Healthy Eating as You Age
If you’ve walked down the supplement aisle lately, chances are you’ve seen vitamins and supplements geared towards those who are 50+, and that might have you wondering what extra nutritional support you may need once you hit your 50s.
Your 50s can be an exciting time in your life. Maybe you’re a recent empty nester with more freedom and time on your hands to explore your interests; maybe you’re welcoming grandchildren into the family and want to be as active as you can with them as they grow; or maybe you’re making a big push towards living a healthier, happier life. Whatever your motivating factors are, maintaining a balanced diet geared towards the unique nutritional needs you may have as you enter this new phase of your life, can improve your odds of healthy aging to continue living a dynamic, active lifestyle.
What is Healthy Aging?
Aging may be inevitable but aging in the way many think of it doesn’t have to be. If you think of aging in terms of all the things you won’t be able to do anymore, it may even strike fear in you that it’s all downhill from here. While it’s no secret that you can’t bounce back as quickly as you once did in your younger years, aging healthfully can extend the number of healthy, active, robust years you have.
But what is it? There are numerous factors that play into healthy aging — some you can control, such as diet, physical activity and substance use, and some you can’t, such as genetics.
Nutrition plays a major role in healthy aging by reducing your risk of chronic disease, age-related muscle loss, weakened bones, malnutrition, and weight.
Diet: What to Focus On
As you get older, it becomes increasingly obvious that you can’t eat the way you did when you were younger and not feel (and see) the effects of it. During your 50s, and beyond, it’s important that you get enough of several key nutrients on a daily basis. That’s why you may see supplements geared toward the 50+ crowd.
Below are some key nutrients and foods to focus on as you enter your 50s:
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B12
As you age, you’re more at risk for muscle loss. Age-related muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, involves the gradual decline in muscle mass as you age, typically starting around the age of 40. At 40, you lose an average of 8% of your muscle mass every 10 years. By age 70, this rate increases up to 15% per decade.
Focusing on your protein intake can help slow this process, as well as engaging in regular strength training. Eating enough protein also helps build a healthy metabolism and immune system.
High protein foods include:
- lean meat
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
- dairy products
While the current Daily Nutrient Recommendation (DRI) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight, it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. Most research suggests that adults over 50 require more than that to counteract age-related muscle loss.
In fact, you may need close to 0.5–0.9 grams per pound (1.2–2.0 grams per kg) to preserve muscle mass and support an active lifestyle.
To help make it easier for you to understand how much protein you may need, the National Agricultural Library offers up a DRI calculator that takes into account your age, gender, height, weight and activity level.
If you are a 55-year-old female of average height who has a low activity level, the calculator suggests you consume 54 grams of protein, which is based on .36 grams per pound. However, if you have a higher activity level, or you notice you’re losing muscle tone, you may want to increase your protein intake to anywhere between 75 and 135 grams to make sure you are getting enough.
While receiving your nutrients from whole foods is always the most preferred method, it can be hard for most people to consume enough protein from food alone. If you struggle to get enough or you need a quick protein source, you can try using protein powder, protein bars or a drink supplement.
While you may already know that consuming fiber can help promote healthy bowel movements and digestion, it can also support heart health, slow sugar absorption to stabilize blood sugar levels, and help maintain a healthy weight.
High fiber foods include:
- whole grains such as oats, brown rice, popcorn, and barley
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
RDA for fiber is 25 and 38 grams per day for women and men, respectively. Unlike protein, many people can get enough fiber from food alone, especially if you’re consuming a lot of fruits and vegetables. But if you find yourself struggling, you can supplement with a fiber supplement, but introduce it into your diet slowly to avoid constipation or gastrointestinal upset.
Calcium, Potassium and Vitamin D
As you get older, your risk of age-related bone loss increases. You may know this as osteopenia or osteoporosis. Calcium is a key mineral for bone health, but also nerve function, and heart and muscle contraction.
High calcium foods include:
- dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
- leafy greens, except for spinach
- fortified beverages, including soy and almond milks
Women are at a higher risk of osteoporosis after menopause because their body is not able to absorb calcium as efficiently as before. Therefore, postmenopausal women need an average of 1,200 mg per day, while men and pre-menopausal women need around 1,000 mg per day.
If your doctor recommends a calcium supplement, they may recommend you split the dose to increase your ability to fully absorb the supplement. This can look like taking two 500-mg supplements at different times of the day instead of one 1,000-mg supplement.
Potassium can also help support healthy bones, and is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
Potassium is found in many food sources, such as:
- vegetables and fruits such as bananas, durian, raisins, Medjool dates, guava, peaches, oranges, potatoes, cabbage, and leafy greens
- whole grains
- dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- meat and poultry
The recommended daily allowance for potassium is 2,600 mg for women and 3,400 mg for men Most people can get enough potassium through food, but if you find yourself having a hard time getting enough, you should supplement only under the supervision of a doctor, since getting too much potassium can be life threatening.
Rounding out our bone-healthy vitamins and minerals is vitamin D. Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body can produce it from sun exposure. While the best way to get vitamin D is from the sun, too much sun exposure can be dangerous.
You can get vitamin D from foods such as dairy products, mushrooms, egg yolks, and fatty fish. However, because you would have to eat these foods nearly every single day to get enough vitamin D, it’s recommended to take a supplement of 600 IU or greater after age 50.
As you get older, your metabolism tends to slow down as a result of decreasing muscle mass and other age-related factors. In addition to good nutrition and physical activity, you can focus on making sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12 because it plays a key role in energy metabolism. It also helps with red blood cell production, DNA repair, and immune function, as well as brain and heart health.
However, after 50, your body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 declines, so it becomes even more important to focus on getting enough of this vitamin in your diet.
You can find vitamin B12 in animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, as well as in fortified breakfast cereals. Adults over 50 should aim to consume 2.4 mcg per day of vitamin B12.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chances are you already know about the heart benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but they are also associated with lower rates of mental decline and neurological disease — such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia — and even better skin health.
Food sources of omega-3 fats include:
- fatty fish (including salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, and herring)
- nuts and seeds
- oils (such as flaxseed oil)
Fatty fish are the main sources of EPA and DHA, the omega-3s linked to the most health benefits. Nuts, seeds, and oils are usually high in ALA, an omega-3 that your body converts into EPA and DHA in small amounts.
While there is a recommended intake for ALA, at 1.1 grams per day for women and 1.6 grams per day for me, there is no recommended intake for EPA and DHA. That being said trying to reach a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA each day is a good goal.
If you don’t eat fatty fish 2–3 times per week, your doctor may recommend taking a fish- or algae-based omega-3 supplement.
Focusing on your nutrition, physical health and well-being as you enter into your 50s can set a great foundation for the next phase of your life. Try to reach your nutrient goals by consuming whole, minimally processed foods first, but if you are struggling to get enough, supplementing with good quality vitamins and minerals is a suitable alternative.