Eat your age

Eat your age: A guide to optimal health throughout the decades

Have you been eating the same diet for a long period of time? It might be time to re-evaluate your personal menu.

Nutritional needs change as we age, so regular dietary adjustments are necessary to deal with these changes. The following guide to eating for your age provides essential tips to address specific dietary requirements at different stages of life.

Developing good healthy eating habits for teens

The teen years are an opportune time to establish healthy eating patterns and discourage bad habits. At this age interest in nutrition is largely driven by appearance, athletic performance and the influence of parents and peer groups. Teens who take part in family meals are more likely to meet their dietary needs and are less likely to engage in risky behaviour.

Due to heightened growth and development, caloric needs increase, and as a result the need for protein is at its peak. Healthy sources of protein include lean meats, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and dairy. A serving of oily fish such as salmon and trout is recommended twice weekly to support healthy brain development.

Twenties: Learning nutritional independence and investing in future health

The 20’s present increased challenges to maintaining a healthy diet with significant life changes such as moving out, eating on campus and starting a new career.

For women, growth has stopped by age 20, yet bone mass will continue to build until the age of 30. To support healthy bone development, consider:

  • Eating 3 servings of calcium rich foods per day (e.g. 3 cups low fat dairy or milk products)
  • Getting adequate intake of vitamin D – most Canadians require 600 – 1000 IU per day
  • Consuming less than 16-24 ounces  of coffee or 300mg of caffeine per day
  • Moderating or eliminating alcohol intake and quitting smoking

For men, increasing muscle mass and achieving peak physical performance becomes a common priority, so sports nutrition is an important topic to discuss with your dietitian as well as the safety of nutritional supplements. While you’re focusing on lean protein don’t forget to also include 4 fistfuls of fruits and vegetables a day.

Thirties: Baby on board and family nutrition

Welcome to the life of a busy household where limited time and energy impacts food decisions! Career growth and lifestyle changes can often lead to frequent dining out and subsequently, larger portions, and higher calories.

Whether you’re eating out or dining in, keep the balanced plate model in mind.

Women considering pregnancy or who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to focus on getting enough calcium, iron, folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids and plenty of fluids. Read more on pregnancy nutrition here.

Forties: Continuing healthy habits and nutrient-dense foods

In your forties, both men and women should put emphasis on continuing healthy dietary habits to optimize the brain and body’s performance, maintain a healthy weight and prepare for aging healthfully.

At this age, many people still focus on restricting calories for weight rather than on nutrient-dense foods for health. A mental shift toward nutritious eating for self-care and body acceptance, rather than weight loss, is often helpful. Research shows this approach can help in maintenance of a healthy weight throughout life, as opposed to leading a life of restricted intake.

Start by examining regular habits such as snack choices, portion sizes, timing of eating and alcohol intake. Increased consumption of nutrient-dense foods, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, legumes, pulses and lean protein like fish, is recommended. Consume plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, particularly fruits and vegetables; they fight against disease-causing free radicals. Ample water intake combined with a reduction in inflammatory foods, such as refined carbohydrates, salt and red meats, is also highly endorsed. A reduction in alcohol intake can significantly decrease the risk of certain types of cancers and chronic conditions.

In contrast to supplements, whole foods provide complimentary vitamins and minerals, fibre and hundreds of phytochemicals, all of which work together to keep you healthy. In particular, eat foods high in:

  • Beta Carotene – A very powerful antioxidant that may protect against melanomas, breast and colorectal cancers. It is also important for a healthy immune system. It is found in carrots, dark leafy greens, yam, squash/pumpkin, apricots and cantaloupe.
  • Lutein and Zeaxanthin – Both help to maintain optimal visual functioning. Studies show they may also slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, which start to be detected in your forties. Higher intakes may also help to lower the risk of cervical cancers. They are found in foods like spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens and dandelion greens.
  • Lycopene – Studies show an inverse relationship between high levels of lycopene in the blood and prostate cancer, particularly the aggressive forms. Lycopene, too, helps reduce cervical cancer risk. Lycopene levels are highest in tomato products like tomato paste, sauce and soup, as well as watermelon. It can also be found in fruits like guava and pink grapefruit.
  • Vitamin E and Selenium – Both may also be protective against prostate cancer. Foods high in these nutrients include nuts and seeds, wheat germ, clams and fish.
  • Vitamin C – Another potent antioxidant that is needed to make collagen and regulate gene expression. High intake of dietary vitamin C is associated with lower risks of hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke. Great sources include bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kiwi, citrus fruits, strawberries and pineapple.

Fifties: Belly fat, bone and cardiovascular health

Hormonal changes in this decade can lead to unwelcomed weight gain, loss in bone density and, for women, changes to digestion and metabolism during perimenopause and menopause. To make matters worse, weight gain in this decade tends to collect around the internal organs, known as visceral fat, which is particularly unhealthy.

A healthy diet high in plant foods will combat the increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and stroke. It’s also important to consume small amounts of lean protein throughout the day. Aim for about 20-30 g of protein to optimally stimulate muscle-protein synthesis. This, along with staying active, helps to mitigate decreases in lean body mass. Key protein sources include legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, fish, poultry and low-fat dairy products.

Studies have shown that soluble fibre intake helps reduce LDL-cholesterol and control blood sugars and appetite. Additionally, it helps promote a healthy gut microbiome and regularity. Foods with soluble fibre include Brussels sprouts, figs, oranges, edamame, sweet potatoes, oats, bran cereals (non-flake), black beans, lima beans, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds. Eating a serving of nuts every day helps lower LDL-cholesterol, and nuts are high in magnesium, potassium, vitamin E and selenium.

Magnesium-rich foods help to regulate blood pressure, protect against insulin resistance and maintain strong bones; unfortunately, studies show that most Canadians don’t get enough. Load up on pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts, bran, spinach and chard as well as legumes to ensure you get enough. Potassium is also an important nutrient for blood-pressure regulation. Consuming two cups each of fruits and vegetables per day will ensure most people meet their potassium requirements.

Calcium intake also becomes important in your fifties. For women, requirements for calcium increase from 1,000 mg to 1,200 mg per day around perimenopause. For men, it’s important to get enough calcium for bone health and for blood-pressure regulation but not too much, as this can increase your risk of prostate cancer. Anywhere from 1,000 mg to a maximum of 1,500 mg per day is recommended. Foods high in calcium include milk and fortified milk alternatives, yogurt, cheese, kefir, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, blackstrap molasses, amaranth, tempeh, tofu and canned salmon with the bones.

Sixties: Anti-inflammation and the immune system

During our sixties, the immune system becomes slower to respond, and the risk of getting sick increases. Additionally, the aging body takes longer to heal and combat infection, prolonging inflammation that can set the stage for disease development. Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic kidney disease, depression, sarcopenia and rheumatoid arthritis can all result from chronic inflammation.

With the increased risk of developing these conditions, your sixties are a time to focus on ways to reduce inflammation. Diet can be key to both promoting and combating the inflammatory process. Some dietary factors known to promote inflammation include:

  • Excess caloric intake causing increases in fat mass
  • High refined carbohydrate intake
  • Trans fat intake
  • Excessive saturated fat intake
  • Not enough omega-3 fats

To reduce inflammation with diet, try following a plant-based or Mediterranean diet and reduce processed foods and meat. This will provide more anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, such as vitamins C and E and polyphenols.

Regularly consume plant-based proteins such as nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and tofu. Consume at least two to three servings of fish per week as this will increase your levels of omega-3, which helps to suppress pro-inflammatory compounds in the body. If you cannot consume fish, speak to a dietitian about other ways to get omega-3s. Be sure to replace saturated and trans fats with healthy fats such as olive oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and avocado. Finally, incorporate culinary herbs and spices in cooking as they provide powerful phytochemicals. Turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, oregano, rosemary, ginger, parsley and garlic all contain compounds good for your health.

Choosing low glycemic index (GI) foods will help the body and mind stay fueled throughout the day. Low GI foods, such as 100% whole grain breads, steel cut oats, pasta, parboiled rice, quinoa and legumes, also help with appetite and blood-sugar management, which can result in a healthier waistline.

Seventies and beyond: Stay strong, stay social

As people continue to live longer lives, it’s more important than ever to stay active, social and independent into our later years.

The MIND diet—a blend of the Mediterranean diet described earlier and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which focuses on lower sodium intake and eating a variety of foods—is often a good choice for people in their seventies and beyond. The MIND diet was created to help prevent dementia and slow the loss of brain function that can happen with age. Staples of the MIND diet include leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds, olive oils, whole grains, fish, beans and poultry.

Decreased appetite leading to reduced muscle mass can become an issue in our seventies. Eating small amounts of lean protein throughout the day can help maintain muscle mass. Keeping active can aid in stimulating appetite as well.

Staying social during later years in life is also important, as this has many benefits to brain health and nutrition. If too much weight loss is a problem, eating with others can help some to consume more and is associated with better overall nutrition. It also promotes more chances to communicate and interact, thereby improving quality of life.

While the guide above includes good recommendations for many individuals at different life stages, it’s important to personalize your diet to meet your specific needs. Depending on individual preferences and health circumstances, alternative dietary options may be more suitable. Please consult with your registered dietitian for a personalized plan that’s right for you.


Are you interested in learning more dietitian-approved tips for all ages? Check out Copeman’s definitive guide to