Though you may eat the same foods you’ve always eaten since you were a kid, the fact is your nutritional needs change throughout your life.
“In youth, it’s all about growth and maintaining a body that can procreate,” says nutrition and fitness expert Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of The New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix. “After the age of 50, the goal is to prevent disease by maintaining an optimally healthy and active mind and body.”
That means what we eat as we age matters. “As we get older, metabolism slows and the body’s ability to break down and use its fuel sources becomes less efficient,” says Dr. Peeke. In addition, certain vitamins become more important to help protect against diseases and health issues.
Read on to find which foods you should be eating to keep your body strong and mind sharp over time.
1. Fiber-rich foods like raspberries
This, unfortunately, is something you may already know from experience: Your gastrointestinal functioning slows down as you age, and as a result, it’s important to focus on eating enough fiber to keep your system moving along. “Fiber not only helps your gastrointestinal function run smoothly, but it also decreases gastrointestinal inflammation and cholesterol, while providing a slow release of energy-rich carbohydrates into the bloodstream,” says Dr. Peeke. “Senior women and men should aim for about 25-30 grams of fiber per day,” she says.
Some of the best fiber sources: raspberries, which according to the Mayo Clinic have 8 grams per cup; whole wheat pasta, 6.3 grams per cup; lentils, 15.6 grams per cup; and green peas, 8.8 grams per cup.
2. Corn flakes & other B12 foods
“As the body ages, the stomach’s acidity decreases and as a result it’s harder to get enough vitamin B12 in your diet,” says Dr. Peeke. Stomach acid helps release vitamin B12 from food, and B12 is important because it helps maintain a healthy nervous system and key metabolic processes. “An estimated 10 to 30% of adults over the age of 50 have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food,” Dr. Peeke says. “People who regularly take medications that suppress stomach acid — such as antacids — may also have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food.” People over 50 typically should get 2.4 micrograms of B12 every day.
Foods that come from animals, such as meat, eggs, seafood, and dairy, have the highest amounts of B12, but you can also get the vitamin from B12-fortified foods such as whole-grain cereals. If you’re concerned about not getting enough B12, talk to your doctor about adding a multivitamin or B12 supplement to your diet.
3. Turmeric & cinnamon
Another thing to decrease as we get older — taste. “Aging produces a decrease in saliva production and ability to perceive taste,” says Dr. Peeke. That means you might want to start experimenting with different spices, including turmeric. “Turmeric has been shown to boost immune function and also decrease joint inflammation and prevent arthritis in older women,” says Dr. Peeke. Other research has shown turmeric, and it’s main active compound curcumin, may have a real impact on preventing Alzheimer’s and some forms of cancer.
Another spice to add into your cooking rotation: cinnamon. “Cinnamon is well known as an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agent,” says Dr. Peeke. Cinnamon also helps to maintain control of blood sugar since it slows the rate at which the stomach empties after meals, which evens out blood sugar highs and lows. “Studies also suggest a therapeutic use of cinnamon for type 2 diabetes, as it appears to improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin,” she says. “Having as little as one gram of cinnamon daily was shown to reduce blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes.”
Our sensation of taste declines as we age, so also does thirst, which means dehydration is more common. Water is also important to optimize the body’s metabolic functions. “Women need nine cups of water, while men should drink 13 cups daily,” says Dr. Peeke. “If you’re more physically active and also live in a hotter climate, you’ll need more.”
5. Bananas & other potassium sources
It’s a fact that the risk of stroke and heart disease increases as we age. One way to help lower your risk: Eat foods that are excellent sources of potassium like bananas and avocados.
A recent study of women aged 50 to 70 found that those who ate the highest amounts of potassium were least likely to experience a stroke. Potassium also can play a key role in lowering blood pressure, according to the World Health Organization.
The recommended daily amount of potassium you should be getting is 4700 mg. Foods rich in potassium are potatoes, with almost 900 mg in one potato; bananas, 400 mg in one banana; avocado, over 700 mg per cup; and pistachios, with a whopping 1200 mg per cup.
6. Broccoli & other leafy greens
Protecting your eyes is key as time goes on, particularly since many eye problems come with aging. Lutein, related to beta carotene and vitamin A, is a valuable nutrient you need to optimize vision and prevent macular degeneration. And most people over 50 don’t get enough of it. Green leafy vegetables, along with grapes, oranges, and egg yolks, are excellent sources of lutein.
7. Calcium-rich foods
“Calcium is known mostly for its role in building and maintaining strong bones and teeth, but it is also required for proper functioning of the heart, muscles and nervous system,” says Dr. Peeke. The goal is to consume 1200 mg daily for men and women, but intake, Dr. Peeke continues, is an issue for both men and women because of two things:
- Consuming enough calcium can be a problem for people who are lactose intolerant, a common problem as you age.
- Not having enough vitamin D in your body, which is necessary for you to absorb calcium (and also helps to boost immune function.) “Research has shown that as you age, your access to sunlight as well as vitamin D-rich foods, topped by absorbing D less efficiently, all contribute to significantly below normal levels of this all-important vitamin,” she says.
How to combat these two issues? “If you are lactose intolerant, eat leafy greens such as collards, mustard, kale, and bok choy,” says Dr. Peeke. “You can also try canned salmon (with bones) and sardines, as well as tofu that has been made with a calcium compound.”
As for getting enough vitamin D, ask your doctor to test your vitamin D level. The goal is to be within 50-70 nmol/l. If your D is low, solutions include: eating D-rich foods; getting 15 minutes in the sun every day; and taking a supplement recommended by your doctor.