What to Eat as You Age: A Healthy Diet for Every Decade

If you’re thinking of starting a new diet in the New Year, let your age your be your guide. Some moves, like swapping processed foods for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are good for everyone. But nutrition experts say that certain diet changes are especially important during particular decades of your life. Read on to find out the food moves that can help you make this year your healthiest yet.

In Your 20s or 30s

Your metabolism is at still at its peak, which means your body is burning more calories than it will when you’re older. But calories shouldn’t be the only thing you’re thinking about. It’s important to choose the right nutrients now to set the stage for lifelong health.

  • Load up on whole grains. They’re rich in energy-boosting B vitamins. Even better? Research shows that eating several servings of whole grains every day reduces your risk of dying from any cause, especially heart disease. That’s key, because heart disease remains the No. 1 of cause of death for Americans. Oatmeal, whole-grain bread, whole-grain cereal, and popcorn are good sources of whole grains.
  • Get more folate if you plan to become a mom. People who get enough of this B vitamin reduce the risk of having a child with certain birth defects, says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim and an adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU in New York City. Foods like whole grains, spinach, broccoli, peanuts, wheat germ, tomato juice, and orange juice are rich in folic acid.
  • Snack smarter. “Now’s the time to think about the types of fats you put into your body,” says Rania Batayneh, a nutritionist and author of The One One One Diet. Instead of potato chips and french fries, opt for pistachios or other nuts. Nuts are high in healthy monounsaturated fats that help improve your “good” HDL cholesterol while lowering your “bad” LDL cholesterol. “That can help reduce your risk of heart disease later in life,” she says.
  • Curb your red meat intake. A study in the American Journal of Nutrition revealed that women who ate more red meat between ages 18 and 30 had an increased risk of high blood pressure when they were older. Better choices include lean poultry (like chicken and turkey), fatty fish, and plant-based protein sources like nuts and beans.
  • Opt for iron-rich foods. Iron keeps your energy levels high and helps you absorb other nutrients. If you’re a woman, it’s important to get enough iron. You can lose it during your period, especially if it’s heavy. Aim for at least one to two daily servings of foods that contain iron. Good choices include kidney and navy beans, spinach, soybeans, eggs, lentils, and enriched grains (like whole-grain cereal).

If You’re in Your 40s

Your metabolism begins slowing down in your 40s, which can tack on extra pounds. What’s more, “Hormonal changes make it easier to carry excess body weight,” says Nicole Avena, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. At the same time, your risk of common health problems like heart disease and diabetes begins to rise. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to look, feel, and function at your best.

  • Say yes to protein. It helps your body build and maintain muscle. That keeps your metabolism revved, making it easier to reach and maintain a healthy weight. What’s more, protein keeps you fuller, longer, which can control your appetite. Aim for at least one serving of lean protein from foods like eggs, poultry, fish, nuts, and beans at every meal.
  • Get serious about fruits and vegetables. “Processed foods and snack foods are harder to burn off at this point in life,” Avena says. But veggies are filling and will make sure you get enough disease-fighting nutrients. Likewise, fruit is packed with vitamins and minerals, and it satisfies sweet cravings. That can help you limit the amount of added sugar in your diet. Aim for no more than 100 calories from added sugar daily if you’re a woman, or 150 calories if you’re a man.
  • Squash stress with magnesium. Your stress levels may be higher in your 40s as you juggle the demands of family and career. But magnesium is a tension tamer. Low magnesium levels are linked to higher stress levels. That may be because the mineral plays a role in more than 300 different body functions, including muscle relaxation and brain function. What’s more, “Most women enter perimenopause in their 40s. That can cause sleep troubles. But magnesium can aid sleep,” Young says. And being well-rested can lower stress, too. Choose at least three daily servings of magnesium-rich foods like green leafy veggies, nuts, dark chocolate, avocados, and whole grains.
  • Build strong bones with calcium and vitamin D. You begin losing bone mass in your 40s. But getting enough vitamin D and calcium can slow the loss and lower your risk of osteoporosis. Opt for three daily servings of foods that contain calcium, like milk, salmon, leafy greens, and yogurt, and at least three to four weekly servings of vitamin D-rich foods, like fortified milk, egg yolks, and fatty fish like tuna and mackerel. You may want to supplement with vitamin D, too — 1,000 international units (IU) daily should do it.
  • Sip some tea. Yes, tea is sugar-free and extremely low in calories. Even better: Regular tea drinkers cut their risk of heart disease and live more than a year longer than those who choose other beverages, according to a new study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Another study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who drank at least two cups of tea daily starting at age 40 had a lower risk of ovarian cancer.

If you’re thinking of starting a new diet in the New Year, let your age your be your guide. Some moves, like swapping processed foods for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are good for everyone. But nutrition experts say that certain diet changes are especially important during particular decades of your life. Read on to find out the food moves that can help you make this year your healthiest yet.

Moves like swapping processed foods for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for everyone. But nutrition experts say that certain diet changes are especially important during particular decades of your life.

In Your 50s

Now’s the time to get serious about disease prevention. Your risk of conditions like heart disease is higher in the second half of life, but your diet can help lower your odds of serious health problems. 

  • Keep your calories in check. Your body uses fewer calories than it did when you were younger. But extra weight raises your risk for numerous health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Women 50 and older who aren’t active should get 1,600 calories a day. Add 200 calories if you’re moderately active. Men 50 and older who aren’t active need 2,000 to 2,2000 calories a day. More active men can add 200 more.  One easy way to curb your calorie intake: “Choose more filling fruits and vegetables,” Young says.
  • Be picky about your fat sources. To protect your heart now and for life, “curb your saturated fat intake while upping your intake of heart-healthy unsaturated fats,” Young says. You’ll find saturated fat in red meat, butter, cheese, and cream.  Get unsaturated fat from nuts, avocados, olive oil, and fatty fish.
  • Boost your antioxidant intake. Antioxidants are substances from vitamins, minerals, and other compounds in food. They help prevent diseases by fighting damage-causing compounds called free radicals. Research isn’t clear on whether taking antioxidant supplements can boost your health. But experts know that getting antioxidants from foods does reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions. One possible reason? Most supplements don’t contain nutrients found in food, such as flavonoids and lycopene. All fruits and vegetables are good choices, but especially antioxidant-rich foods include blueberries, pomegranates, tea, and purple or red grapes.
  • Focus on vitamin B12 for brain function. As you get older, your body absorbs less vitamin B12. That’s a problem because B12 plays a role in memory and helps your nerves and blood cells stay healthy, too. The fix? Have one to two daily servings of foods that contain B12, like eggs, lean meats (such as chicken), fish, and fortified cereals and grains.

In Your 60s, 70s, or 80s

It isn’t too late to make health-boosting diet changes. Seemingly small tweaks can keep your brain sharp and your heart healthy. They can reduce your loss of muscle mass, too, which can keep you mobile and reduce your risk of injury.

  • Eat more often. By the time you reach age 70, you’re likely to have lowered your calorie intake by around 20% compared to your mid-20s. That’s why weight loss is more common than weight gain in older adults. Your digestion gets slower, too, and your sense of smell and taste might decrease, which can curb your urge to eat. To avoid losing too much weight, including lean muscle mass, try to eat five to six small meals throughout the day. This can help you get enough calories without feeling overfull and sluggish. This eating pattern can also help you keep your blood sugar and cholesterol and triglyceride levels healthy.
  • Say yes to protein. Whether you’re trying to slim down or are already at a healthy weight, adding more protein to your diet is a smart move. According to recent research from Wake Forest University, older adults who followed a high-protein diet were able to maintain muscle mass, even if they were losing weight.
  • Consider the MIND diet. A study from Rush University Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health found that adults in their late 50s through their 90s who followed a Mediterranean-style diet called the MIND diet reduced their risk for Alzheimer’s disease by up to 54%. In addition to lots of olive oil, the MIND diet includes three daily servings of whole grains, two servings of berries, five servings of nuts, six servings of leafy greens, and one serving of fish each week. People on the diet ate little red meat, butter, margarine, fried food, or pastries and sweets.
  • Keep choosing bone-building foods. To reduce your risk of broken bones and osteoporosis, it’s important to continue to get enough calcium and vitamin D. Aim for three servings of low-fat dairy daily, as well as other calcium-rich foods like fortified cereal and dark leafy greens, and several weekly servings of foods that contain vitamin D, like fatty fish. Ask your doctor about taking calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Stay Healthy Research Team

Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author, Finally Full, Finally Slim; adjunct professor of nutrition, New York University.
Rania Batayneh, MPH, nutritionist; author, The One One One Diet.
Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience, Mount Sinai School of Medicine; visiting professor of health psychology, Princeton University.
National Institute on Aging: “Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging.”
Advances in Nutrition: “Whole-Grain Intake and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies.”
CDC: “Leading Causes of Death.”
Mayo Clinic: “Whole grains: Hearty options…

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