By Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE
Director of Nutrition, California Health & Longevity Institute
Researchers now have powerful data indicating that lifestyle choices made in youth and early adulthood can have a great impact on future health and wellness. For decades the prevailing factor on health as we age was thought to lie in our genes. While we cannot stop the aging process, we now know that eating well and staying fit can help us feel and look good throughout our lives. The Okinawa Centurion study, as well as others worldwide, proved that eating smaller quantities of food clearly contributes to longevity and vigor in later years.
The sooner you begin a program of healthy eating and exercise, the more impact it will have on your quality of life. If you’re already in your thirties, forties, or older, however, and are looking back on unhealthy habits, it’s not too late to make changes that can positively affect your life going forward. Several studies on aging show that you can even turn back the clock on an unhealthy lifestyle and give yourself an extended quality of life.
It is important to remember that your body has different nutritional needs as you age. Tailoring food and exercise to a changing body can minimize risk factors for disease, prevent unwanted weight gain, and help you increase your energy level. Use the following suggestions as a guide for optimizing your health and setting yourself up for a robust life. As always, if you have any health conditions, seek the counsel of your physician prior to making dietary changes or starting a fitness routine. You may also want to enlist the help of a nutritionist, trainer, or other licensed professional as you take steps toward healthier living.
In Your Twenties
Establish healthy eating habits that embody a plant-based diet—one that contains more whole foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats) and includes fewer processed and prepackaged foods. Unless you engage in a high-endurance sport, eat less animal protein. Adequate protein for an average twenty-something is 9 to 10 ounces per day for men and 6 to 8 ounces for women. Any more than that increases saturated fats, which promote heart disease and decrease bone density. Replacing animal protein with vegetable protein four to five times per week can help lower the risk of chronic disease.
Although organic food is frequently more expensive, try to budget for at least a few items; prioritize organic animal protein and dairy products, which decrease antibody and hormone contamination. If you do not feel competent in the kitchen, take a cooking class with a friend. Learning some basic cooking skills will help you save money and eat better. As dining out and eating on the run are typical at this age, look for restaurants with healthy choices like salad, lean cuts of meat, and organic options.
In Your Thirties
It’s time to make some dietary changes and perhaps even modify the quantity of food you are consuming. At this point in your life, outside influences like career, family, and other obligations often begin to interfere with the active lifestyle you knew in your twenties. Additionally, your metabolism begins the natural process of slowing down. Even without changing your diet or your activity level, you may notice a tendency to gain weight, even if that has never before been an issue.
Learn to exercise more efficiently. Interval training along with the proper strength training can be done with a minimal time commitment. Look online for toning exercises that you can do at your desk or while cleaning the house and running errands.
Keep unhealthy and processed foods out of the house and cook simple, healthy meals at least four to five nights per week. Focus on eating more heart-healthy fish, nuts, and beans for protein variety and make sure that more than half of your carbohydrate servings are high-fiber whole grains. For women it’s especially important to include more calcium-rich foods every day, such as nonfat dairy, legumes, and leafy greens to replace beginning bone calcium loss.
In Your Forties
For every decade of life, the human metabolism slows by about 5 percent. To avoid the weight gain naturally associated with aging, you may once again need to decrease your caloric intake. If you’re noticing weight creeping on, now is the time to take action by starting a weight-loss program. Ensure that moderate to intense cardiovascular and strength training are both part of your workout at least three times per week to maintain cardiovascular fitness and prevent muscle loss.
Simple dietary changes will help you feel better and mange your weight as well. Decrease your consumption of foods that contain empty calories, such as salty, high-fat snacks as well as sweets and foods made with refined sugars. Be sure that no more than 1,000 calories per week are from these groups. Limit red meat to two servings per week, increasing the alternative protein-based meal suggestions from your thirties. Alcohol consumption needs special attention, particularly for aging women with increased risk of breast cancer. The recommended limit for women is one alcoholic beverage per day and two per day for men, although no amount is considered risk-free.
You have also reached a time in your life when it is extremely important to engage in preventive checkups. Have your vitamin D level checked and take a supplement if you have lower-than-recommended levels. Vitamin D may lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. Regardless of how much fish you eat, take a high-quality omega-3 supplement; it is a natural anti-inflammatory, which helps prevent chronic disease. This is also a good time to make sure you have baseline values in your health chart on lipid levels, blood sugars, bone density, and blood pressure, as they will help you and your doctor monitor physical changes over the next few decades.
In Your Fifties
It’s still not too late to reverse the effects of certain illnesses and add years to your life. If you have not yet taken advantage of the healthy eating, exercise, and medical screenings suggested here, act quickly.Steps taken even now can give you more time free of the complications associated with chronic disease. Women in this age group must consider that menopause often causes an even lower metabolic rate, so diet and exercise are especially important.
As your age increases, so does your cholesterol level. If you’re a fifty-something, it’s time to focus on heart and brain health. One way to do this is by eating a Mediterranean diet, which includes healthy fats such as nuts, olive and canola oils, whole grains, and fish, and eliminate hydrogenated fats as much as possible. Calcium is an important part of your diet, so be sure to include nonfat dairy/yogurt, low-fat cheese, and lots of leafy greens. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and fish that is high in omega-3s for protective benefits if consumed over long periods of time. A Harvard study conducted in 2007 linked improved cognitive performance with a diet high in fruits and vegetables, especially berries. By including a few vegetarian meals, especially those high in antioxidants (such as soy) and fiber (such as beans and lentils), you will improve your overall health.
Heart functions and healthy blood pressure are supported by keeping sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day and limiting caffeinated drinks to one serving (8-ounce cup of coffee, 12 ounces of soda, or 16 ounces of tea) per day. These limits are particularly important if you have concerns or issues regarding pre-hypertension or hypertension. Moderate consumption is considered three caffeinated beverages per day.
Keep moving! Focus on your target heart rate for your age when engaging in cardio fitness; not only does it benefit your heart, but studies show that these kinds of activities also lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. For muscle and bone strength, try a lower-impact activity like yoga or Pilates with weight training.
In Your Sixties and Beyond
Just as in your twenties, newfound freedoms (like kids leaving home and retirement) that emerge as you age provide opportunities for eating out more frequently or snacking during your free time. Metabolic rate slows further in your sixties, and more body fat gets deposited around your middle. Be sure to make a few adjustments in portion sizes, as the effects of snacking and dining out can sneak up on you. Your body needs fewer calories as you age but not less nutrition, so it’s important to focus on eating high-nutrient, low-calorie foods as much as possible.
Eating three smaller meals per day with one to two small snacks in between helps control hunger and is easier on the digestive tract. Eating smaller amounts more often delivers a decreased glucose level to your body than do larger meals, which can cause elevated blood sugars (often leading to diabetes).
For those experiencing digestive issues, a probiotic may help and can also boost immunity. Probiotics exist naturally in yogurt, or you can take a high-quality supplement. While that glass of wine or other cocktail may seem heart healthy, remember that any more than the standard 4-ounce serving negates the health benefits; this is especially important for women with regard to increased risk of breast cancer. Be sure to include good sources of calcium in your diet daily to help prevent the bone loss that accelerates with age.
Remember, no matter what your age, it’s never too late to begin making changes that support a healthy, vibrant, and energetic body. You have a lot of life ahead of you, and how you live today has a huge impact on how you feel tomorrow. Make small adjustments over time and before you know it you will look and feel your age—or younger.
Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (www.chli.com). With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.