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How to eat healthy for your age: nutrients you need at each decade

It’s true. The way you eat in your twenties just won’t cut it when you hit forty. And this relates to far more than keeping weight off. While you may always stick to a relatively healthy diet, changes in hormones, metabolism and the different stresses of day-to-day life mean your nutritional needs are constantly changing.

So, what should you eat for your age?

We’ve asked Sanitarium’s dietitian Angela Saunders to share her insights into the key nutrients you need for each decade, to help you stay on top of your game and feel great.

Nutrients you need in your twenties

The twenties can be a fun-packed but hectic time, when healthy diet choices can easily be the first thing out the window. Thankfully, your body is more forgiving when you’re younger, but to continue to back-up and not skip a beat, eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains is a must.

While you may have stopped growing, your bone density continues to increase into your late twenties, so it’s important to get enough calcium. You should be aiming for 1,000mg of calcium a day. Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are one of the simplest go-to sources of calcium. If you prefer plant-based options, be sure to look for products fortified with calcium.

Other plant foods with some calcium include firm tofu, soybeans, almonds, Brazil nuts, dried figs and apricots, unhulled tahini, baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, leafy greens like kale, broccoli, cabbage and bok choy.

As well as calcium, protein, vitamin D and vitamin K are all important nutrients for bone health. A focus on bone health now, is a form of futureproofing and will help to keep your bones stronger when bone mass starts to dwindle in your forties.

Another nutrient to keep in mind, especially for women, is iron. Iron deficiency is a common nutritional problem for women in their twenties, particularly those who have heavy periods. Be sure to eat iron rich foods like legumes, wholegrains, nuts and iron fortified cereals, particularly if you’re vegetarian.

Combining these foods with foods that contain vitamin C will help you absorb more iron from plants. So, a salad with leafy greens (iron) and tomato (vitamin C); or cereal (iron) topped with strawberries (vitamin C). Women should be aiming for at least 18mg of iron a day

Think carefully about the eating habits you form in your twenties. Adopting healthy eating habits at this age is much easier, especially before you have a family (if that’s on the cards). Don’t forget to book in for your regular cervical screening test and skin checks should now be as regular as dental check-ups.

Nutrients you need in your thirties

Keep up the health habits established in your twenties. Stick to mum’s advice and eat plenty of veggies. Plant foods are nutrient rich and importantly provide calcium, iron and fibre. Also keep up those regular health checks for skin, dental and cervical screening.

If you are planning to start a family, there’s a big shift in nutritional needs. It’s important to get enough folate before and during pregnancy, as it can help to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

To get enough folate during this time, you’ll need to take a folate supplement and also add folate-rich foods to your plate. This includes avocado, asparagus, spinach and broccoli; fruits like banana, oranges and strawberries; wholegrains, chickpeas, lentils and nuts. Some foods are also fortified with folic acid including breads, cereals, fruit juices, and yeast extracts such as Marmite.

Other nutritional needs that increase during pregnancy are iodine and iron. Iron requirements are particularly high during pregnancy and a supplement may be required.

Common sources of iodine include dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese), eggs, seaweed, fortified bread and iodised salt. Check with your GP or obstetrician. If you follow a vegan diet, and it’s also important to check your vitamin B12 levels are normal.

For men’s reproductive health, getting enough zinc is important. It’s associated with testosterone levels and sperm quality. Foods that provide zinc include legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, dairy and soy foods.

Nutrients you need in your forties

Whether you’re juggling the demands of family or a career (or both), it’s all too easy to ignore your own health needs as you hit your forties. You may feel far too young and healthy to worry about heart health and diabetes, but the reality is triggers such as high blood pressure, high blood glucose and high cholesterol all have silent symptoms and can be hiding beneath the surface. Annual check-ups for heart health and diabetes are important from age 40, especially if you have a family history of these conditions.

In your forties your metabolism will also slow down so it’s easier for body weight to creep up. Protein is a great tool for maintaining weight as it helps to keep you feeling full, decrease body fat and retain lean muscle mass (sarcopenia – age-related muscle loss, can begin to creep in from around age 40).  

The general busyness of life can also result in stress eating and less exercise. Avoid regular takeaway and fast foods and sugary and salty food and beverages. Watch portion sizes and stay active and if necessary, take steps to change your lifestyle, reduce your stress and eat more healthfully.

A good place to start is by looking after your gut health. Make sure you are eating plenty of wholegrains, legumes and other plant foods to get all the fibre you need, especially those prebiotic fibres that keep your gut bacteria happy, healthy and abundant.

Nutrients you need in your fifties

Yep. You guessed it – menopause. As well as navigating hot flushes and difficulty sleeping, it’s an important time to understand your changing nutritional needs.

While iron should no longer be a concern (in fact your requirements for iron halve once your periods stop), keeping an eye on your calcium intake is a must. Hormone changes increase loss of calcium from bones, so you’ll need to get more from your food. Your needs grow from 1000mg/day to 1300mg/day, that’s an extra glass of milk or calcium fortified plant-based beverage such as soy milk.

Adding soy and flaxseeds to your diet can also be helpful as these foods are rich in phytoestrogens, which may help to alleviate some menopause symptoms

Vitamin D is a key player in bone health and helps the immune system to function properly. Through your life you gradually need more and more vitamin D. This peaks at age 50 when you need 15ug a day. You get most of the vitamin D you need from the sun, the trouble is as your skin ages it is less able to synthesise vitamin D, making you more vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency, just when you need it most.

You can also get vitamin D in small amounts from foods including eggs, oily fish and UV-irradiated mushrooms. Some foods are also fortified with vitamin D including soy milks, almond milks and dairy milks as well as some margarines. However, it is one of those nutrients that you need to keep an eye on, as being low in vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis.

Another vitamin to watch is vitamin B12. After turning 50, your ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases and this places you at greater risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 helps your body make red blood cells, supports the nervous system and provides energy. Check vitamin B12 and vitamin D levels with your GP, a supplement and regularly eating fortified foods may be required if your levels are low.

From age 50 regular checks for bowel cancer, breast cancer and bone density are important.

Nutrients you need in your sixties and beyond

Keeping active and managing your weight continues to be important at this age. Resistance training & protein in particular will help maintain muscle mass. If you can’t be as active as you would like, you may need to eat less and make sure each mouthful counts. That’s as simple as focusing on enjoying a variety of foods that are nutrient-dense – lots of fruit, veggies, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Including sources of omega-3 in your diet is also important (fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soy) as they provide essential fatty acids for brain health.

Other brain foods include berries, beets and green leafy vegetables. What we eat can have a big impact on brain health from slowing the impact of aging to maintaining a better memory, and even helping to fight degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s

Your sixties are an important time to keep a close eye on your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, so keep up those annual checks.