Though we often are not aware of it, our body constantly undergoes changes. The food we eat fuels those changes, and contributes to our daily and future health. While an overall pattern of eating more plants and less processed food is beneficial to our health, some nutrients are particularly important at specific points of life.
Teens & Twenties
Now is the time to focus on what you’re eating, as it will impact your future health. For women, it is especially important to eat well, as adopting a healthy lifestyle at a young age is the most reliable route to having healthy babies. As such, women should be eating a diet that allows for appropriate intake of vitamins and minerals, protein, and healthy fats (found in fish, nuts, and some oils), as well as iron and folic acid. Both men and women should also focus on eating for optimum bone health (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamins D & K), as bones reach their peak bone mass in one’s late twenties, and this will have lasting effects on continued bone health.
Your thirties are the time when chronic disease may start developing, but it’s also the time you can reverse it. Your metabolism may be slowing, and you may be noticing increased weight, but it’s what is going on inside your body that should be your focus. Diabetes and heart conditions may start developing, so it’s crucial to eat well to prevent this. Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruit, higher fiber foods (oats especially, have been found effective in preventing heart disease), plus omega 3 fats are beneficial in lowering one’s risk of chronic illness by improving blood lipid profile and controlling blood sugars. Bone loss may also start at this age, so along with doing weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or resistance training, a diet that includes calcium (from dairy, fortified non-dairy, dark green vegetables and edible fish bones such as from canned salmon) and vitamin D (from fatty fish, egg yolks and mushrooms or supplementation) is important to maintain bone mass.
Forty is when health risks, such as heart conditions, increase, so checking cholesterol levels and blood pressure are important. Eating a diet high in fiber (including nuts and beans), low in saturated fat, with limited salt and reduced alcohol is important for continued heart health. As energy needs start decreasing, you may start eating less, but it’s important that any resultant weight loss is not coming from muscles or bone, so ensure adequate intake of protein and carbohydrates. Because insulin resistance also increases with age, choose complex carbohydrates (including whole grains and vegetables) that slow down digestion and delay the insulin response. Protein needs increase with age, as it plays a crucial role in maintaining muscle strength and bone health. It’s important to balance protein intake throughout the day, rather than having a large portion at one meal, to improve absorption.
As a part of aging, gastric acid levels in the stomach decrease, so some vitamins and minerals are not absorbed effectively from the diet. Vitamin B12 needs to be supplemented; calcium and vitamin D requirements increase, and vitamin D supplements are recommended to meet this increased need. Staying hydrated is important, because though the feeling of thirst declines with age, hydration needs do not decrease. Dementia is a concern with aging, so following a Mediterranean diet is recommended to decrease this risk along with that of depression, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. This eating style consists of eating more fish, vegetables and fruit, whole grains, nuts, beans and olive oil, and limiting meat, sweets and cheese. This eating style is also beneficial for preventing heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, as well as lowering the risk for a second heart attack, and lowering cholesterol. As cardiovascular and heart disease risk increases with age, this is an all-around recommended lifestyle change to implement.
While eating well is only one aspect of maintaining your health, it plays an important role in disease prevention and quality of life. Following an overall healthy lifestyle can keep you feeling young and healthy at every age.
Bracha Kopstick is a registered dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian, and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Bracha can be reached at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com.