What to eat for your age
Want to know what to eat to keep yourself in peak condition? Our nutritionist explains the key ingredients that make a healthy, balanced diet for each life stage.
As we grow older, our interests, priorities and eating habits change, so it's no surprise our nutritional needs do, too. That said, the principles of a healthy diet remain broadly the same whether we’re 25 or 65 – we need a variety of nourishing, nutrient-dense foods to enable us to look and feel our best, plus a little more of some key nutrients as we transition through life.
In your 20s & 30s
Life is busy and healthy eating is often way down the list of priorities, meaning good nutrition can get neglected as other commitments take centre stage. Whether it’s a demanding job, new baby or other family obligations, it’s at this stage that eating may become fragmented and less organised. Evidence bears this out with women in this age group failing to meet the recommended daily intake for several key nutrients, including calcium, folate and magnesium.
Eating well is still important because bone density continues to develop during your 20s, so you need to access a good supply of bone-friendly nutrients, including calcium and vitamins D and K. You can find these in foods like dairy, green leafy vegetables, egg yolks and salmon.
Skipping meals and relying on convenience foods that tend to be high in salt, sugar and fat, is likely to result in a low fibre intake. The recommended daily amount is 30g per day, yet many of us manage only just over half this amount. Low fibre, high sugar, fat and salt in our diets can contribute to weight gain, bloating, digestive problems and lead to elevated blood pressure and digestive issues later in life.
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What should I be eating?
Aim for three servings of dairy each day (1 serving = 200ml milk, 150g yogurt, 30g cheese). If you're pregnant there are some dairy foods you should avoid including unpasteurised milks, soft cheeses and soft blue cheese – this includes products made from unpasteurised goat's and sheep's milk.
If you don't eat dairy, try calcium-rich plant sources like kale, broccoli, spinach, beans and fortified plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives. Other useful food sources include canned fish with bones, such as salmon and sardines.
Are a source of liver-friendly choline – this little talked about nutrient is needed for the formation of cell membranes and for brain function, including memory. It’s especially important during pregnancy and breast feeding, when an adequate supply is essential for your baby’s brain development. Eggs are also a useful source of vitamin D for healthy bones. Choose eggs enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids to help support serotonin, the feel-good hormone, which may lift mood.
They may not be the most appealing of choices but regularly eating 2-3 servings of wholegrains per day has been linked to a reduced risk of weight gain as well as benefits for the heart and gut. These unprocessed versions of carbs take longer to digest and provide a steady supply of energy keeping you fuller for longer.
All the more reason to make time for breakfast and include fortified wholegrain cereals or porridge oats with chopped fruit or a handful of nuts or seeds. For a speedy option try our chia and almond overnight oats.
What else may be relevant for my 20s and 30s?
If you plan to start a family you should be aware that, prior to conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, the UK government recommends you take a supplement supplying 400mcg of folic acid (folate) daily. This is in addition to including dietary sources such as fortified breakfast cereals, dark green leafy vegetables and oranges.
Pregnant and breast-feeding mums should also consider a 10mcg supplement of vitamin D daily.
Read more about what to eat during pregnancy.
If you enjoy a glass of wine or two and you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, you should be aware that the safest policy is not to drink alcohol in order to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
In your 40s
It’s during this decade that you may start to notice your energy levels waning and your hormones out of kilter. Your weight on the scales may notch up a little and your favourite jeans may feel that little bit snugger. A busy schedule, growing family and career challenges may increase stress and anxiety, and impact sleep quality – all of which can have an effect on your ability to tune into hunger and fullness cues.
The answer? Eat to keep energy levels up and hunger at bay by focusing on energising nutrients like iron and maintain muscle mass with protein-rich foods such as lean meat, fish, pulses and beans.
After the age of 40, our metabolic rate (the speed at which the body burns calories) may start to drop. This reduction is likely to be modest, with the main reason people of this age start to suffer from middle-aged spread being down to hormonal changes, poor dietary choices and a lack of physical activity. Excess weight, particularly around the ‘middle’ is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis, and the longer you wait before you tackle it the harder it becomes, so nip any weight gain in the bud before it becomes a serious problem.
What should I be eating?
Liver and lean red meat offer the most easily absorbed form of iron (haem iron). If you eat meat include it approximately twice a week – you don't need huge portions, 70g (cooked weight) is enough. Don’t forget you should avoid liver and liver-containing products (like pâté) during pregnancy because it may contain high levels of vitamin A which may be harmful for your baby. Plant sources of iron include fortified breakfast cereals, lentils, green leafy vegetables such as chard, spinach, green beans, asparagus and broccoli as well as dried fruit like apricots.
If maintaining adequate iron levels is an issue for you then avoid drinking tea or coffee too close to mealtimes. This is because the natural tannins they contain may inhibit the absorption of minerals, such as iron.
Fruit and vegetables
Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables are one of the best sources of antioxidant nutrients. These protective nutrients are associated with numerous health benefits including maintaining good skin. Make sure you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and include a wide variety of colours.
The brassica family of vegetables make a particularly useful inclusion – cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli contain compounds called indoles that may help regulate oestrogen levels. Including these vegetables regularly (preferably daily), may ease symptoms such as breast tenderness, mood swings and hot flushes.
If you’re not eating enough protein, you may notice the condition of your hair, nails and skin suffering. Other signs might include wounds and injuries taking longer to heal; you might catch colds easily and start to notice changes in your body composition, and even your posture. Opting for high-quality protein is important. These foods contain all the essential amino acids, including one called leucine, which is key for making muscle tissue. Eggs, yogurt and milk, as well as whey protein powder, soya milk and tempeh, are all useful food sources.
If you’ve swapped to skimmed milk to help manage your weight, you might want to consider swapping back to semi-skimmed or even whole milk. Recent studies suggest skimmed milk is no healthier and the extra fat in whole milk boosts our absorption of valuable fat-soluble vitamins, like A and D.
Regularly including fermented foods, like yogurt, miso, kefir and kimchi appears to influence the bacteria in your gut, which in turn may help you manage your blood sugar levels, support heart health and potentially help with hormonal balance, too.
What else may be relevant for my 40s?
The perimenopause most often begins in a woman’s forties. During this time, levels of hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone start to fluctuate and you may experience a host of symptoms from hot flushes to disrupted sleep. This makes a healthy, balanced diet, good sleep hygiene and regular exercise even more important.
If you drink alcohol, keep to guideline amounts – no more than 14 units per week. It’s a good idea to have two alcohol-free days during the week and to spread your weekly allowance evenly through the week.
In your 50s
In your 50s the focus shifts to heart and brain health, as well as managing any menopausal symptoms, if relevant. Health problems, such as raised cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are more common in this age group.
The average age of menopause in the UK is 51. It’s a life stage that affects women in different ways, however a decline in libido, an increased likelihood of osteoporosis and heart disease are all linked to the reduced levels of oestrogen that accompany this life stage.
Interestingly, lower rates of menopausal symptoms are reported in countries in the Far East where the traditional diets are naturally rich in plant compounds called phytoestrogens – these compounds mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body.
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 phyto-estrogenic foods is beneficial for all women, although they may be worth a try if you’re struggling. Foods that contain phytoestrogens include soy, flaxseeds, chickpeas, beans and peas.
What should I be eating?
Aim to eat a Mediterranean-style diet based around fruit and vegetables – of all colours and types, wholegrains, lean meats and fish, nuts and seeds as well as heart-friendly fats like olive oil.
Because, post-menopause, a woman’s risk of cardiovascular illness matches that of a man, now is the time to make heart-friendly foods top of your agenda. Beetroot contains natural compounds called nitrates that support blood flow, lower blood pressure and help your muscles work more effectively – one added bonus is, it may make exercise easier, too.
These can be helpful for some women: consider including soya-based foods such as tofu, miso and tempeh. As well as helping to reduce hot flushes, improve heart health and bone density, eating 15-25g of soya protein a day may help manage cholesterol levels.
If soya isn’t your thing, other sources of phytooestrogens include lentils, beansprouts, peanuts and flaxseeds. Studies suggest approximately 40grams of flaxseed (also known as linseeds) a day may help balance hormone levels. Grind them before eating for optimal effect and add them to smoothies, soup or start the day with this gut-friendly apple and linseed porridge.
Aim to eat three portions of omega-3 rich foods a week as these may help to keep your heart healthy and help balance hormones. Canned fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel offer value for money. Other sources include omega-3 enriched eggs, nuts and seeds including walnuts, chia and flaxseed.
Find out about other sources of omega-3 fats.
What else may be relevant for my 50s?
It’s worth getting your cholesterol and blood pressure checked and, if you have high cholesterol, you might consider trying products rich in plant stanols or sterols which may help lower cholesterol. These products include margarines, spreads and yogurts as well as foods naturally rich in these compounds, such as avocado. If you don't eat at least one serving of oil-rich fish each week, it may be worth considering an omega-3 supplement.
Smoking and being inactive may severely harm your bones, and it’s particularly important to include some weight-bearing exercise such as brisk walking, yoga or jogging. These forms of exercise help keep bones and joints strong, and help tone and build muscle which may support your metabolic rate.
Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water or herbal teas every day and watch caffeine consumption – caffeine can interfere with the amount of calcium we absorb.
In your 60s & beyond
Diet plays an important role in helping extend the number of healthy, active years we enjoy. Eating well may help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and minimise age-related muscle loss, weakened bones and frailty. Our risk of heart attack and stroke rises steadily with age and nutritional deficiencies – too much saturated and trans fats, excess alcohol, smoking and a lack of exercise are all contributing factors.
With age comes changes to appetite coupled with the fact that our bodies become less efficient at absorbing nutrients from the foods we eat. This is because levels of stomach acid fall, and as a result the absorption of iron, calcium and vitamins like B6, B12 and folate are reduced. Decreased secretion of gastric intrinsic factor, the protein required for vitamin B12 absorption, may further decrease levels of this vitamin.
Your body also becomes less efficient at absorbing and manufacturing vitamin D as you age. Vitamin D can be made by the action of sunlight on the skin during the warmer months, but as we get older we tend to spend less time outside and our skin becomes less efficient at this process.
Digestive problems, like constipation, piles and diverticular disease, are also more common with age. Being active helps the gut function properly – so keep up with the walking or yoga, exercise may also help manage levels of stress and anxiety.
What should I be eating?
Grains and pulses
Include plenty of fibre-rich foods such as wholegrains including oats and barley as well as beans, peas and lentils. A special type of fibre in oats and barley called beta-glucan is effective at managing cholesterol levels. Ideally, choose minimally processed oats and pot barley – these grains may also help stabilise blood sugar levels and keep you fuller for longer.
Why not try our pink barley porridge with vanilla yogurt?
Fruit and vegetables
Increasing your intake of stone fruit such as plums and apricots or adding a small glass of prune juice to your breakfast may help alleviate constipation. While bananas provide a useful source of potassium, a mineral that is important for balancing blood pressure. The magnesium and vitamin B6 they contribute may also help manage anxiety, while the tryptophan may support sleep duration, which is especially relevant for older people.
Including avocado in your diet may promote the production of an antioxidant compound called glutathione – this helps the liver work more effectively, which may be important if you’re taking prescribed medication. Avocado also contributes beneficial fats that not only support the heart but also appear to help reduce the visible effects of aging.
About 10-15% of people over 60 are low in this vitamin – if you notice muscle weakness and frequent ‘pins and needles’, this might be relevant to you. Include plenty of foods rich in B12 such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy and fortified breakfast cereals. Yeast extract is a valuable source for those following a plant-based diet.
Check with your GP if you are concerned about your vitamin B12 levels.
Small amounts of vitamin D are found in foods like eggs and oil-rich fish as well as fortified foods, like spreads.
During the autumn and winter months, our diet becomes an important source of vitamin D. However, given so few foods are reliable sources it can be difficult to achieve enough from diet alone, this is why all adults are advised to consider taking a supplement providing 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily, during the colder months.
What else may be relevant in my 60s and beyond?
Our tastebuds lose sensitivity as we age, so take care not to over-season your food. In some people, excess salt can lead to an elevation in blood pressure, cause bloating and aggravate bone loss. Guidelines suggest adults consume no more than 6g salt per day.
Check the nutrition information on the back of packs before you buy ready meals or sandwiches – for a main meal aim to eat no more than 2.5g salt. When cooking from scratch use alternative seasonings like garlic, black pepper, chilli, lemon juice, fresh herbs and spices.
Read more about a salt-friendly diet.
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This article was last reviewed on 23 August 2023 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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