Eating the same way in your 40s as you did in your 20s? Ignoring your nutritional needs when you're 60? Not you! Build and maintain your healthiest body by adjusting your eating habits to address the specific needs of each decade.
Teens to 20s: Bone Building
In your 20s, you're still building up bone density, so this is the decade to continue to help your bones grow strong and healthy. The more you start off with, the better, as your bones will lose density over the years.
Enter calcium, which not only builds strong bones but is also important for healthy muscles, nerves and heart. Both men and women need 1,000 milligrams per day from the age of 19 until 50, so enjoy low-fat or fat-free dairy products, opt for calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as soy milk, 100% fruit juices and cereals, and load up on beans, leafy greens, almonds and canned salmon with bones.
20s to 30s: Baby on Board
These days, women are having babies well into their 30s, which makes folate or folic acid an important nutrient throughout these two decades. This B vitamin helps prevent neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida. Unfortunately, many women don't get enough.
For women who plan on becoming pregnant, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming 400 micrograms per day of folic acid from fortified foods and/or supplements, in addition to foods that provide folate in its naturally occurring form. Many breads, cereals and grain products are fortified with folic acid; whereas numerous fruits and vegetables are good sources of folate. If you're trying to get pregnant, your doctor may recommend a folic acid supplement.
This also is a time for men and women to start thinking about how to prevent chronic diseases that become more prevalent as we age. A well-planned eating pattern based mostly on whole plant foods including whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Avoid dieting, which can lead to weight cycling. A history of dieting and weight cycling (when your weight goes up and down repeatedly) has been linked with increased risk of cardiovascular issues and osteoporosis.
30s to 40s: Keeping Score
If you haven't been treating your body right, the 40s is where this will start showing up.
During your 30s and 40s are a good time to be vigilant about eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain health-promoting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Adults in this age range need at least 1½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2½ to 3 cups of vegetables a day for women and men, respectively. Explore new tastes by trying a new fruit or vegetable a couple of times a month.
Try snacking on fruit including apples, bananas and clementines, opt for vegetable-packed, broth-based soups, salads piled with greens and smoothies with berries. If you don't like the taste of raw vegetables, try roasting them which brings out their natural sweetness.
Another important nutrient is dietary fiber, which may help protect against heart disease and some types of cancer. Women and men ages 31 to 50 need about 25 and 30 grams per day, respectively. Most adults get only about half that amount. Luckily, the fruits and veggies you're eating for the vitamins and minerals are also rich in dietary fiber, and whole grains and beans are other good sources.
40s to 50s: Mindful Eating
These two decades are a time of big changes for women thanks to perimenopause and menopause. Hormone fluctuations during this time of life cause changes in metabolism and body weight. Rather than dieting to maintain your premenopausal shape, work on accepting your changing body and focusing on mindful eating and regular physical activity.
Men also need to consider the changes that occur as they age. Around age 40, calorie needs to start to decrease. If the same amount of calories continue to be consumed, weight gain can result. Of course, regular physical activity can help with weight maintenance and provide other benefits, too.
A minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity is recommended weekly for adults. Another important nutrient is vitamin D. It's essential for bone health, and researchers believe it may reduce the risk of some cancers, heart disease and infectious diseases. Vitamin D is difficult to get from food — the best sources are fatty fish, like salmon and trout, fortified foods and beverages, including milk and 100% fruit juices and cereals, as well as eggs.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 600 IU per day for both women and men ages 19 to 70, but the majority of adults don't get enough. Consult your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist about your need for a supplement.
Protein, along with regular strength building activities, is essential for maintaining muscle, which we tend to lose as we age. Consuming enough protein also may be linked with bone health.
Women and men in their sixties need 5 to 5 1/2 ounce-equivalents, respectively, of protein foods daily and preferably spread throughout the day. Good sources include lean cuts of beef, chicken, fish, pork and lamb. Not a meat eater? You'll also find protein in eggs, beans, tofu and nuts, as well as low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese.
Vitamin B12 — which helps your body make red blood cells and keep the brain and nervous system healthy — is another vital nutrient. However, as people get older they can develop a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12. You can get B12 through any food that comes from an animal: meat, fish, dairy products and eggs, as well as fortified foods. Talk to your doctor to see if you need a supplement, especially if your eating plan is mostly plant-based.
Each decade brings with it specific health concerns and different nutrition needs. Eat right for your age and you'll sail through the decades feeling great.