Diets for the Decades
A woman’s nutritional needs are as unique as her smile, the color of her eyes, or her sense of humor. Those needs change as she ventures through life, navigating the childbearing years, approaching menopause, and entering the golden years. Luckily, most of the 40+ nutrients a woman’s body needs throughout life are met by simply eating lots of wholesome foods, such as whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, cooked dried beans and peas, and nonfat milk products. But, according to Elizabeth Somer, Registered Dietitian and author of Age-Proof Your Body, we need to tailor these basic good-eating habits to meet the specific nutritional needs of each stage in life.
1) Folic Acid: Folic acid-rich foods, such as greens and beans are especially important. Yet, while seven out of ten women know that folic acid helps prevent birth defects, only 25 percent of those women are actively trying to get enough folic acid during the periconception period. (Folic acid is most effective for preventing birth defects if taken at the time of conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Once the pregnancy test comes back positive and a women starts taking a supplement, it could be too late.)
2) Iron: Tired? Can’t think straight? Rather than grab a cup of coffee, you are better off reaching for iron-rich foods. While only 8% of women are iron deficient, up to 80% (studies range from 20% to 80%) of women during these early years are iron deficient. The deficiency goes unnoticed because most physicians test only for anemia, the final stage of iron deficiency. For months or even years, a woman can be iron deficient and it goes undetected, yet the symptoms are the same - you’re tired, sleep poorly, your work is compromised, you catch every cold that comes around. Women also have cut back on red meat, the best source of absorbable iron, yet up to 30% of the iron is absorbed from meat compared to only 2 to 7% in beans (which means you need at least 4 servings of beans for every one serving of meat to get the same amount of iron!) Drink tea or coffee with your meals and you won’t absorb the iron you are eating.
3) Dieting: It is impossible to meet all your vitamin and mineral needs when calorie intake falls below 1,800 calories/day, yet young women are dieting in record amounts, cutting daily calories to 1,000 or less. While restrictive dieting does more harm than good and never results in long-term weight loss, there are some super foods that can help ensure optimal nutrition, even when calories are too low. So, load up on low-cal super foods that fill you up without filling you out, such as wheat germ (even 2 tablespoons packs a wallop of nutrients), oatmeal cooked in nonfat milk, salads, and vegetable soups.
The 30s: Stress/Convenience Foods, The Pill, Calcium
1) Stress/Convenience Foods: For lack of time, women grab quick-fix foods that typically are high in fat, sugar, or calories. According to the latest stats from USDA, women today are averaging 31 teaspoons of refined sugar daily, while fat intake is on the rise. Instead of grabbing the colas and the sweets, grab healthy snacks. And hey, it’s a myth that eating well must take more time. If you have time to pull up to a drive-through window or order Take Out, you have time to eat well.
2) The Pill: The birth control pill can affect the absorption and use of several nutrients, including vitamin B6. This vitamin is important in the regulation of the nerve chemical serotonin, so a low level of B6 might help explain some of the emotional ups and downs women experience on The Pill.
3) Calcium: A woman builds bone tissue until her mid-30s. After that, she gradually begins to lose bone. The more bone density she builds now, the greater her bank account and the less likely she is to develop osteoporosis later in life. This is her last chance to put calcium into that bank account with calcium-rich yogurt or calcium-fortified OJ, yet many women are still averaging one-half to two-thirds their calcium needs.
1) Middle Age Spread: After 40, women start losing approximately 1% to 2% of muscle mass every year, which equates to a 5 to 10 pound loss of muscle every decade. The lose of muscle slows metabolism, so you’re likely to notice excess weight. If you don’t nip this trend in the bud, it will progress until you not only can’t lift the grocery bag, you can’t get out of the easy chair without help. This is the time to start a muscle-building program, if you haven’t already. In addition, studies show that people who divide their food intake into little meals and snacks have an easier time managing their weight.
2) Heart Disease: While most women list cancer at the top of their health concerns, a woman’s greatest health threat is actually heart disease, which escalates in the middle years. Low saturated fat and cholesterol diets are more important than ever, as are high-fiber foods such as beans (that contain a host of heart-healthy compounds such as saponins, phytosterols, and phytoestrogens), the omega-3 fats in fish and foods fortified with the omega-3 fat DHA, and the monounsaturated fats in olive oil.
3) Premenopause: Some women also may be experiencing pre-menopause.
The 50s and Beyond: Vitamin B12, Antioxidants, and Anti-Aging
1) Vitamin B12: This B vitamin is very important in protecting your memory and nervous system function, yet people are less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12 as they age. That’s because you need stomach acid to absorb B12 and people often make less and less stomach acid as they age. Or, they take acid-blocking medications to curb symptoms of heartburn. Several studies report memory loss and even a few cases of dementia that were reversed or improved when people increased their vitamin B12 status. B12 also helps cut heart disease risk, since it lowers a compound in the blood, called homocysteine, that otherwise increases the risk for heart disease.
2) Antioxidants: Most of the age-related diseases (from heart disease and cancer to cataracts and memory loss, even premature wrinkling of the skin) are a result, at least in part, of exposure to highly reactive oxygen fragments called free radicals. Luckily, our bodies have an anti-free radical system, called the antioxidants Hundreds of studies, spanning decades of research show that people who maintain a strong antioxidant arsenal are the ones least likely to battle these health conditions. Eating these foods is critical throughout life, but especially by your 60s, because the damage from free radicals escalates as we age. Antioxidant-rich foods are the most colorful fruits and vegetables, from mangos, blueberries, and papaya to carrots, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. These are packed with antioxidant vitamins, as well as the 12,000 phytonutrients. Hot-off-the-press new research is even showing that the phytonutrients in colorful produce may affect, in a good way, your DNA, the genetics within your cells. So, even if you have a family history of heart disease or high blood pressure, you are less likely that those genes will be switched on if you are eating lots of colorful produce!
3) Osteoporosis: Most people know that calcium is important for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, but many don’t realize that if they don’t get enough vitamin D, they won’t absorb that calcium, so remain at high risk for osteoporosis. Women manufacture less vitamin D as they age, so dietary sources are increasingly more important.