to promote overall health? Or does “eating right” mean the same thing, regardless of age?
These are the questions we’ve decided to tackle to help you navigate good nutrition throughout your lifespan, including how making better choices at age 30 or 40 will help keep you healthy at 60, 70 and beyond. Remember: It’s never too late to change dietary habits to achieve better health.
Let’s start with calories. It may seem obvious to some, but the caloric needs of a 30- or 40-year-old are higher than those of a 60- or 70-year-old. Metabolism in general begins to decrease significantly after age 40. Younger people generally require more calories than older people. The trap to avoid is the source of those calories: instead of reaching for processed or prepared foods, which can be high in salt and fat but low on nutrition, choose lean proteins (like poultry or fish) and start increasing vegetable and fruit intake. Plant-based diets provide the anti-inflammatory ingredients to lower your risk of disease at any age. Colorful fruits and vegetables (purples, blues, reds and greens) provide us with antioxidants that block internal chemical processes that can wreak havoc if unchecked.
If you’re worried that switching to this type of diet may cause undesirable weight loss, you can add higher density foods to your diet, such as whole grain pastas, potatoes and rice as well as healthy fats, like nut butters and avocado.
While seniors may need to consume fewer calories that doesn’t mean fewer nutrients. In fact, a challenge many seniors face is getting enough nutrients in a lower volume of consumed food. For this age group, a diet rich in plant-based foods is best as animal proteins are more inflammatory and should be eaten in moderation. However, it’s important to get an adequate amount of protein. Seniors may need more protein than previously thought and can quickly lose muscle when inactive.
The general rule is 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight relative to height. That means a person, male or female, who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall weighing approximately 160 pounds needs a minimum of 80 grams of protein per day.
Fiber is important at any age and this is one area of nutrition where seniors tend to do it better! Our digestive system ages right along with the rest of us, becoming a bit more sluggish over time. To help keep things, well, moving, seniors should pay attention to their fiber intake — and many do. Those in their thirties and forties are less likely to get enough essential fiber in their diets (25 grams daily). This is where switching to a more plant-based diet will help: five or more servings of fruits and vegetables is a good starting point.
Choosing whole grains and reading labels so you can swap-out lower fiber foods for higher fiber alternatives is another.
No matter your age, if you have a family health history that is strongly correlated to diet and weight, like diabetes or heart disease, changing your dietary habits now can make a difference in the long-term. Seniors need fewer calories so reducing portion sizes is a straightforward way to cut back. Although it may be easier for younger people to lose weight, weight loss is achievable at any age. Be realistic and optimistic: even small changes can make a difference over time.
We’ve talked about calories, protein and fiber, but there’s another element to aging healthfully: exercise. It’s important to choose an exercise program you will stick with. Physical activity is a life-long endeavor, not a quick-fix tool. The national recommendations suggest 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.
When it comes to exercise, maintaining muscle mass is important. Eating enough protein isn’t enough to combat the loss of muscle mass — or sarcopenia — that comes with aging. For men, testosterone begins to decrease at about 1 percent per year at age 30, although this doesn’t become noticeable until about age 50. Beginning an exercise program earlier and making it a routine could prevent some of this natural muscle loss, but it doesn’t matter at what age you start, just start! Many studies have shown even people in their nineties can gain muscle through strength training.
We do recommend consulting your doctor before starting a weight-lifting program and working with a certified trainer. Along with combatting muscle loss, osteoporosis or bone loss often accompanies aging, especially in women. Vitamin D deficiency is quite common, even among men, and supplementation of this vitamin along with calcium can help prevent osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor about screening.
Eating right will mean different things to people at different ages and life stages. What we want you to take to heart is, however old you are, it’s never too late to begin eating and exercising towards better health.