Diets for the Ages

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Women's food choices should be keyed to age, lifestyle, and nutritional needs.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Most women reach a point where they taper off eating cheese fries and fix salads instead -- but nutritionists say there is more to "eating your age" than that.

People of any age need certain core foods, points out Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. These are fruit, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and certain fats. They provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that build strong bodies and stave off diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

How to get these -- and how much of them to eat -- depends on age and level of activity. You must eat less as a grownup than you did when you were younger.

In the teen years, most girls are pretty active. "Even though they are still growing, most American teens get enough protein," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical School, pointing to an otherwise regrettable intake of hamburgers.

Calcium is important during the teen years because the bones that will support you for a lifetime are being built up. "Some kids, especially girls, do not get enough calcium," says Audrey Cross, PhD, assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the Columbia University School of Public Health. "They need four servings a day of dairy or dark green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, kale, or collards." Cereal with milk, a colorful salad at lunch, rice tossed with red and yellow peppers, chicken, a glass of milk with dinner, maybe a bowl of frozen yogurt later -- it adds up. "But some girls think dairy is 'fattening,' forgetting about skim milk and nonfat yogurt. Teens should drink skim milk instead of soda."

"Kids do not get enough vegetables," Heller agrees. "The best way to be sure kids eat enough is have veggies in the house and set a good example. Kids need to see parents eating a couple of vegetables [as well as beans, tofu, and nuts] with their meals." The beauty part of this is once the kids get "the habit," they will carry it over and show their own kids how it's done.

Eating Correctly in Your 20s and 30s

These are the childbearing years. Women must be sure they eat enough green veggies to keep their bodies ready with sufficient folic acid to prevent birth defects in any babies that come along. This means loading up on the dark green, leafy vegetables as well as taking a folic acid supplement before getting pregnant.

According to nutritionist Cross, eating correctly in your 20s and 30s can be a matter of visual aesthetics, rather than a tiresome exercise in milligram counting. "Eat by the colors," urges Cross. She explains that if you put a rainbow on your plate, you will probably be getting the nutrients you need. Iceberg, potatoes, white bread -- these probably are not as loaded with goodies as a riotously colorful plate of sweet potatoes, mixed greens, peppers and penne, and golden roasted chicken! Put the mushy next to the crispy, the smooth next to the noisy.

"Stop worrying about counting things and worry about taste and eating," Cross says.

However, the 20s and especially your 30s may also mark the end of your participation in the work softball team; you may go salsa dancing less than you did before. Your caloric requirements begin to drop. An active woman in her 20s, Nelson says, may get away with 2,500 calories a day -- she has to see if she is gaining weight on that. Two thousand calories are probably a better target.

Calcium is also important in your 20s. Bones aren't fully formed in your teens, they continue to strengthen until age 30. Vitamin D is also important in these years -- you may get enough from milk if you drink it, or the sun, but Nelson says some women should supplement. You need 200 IU of the vitamin up to age 50, increasing to 400 IU a day from age 50 to 70, and 600 IU above 70.

Molly Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital in New Orleans, says magnesium is also important at this age because it can help with PMS. Load up on spinach, peanuts, black beans, brown rice, and sea bass. Similarly, vitamin B-6, found in garbanzo beans, sunflower seeds, and avocado, can help with fluid retention.

Women who menstruate heavily may need additional iron. "Many breakfast cereals are supplemented or you can cook in an iron skillet," advises Heller. Other sources include red meat, dried fruits, and dried beans. Kimball adds that iron from non-meat sources is absorbed better if vitamin C is added -- so throw some orange slices in that spinach salad.

The 40s and 50s

These are the menopausal years. All of a sudden, your body is using food very efficiently, socking away excess fat the second after you miss your morning jog. That Toll House cookie can take a toll compared with a serving of fruit salad.

Constipation may become an issue -- women should increase their fiber to 20 to 30 grams a day -- not a problem if you are eating those five to seven servings of colored veggies.

Thinning skin crinkling to wrinkles is also calling out now for fatty fish -- salmon, tuna -- those omega-3 oils you've heard so much about. They also act as an anti-inflammatory -- potentially decreasing the risk of heart disease and possibly even Alzheimer's disease.

Now, too, you have stopped actively building bone and in fact, some bone cells may be deteriorating, resulting in bone loss. This, of course, can lead to osteoporosis. You need to be sure to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D. At this point in life, it's recommended that women take in 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day -- along with vitamin D -- usually as a supplement since most women aren't into downing milk and yogurt. Kimball also recommends moderating sodas and coffee -- they make you excrete calcium.

In your 40s and 50s, you may also be losing muscle mass, but you can slow this down with aerobic exercise and strength training (weight-bearing exercise such as walking, running, or using an elliptical machine also helps build up bone against osteoporosis). "Remember," says Heller, "you can be thin and still not have appropriate muscle mass." In fact, thin women are more at risk for osteoporosis.

Over 60 and Cranking (Not Cranky!)

Exercise is crucial to your independence," says Heller. "You need to keep those legs strong."

"Carry your own groceries!" cries Cross. "You should be picking up your grandchildren, lifting, strengthening muscles. I think people decide they 'shouldn't' long before there is any reason they should not." In the absence of compliant grandchildren, Cross recommends hoisting filled milk jugs -- "A pint's a pound the world around," she chants.

Like babies and teens, older people also need more calcium -- milk, yogurt, green leafies. It sort of comes full circle.

Absorption rates for vitamins may be lower in older people, Heller says. "You may want to take a B-complex and a multivitamin." (The American Medical Association recommends a "multi" for all ages.)

The sense of taste in older people is not as sharp -- so appetite may decline. Kimball suggests older people eat when they are hungriest and concentrate on nutrient-rich dishes. This is also why it's important to stress those beautiful, colorful foods loaded with texture and flavor. The joy of a tomato hot with sun from the garden, a cracker with pungent cheese, a plate of beans and rice perfumed with cilantro. Put on some music. Eat with a friend. Nutrition is more than food.

If you start these habits in your teens or 20s, they will be old hat by your 60s and beyond. "You will never know what troubles you have prevented," Heller says. But you will know the joys of playing with your grandchildren and even great grandchildren -- or taking a cruise to Alaska. The king crab legs are yummy up there.

Published Jan. 13, 2003.

SOURCES: Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Tufts University, Boston • Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical School • Audrey Cross, PhD, assistant clinical professor of nutrition, School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York • Molly Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist, Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital, New Orleans • Produce for Better Health web site.

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