It’s easy for a 20 year old to get away with nutrition abuses – a sugar-laden cinnamon bun for breakfast and greasy slices of pizza for dinner. Later on in life, the body is less forgiving of such indulgences. It’s a reminder that as we get older and wiser, how we eat and what we eat needs to evolve and get in sync with physiological changes, from less muscle mass to a sluggish metabolism. The good news is that there are simple and painless ways to take control and sustain good health for decades to come.
Doing more with less
It’s important to first understand your nutritional needs change as you move through middle age.
Unless you were blessed by genetics, you’ve probably already noticed your metabolism slowing as you grow older. It’s a natural side effect of losing muscle mass over time. For example, a woman who burned about 2,500 calories a day at age 23 burns about 2,250 calories a day 40 years later – even if she stays as active as she was in her youth.
That means your diet needs to become more efficient over time – packing the same amount of nutrients into fewer calories.
Nicole Fetterly, a registered dietitian at Down-To-Earth Dietitians in Victoria, BC, says the solution is loading up your plate with nutrient-dense, lower-calorie and filling foods.
“Make sure half your plate is veggies and fruit. When they’re not, it’s often the carbohydrate portion that takes over,” she says. “We do want some carbs for energy, fibre and B vitamins, but too many of them – especially the refined ones – aren’t so much giving us nutrients as calories.”
Limiting your carbs to one-quarter of your plate also gives you room for high-quality protein, which nourishes strong muscles. Keeping your protein intake up – a top nutritional priority as you age, according to Fetterly – helps you feel full and satisfied after meals. (This is a welcome departure from the deprivation mindset that dominated “healthy eating” discourse in the past.)
Consuming protein sources that also contain calcium, including dairy products like milk, kefir or yogurt, also helps you maintain your bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
This is your gut as it ages
A healthy gut is crucial to getting the most from your food and your diet should adapt to the natural changes that occur in your digestive tract with age. The digestive tract tends to move slower later in life, says Fetterly; however, you can promote good gut health by focusing on foods high in fibre to fight constipation and keep you regular. Fruits and veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds are all great sources. Making half your plate fruits and veggies goes a long way toward reaching your fibre intake goals.
Natural changes in your digestive tract also affect your nutritional needs. For instance, vitamin B12 is important for healthy red blood cells and nerve health. “We don’t absorb B12 as well as we get older, because we stop producing the ‘transport vehicle’ that helps us get it from our food,” says Fetterly. “But if you include protein in every meal and snack, there’s a better chance that you’ll meet your B12 needs.”
Vitamin B12 deficiency causes anemia, which zaps your energy, and lack of B12 could even cause permanent nerve damage. Making sure you get enough of it is crucial for feeling your best.
As well, you should sip water throughout the day. “By increasing our intake of pure water, we can naturally detox our bodies, reduce hypertension, improve skin elasticity and metabolic functions,” says Jumanah Beck, a clinical nutritionist and owner of EarthSuit Nutrition in Guelph, ON. Fill a reusable bottle to bring with you throughout the day and aim to refill every few hours to stay hydrated. This will help you get enough fluids and satisfy your thirst – something that can naturally decrease with age.
Fresh produce as medicine
If all this nutrition advice feels intimidating, remember healthy eating comes with big rewards. That’s what Gina Martinello discovered when she started a new eating plan developed by Beck.
Martinello, now 74, started her health journey in 2013, when she was 69 years old and fed up with feeling sick and tired. “I was anemic, high blood pressure, borderline diabetic, low kidney function, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis, sleeplessness, the list goes on and on,” she says. “[Once I started the plan,] I began to feel better immediately.”
Even her family physician was impressed with her life-changing diet, noting changes to her blood work. “As the results improved, she began to reduce dosages and eliminate medications,” says Martinello.
Rediscover the joy of cooking
Martinello’s experience is not atypical of the difference that following a healthy diet can make. The good news is making dietary changes can be simple and convenient.
“Find the joy in eating and preparing food,” says Fetterly. “There are all kinds of ways to make simple, healthy meals come together in 15 minutes.” And if you do want to take some shortcuts by using packaged foods, bump up the nutrition with a handful of leafy greens or an added protein source.
Seeking the help of a professional can also make eating well easier, advises Beck. “Once you have someone to help you organize the objectives and structure [of your diet], all you have to do is follow it.”