As you get older, your body changes in more ways than you can count. Even the things you thought you had under control might not seem to stay that way.
Take sticking to a healthful diet or maintaining a healthy weight. After the age of 40, you need to take in about 100 fewer calories per day in order to stay at the same weight. That’s largely because your metabolic rate slows down about five percent every decade starting at around this age. So you need to work harder to keep the pounds off, and to eat less.
That can make getting adequate nutrition an even tougher challenge than it usually is. The good news is that the same basic concepts behind having a healthy diet apply: A wide variety of fruits and vegetables, a lot of whole grains, only small amounts of solid fats and food with added sugar, low-fat milk products, lean meats and seafood about twice a week are the major components of a healthy meal plan.
But how much of these foods should you eat? The National Institute on Aging provides the following helpful guide for determining how many calories are necessary each day after the age of 50.
- Women who are not physically active need about 1,600 calories (2,000 for men).
- A somewhat active woman needs 1,800 calories (2,200 to 2,400 for men).
- A woman with an active lifestyle needs 2,000 to 2,200 calories per day (2,400 to 2,800 for men).
Calories, of course, are just a starting point in determining how much and what to eat. All calories are not the same. A medium banana, a tablespoon of peanut butter, a small baked potato, two cubes of cheese or four canned sardines have roughly the same amount of calories (100) but are very different nutritionally. If you are taking in fewer calories, you want to make sure you are getting the highest nutritional value you can out of every bite.
Try to pack more nutrient-dense foods — as opposed to calorie-dense foods — into your diet. For example, red bell peppers are nutrient-dense, while buttery crackers are calorie-dense. According to Connie W. Bales, PhD, RD, of Duke University Medical Center, “As individuals age, their calorie requirements decrease, but their requirement for things like protein, vitamins and minerals is unchanged. So that means that calorie for calorie, we need to make sure our foods are packed with nutrients and not empty calories.”
When you’re choosing fruits and vegetables, the National Institute on Aging recommends selecting those with the deepest, darkest colors, such as kale, spinach and tomatoes, and leaving the skin on most fruits and vegetables to get the added fiber. And, of course, whole foods (such as peaches) always trump processed foods (such as peach pie) that contain added calories from sugar and fat.
Whole-grain foods can also be nutrient-dense and a good source of fiber. Brown rice, whole-grain pasta and crackers are easy ways to slip more grains into a meal plan.
Whole grains, which are filling, can even be worked into snacking. Try some unsweetened peanut butter on whole-grain crackers or freshly popped popcorn instead of potato chips when you feel the need to nosh. You’ll be replacing empty calories that pack on pounds with little-to-no value with foods that give your body a boost of energy and nutrition.
When selecting proteins, avoid processed foods such as bacon and look for those that are lean but animal-derived, such as fish (which also contain important omega-3 fatty acids). Beans, lentils and nuts are also a good source of protein that can be added easily to salads and other meals.
While you should avoid bad fats (such as trans fats and saturated fats), do not avoid the so-called “good” fats such as monounsaturated fatty acids, which help lower your risk for heart disease and can be worked into your diet by cooking with extra-virgin olive oil. Be careful not to use too much, however, because olive oil is also high in calories.
Finally, remember to consult a physician or other member of your healthcare team if you have been diagnosed with an illness with special dietary needs or restrictions.