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...
For your busy 20s & 30s
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 (NDNS) found that women in this age band fail to meet the recommended daily intake for several key nutrients, including calcium, folic acid and iron. In fact, over 90% of women of childbearing age were reported as having a red blood cell folate concentration below the threshold. This suggests that if these women were to become pregnant their foetus would be at an increased risk of a folate-sensitive neural tube defect.
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 30g per day, yet the average intake for adults is only 19g. Low fibre, high sugar and high salt diets can contribute to digestive problems such as constipation and an 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.
What should I be eating?
Calcium-rich foods - 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, 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 and sheep's milk. If you don't eat dairy, try calcium-rich plant products such as kale, broccoli, spinach, beans and fortified plant-based milk alternatives. Other useful food sources include canned fish with bones, such as salmon and sardines.
Wholegrains – Make time for breakfast. Try fortified wholegrain cereals or porridge oats with chopped fruit or a handful of nuts and seeds including flaxseeds. A proper breakfast will provide fibre and several key micro-nutrients.
Low salt – Official guidelines suggest that adults should consume no more 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.
Folate-rich foods - Folate (also known as folic acid or 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.
Starting a family? Prior to conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, the Department of Health recommends you supplement with 400mcg of folic acid daily. Pregnant and breast-feeding mums should also consider a 10mcg supplement of vitamin D daily.
In your 40s
Exercise and iron are important...
At this time of life many people 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 may help protect against some health problems such as 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 due to a change in hormone levels and poor dietary choices, combined with 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.
The NDNS reported that 27% of women of childbearing age have iron intakes below the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI). Keeping your body well supplied with iron will help to keep up energy levels and support your immune system.
Keep alcohol intake 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 throughout the week. If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest policy is not to drink alcohol to keep risks to your baby at a minimum.
What should I be eating?
Antioxidant-rich food – 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-rich food - Liver and lean red meat are the best and most easily absorbed forms of iron (haem iron), so try to eat red meat approximately twice a week – you don't need to eat huge portions, 70g (cooked weight) is enough. However, you should avoid liver and liver containing products (like pâté) during pregnancy because liver contains a lot of vitamin A which can be harmful for your baby. Vegetarians can eat fortified breakfast cereals, lentils and plenty of green leafy vegetables such as chard, spinach, green beans, asparagus and broccoli. Enjoy these plant foods with foods rich in vitamin C to aid absorption, such as a spinach and orange salad – try our delicious recipe for spinach and halloumi salad.
In your 50s
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 this stage of your life. These hormone changes accelerate 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 seem to be lower rates of reported menopausal symptoms in countries in the Far East where the traditional diets are naturally rich in phytoestrogens – plant compounds that mimic the effects of oestrogen. 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, although they may be worth a try if you are really struggling. Foods that contain phytoestrogens include soy, flaxseeds, chickpeas, beans and peas.
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, yoga, jogging or aerobics. Aim for a combination of weight-bearing exercise and aerobic activity to help keep bones and joints strong. Toning and muscle development can increase metabolic rate, as increased muscle mass helps to keep our weight constant.
Continue 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.
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.
What should I be eating?
Follow a Mediterranean diet - A Mediterranean diet is based around lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, of all colours and types to help you obtain a spectrum of heart-friendly vitamins and minerals. Other healthful foods are wholegrains, lean meats and fish as well as heart-friendly fats such as olive oil. Get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked and if you have high cholesterol, you may consider trying products rich in plant stanols or sterols which can help lower cholesterol levels.
Slash the sat 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 enough in our everyday life. Include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from nuts, seeds and their oils instead of too much saturated fat in animal products.
Phytoestrogens - There's still a lot for us to learn about phytoestrogens but if you are stuggling with menopausal symptoms, consider including soya-based foods such as tofu, miso and tempeh – they may help reduce hot flushes, improve cardiovascular health and bone density. Eating 15-25g of soya protein a day may help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Use tofu 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, flaxseeds and sweet potatoes.
Omega-3 fats – Aim to eat three portions of omega-3 rich foods a week as these can help to keep bones and heart healthy. Remember canned fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel offer value for money and are omega-3 rich (but not canned tuna). Other sources include omega-3 enriched eggs, nuts and seeds like chia and flaxseed.
60 & over
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 gut function appropriately – walking or yoga can help to manage levels of stress and anxiety, 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 we age, levels of stomach acid fall, and as a result 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 your levels of 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 a lack of exercise are factors which can all be addressed.
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 vitamin D rich foods like eggs and oily fish. Over 65s are also advised to take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily.
What should I be eating?
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 may alleviate constipation.
Vitamin B12 - Ensure that you include plenty of foods rich in B12 such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals. Check with your GP if you are concerned about your vitamin B12 levels.
Vitamin D - Small amounts of vitamin D are found in foods such as eggs and oil-rich fish as well as fortified foods such as spreads. 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. During the autumn and winter months, your diet becomes an important source of vitamin D because the sun isn't strong enough for the body to make vitamin D. As it is difficult to achieve adequate vitamin D from food, most people would benefit from a supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during these months. Speak to your GP or health practitioner if you are concerned about your vitamin D needs.
This article was last reviewed on 18 January 2019 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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