Find out how your age affects your nutritional needs, and what you should be eating for a healthy, balanced diet...
As we grow older our interests, priorities and eating habits change, so it's no surprise that our nutritional needs do also. The core principles of a healthy diet remain the same at 25 or 65; we need a balance of different nourishing foods to enable us to look and feel our best however our bodies do require specific nutrients as we go through different life stages...
Start making time...
Life is busy for most women aged 20-30 and healthy eating is often way down the list of priorities. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that a high percentage of women in this age band failed to meet the recommended daily intake for several key nutrients, including calcium, folic acid and iron - and only 4% of women aged 19-24 consumed their five-a-day target for fruit and vegetables.
Bone density continues to grow (with a good supply of calcium and vitamin D) until our late 20s. At this age, nutrition for bone health is important to lower the risk of osteoporosis later in life. Calcium and vitamins K and D are all vital and can be obtained through dairy products, green leafy vegetables, egg yolks and salmon.
Skipping breakfast and relying on quick, convenience foods high in salt and sugar may result in low fibre intake. The recommended daily amount of fibre is 18g per day, yet the average intake for adults is only 12g. Low fibre, high sugar and high salt diets can contribute to digestive problems such as constipation and increased risk of diverticular disease and high blood pressure later in life.
Women who are considering starting a family should ensure they are consuming enough calories, folic acid and minerals such as iron and calcium.
Calcium - To ensure you're getting the required amount of calcium, you need to eat three servings from the dairy group each day (1 serving = 200ml milk, one small pot yogurt, 30g cheese). If you don't eat dairy, you should try calcium rich plant products such as kale, collard greens, broccoli, spinach, beans and soy products such as edamame and tofu. If you don’t exercise and smoke you may need to increase the amount of calcium rich foods you consume.
Fibre – Make time for breakfast. Try fortified wholegrain cereals or porridge oats with semi skimmed milk, chopped fruit or a glass of fruit juice. A proper breakfast will provide fibre and several key vitamins.
Low salt – Official guidelines suggest that adults should eat less than 6g salt per day (less for children). Check information on the back of the pack before you buy ready meals or sandwiches - for a main meal you should aim to eat no more than 2.5g salt. Use alternative seasonings when cooking – garlic, black pepper, chilli, lemon juice, fresh herbs and spices. Taste before you season with salt.
Folic acid - (also known as vitamin B9) is of critical importance both before and after conception in protecting your baby against neural tube defects and cleft palate. Good sources of folate include fortified breakfast cereals (which also include iron), dark green leafy vegetables and oranges.
Exercise and iron are important...
At this time of life many people still take their good health for granted, and healthy eating and exercise are often put on the back burner. But as we grow older, good nutrition and regular exercise become even more important. A diet rich in antioxidants will help protect against problems like heart disease, Alzheimer's, cataracts and certain types of cancer.
After the age of 40, the metabolic rate (the speed at which the body burns calories) drops, but the drop is very modest and the real reason many people in this age bracket start to suffer from middle-aged spread is a lack of exercise. Excess weight, particularly around the ‘middle’ is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis and the longer you wait before you tackle the problem the harder it becomes - nip any weight gain in the bud now before it becomes a serious problem.
One in four women in their 40s have low iron stores. Keeping your body well supplied with iron provides vitality, helps your immune system function at its best and gives your mind an edge. Those wanting to drink sensibly should drink a maximum of two to three units per day (14 units per week). Drinking responsibly affords you all the health benefits we often read about such as reducing heart disease, however, it’s a good idea to have one or two alcohol free days during the week and spread your weekly allowance out evenly.
Antioxidants – Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables are the best source of antioxidants. Make sure you eat at least five portions a day and include a wide variety of different produce.
Iron - Liver and lean red meat are the best and most easily absorbed forms of iron (haem iron), so try to eat red meat at least twice a week (you don't need to eat huge portions, 100g is enough). If you don't eat meat, choose a fortified breakfast cereal and eat plenty of green leafy vegetables such as chard, spinach, green beans, asparagus and broccoli.
Alcohol - Stick to safe guidelines – 2-3 units a day for women, 3-4 units per day for men, and try to have at least one alcohol-free day a week.
Watch your fat levels...
Health problems, such as raised cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are more common in this age group. A low-fat, low-GI diet which includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, is the best way to prevent and treat these problems.
As women enter the menopause, they are affected in different ways. Consequences such as a decline in libido, osteoporosis and heart disease are all linked to the decline in oestrogen levels that accompany the menopause. This accelerates the loss of calcium from bone, which increases the risk of osteoporosis or brittle bones. To counteract this, it's important to eat at least three servings of low-fat, calcium-rich foods each day.
There seems to be an absence of menopausal symptoms, in countries in the Far East where diets are naturally rich in phytoestrogens found in soya. Genetics and environmental factors play a huge part in how our bodies react to certain foods, so as yet we can’t say whether a diet rich in phytoestrogenic foods is beneficial to women going through the menopause or not but it could be worth a try if you are really struggling.
Smoking and being inactive can severely harm your bones, and it’s particularly important on the exercise side to include some weight bearing exercise such as brisk walking, jogging or aerobics. Aim for a combination of weight-bearing exercise and aerobic activity to help to keep bones and joints strong. Toning and muscle development can increase metabolic rate as muscle mass increases help to keep our weight constant.
Continue to drink a couple of litres of water every day and watch caffeine consumption. Caffeine can interfere with the amount of calcium we absorb.
If you don't eat at least one serving of oil-rich fish each week, you should also think about taking an omega-3 supplement.
Mediterranean diet - It is a good idea to try to get the ratio of good (HDL) and bad (LDL) sorts of cholesterol right. The Mediterranean diet is based around lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, both colours and types to obtain a spectrum of heart friendly vitamins and minerals. Get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked. If you have high cholesterol, you could try swapping to a butter-like spread rich in plant stanols or sterols which can help lower cholesterol levels.
Watch the fat – as we age, our body’s energy requirement decreases. Body fat gets deposited when we take in too many calories and don’t burn up enough in our everyday life. Include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from nuts, seeds and their oils instead of too much saturated fat.
Phytoestrogens - Soya based foods such as soya milk, soya yoghurt, tofu, miso and temph may help reduce some of the unpleasant symptoms associated with the menopause. Eating 25g of soya protein a day can help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Use tofu instead of chicken in stir-fries and pour calcium-enriched soya milk on your cereal. If soya isn’t your thing, other sources of phytoestrogens include lentils, beansprouts, peanuts, linseeds and sweet potatoes.
Omega-3 fats – Aim to eat three portions of omega-3 rich foods a week as these can help and keep bones and heart healthy. Remember canned fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel rather than canned tuna.
Vitamins are vital...
As we grow older, various physiological and psychological changes occur which have a direct effect on nutritional requirements. The body becomes less efficient at absorbing and using many vitamins and minerals. Long-term use of prescription drugs can reduce the absorption of certain nutrients. At the same time, many people find that as they get older their appetite decreases. Since the need for vitamins and minerals stays the same, or in some cases increases, it becomes even more important that the food we eat is healthy and nutritious.
Digestive problems, like constipation, piles and diverticular disease, are more common as we age and become less active. Ensure you keep your fluid intake up by drinking lots of water. Being active helps the guts, even walking or yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety levels which can contribute to constipation.
Our sense of smell and taste becomes less acute as we get older, but don't fall into the trap of adding extra salt to your food - use herbs, spices and other flavourings such as garlic, lemon juice, flavoured vinegars or mustard.
As levels of stomach acid fall with age, the absorption of iron, calcium and the vitamins B6, B12 and folate are reduced. Decreased secretion of gastric intrinsic factor, the protein required for vitamin B12 absorption further decreases vitamin B12. As a result symptoms of fatigue, weakness and impaired concentration may ensue.
The risk of heart attack and stroke also rises steadily with age. The major contributing factors – nutritional deficiencies, too much saturated fat, alcohol, smoking and lack of exercise can all be avoided.
As we get older, our body tends to become less efficient at absorbing or manufacturing vitamin D. The body can make vitamin D by the action of sunlight on the skin, but as people get older they tend to spend less time outside, so make sure your diet contains at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D or consider a supplement.
Fibre - Make sure that your diet includes lots of fibre-rich foods such as wholegrains, oats, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. A small glass of prune juice in the morning will help to prevent constipation.
Vitamin B12 - Ensure that you include plenty of foods rich in B12 such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals all contain vitamin B12.
Vitamin D - Small amounts of vitamin D are found in margarine, eggs and oil-rich fish. Vitamin D can also be made by the action of sunlight on the skin so when the weather is warm, expose your arms and face to the sun for at least 20 minutes a day.
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