I grew up with hot breakfast before school every day, a glass of orange juice with protein powder mixed in, and a handful of vitamins. And I’d like to say, “Thanks, Mom!” Because this was normal for me, I continued in my twenties, thirties, and now forties with daily vitamins and healthful food choices. I’m careful not to fall for the latest fad food, diet, or supplement and at the same time read about new developments in nutritional studies. Because of this, I feel reasonably well informed about what my body needs to function at its best. It probably also helps that I’m a competitive cyclist and therefore always looking for an extra edge—always looking to wring out every last bit of performance from my body. And in order to perform at my peak, I know I must not only be physically fit; I must also be nutritionally fit.
It makes sense that every woman’s nutritional needs are unique and those needs change through the different phases of life. However, some general nutritional guidelines apply to us all. Making good food choices is always wise and tailoring these choices to your body is a way of ensuring you’ll function at your best, whether you are twenty or sixty.
The Roaring Twenties
Usually your twenties are filled with a flurry of activity—from college and jobs, an active social scene, to pregnancies and babies. These are years where perhaps a woman is taking the initial steps toward being “all grown up.” But one thing to remember is that a woman’s body at this stage is still growing tissue and strong bones. This developmental requirement combined with high activity and possible pregnancies (which require even greater attention to nutrition) pose nutritional requirements of particular concern.
Studies from the Brown University Medical School show that twenty-somethings eat 25 percent more fast-food meals at this age than they did as teenagers. If food on the go is a necessity, try to choose healthier options like rotisserie chickens, frozen vegetables, shrimp cocktails, salads with brown rice, and whole wheat pasta, all of which can be made ahead of time.
According to the National Institute of Health, 78 percent of women in the United States do not get enough calcium. In order to maintain healthy bone density and help ward off osteoporosis, it’s recommended that women in their twenties get 1,000 milligram a day. Good sources include dairy products, green leafy vegetables, and shellfish.
Chronic dieting and skipped meals are common amongst this age group claims Karen Ansel, RD, so it’s important to get enough protein—generally between fifty to seventy grams per day. Protein feeds muscles and muscle burns more calories. Once again, choose healthy options such as skinless and lean meat, fish, beans, tofu, eggs, and low-fat dairy.
According to the USDA, most women in their twenties get less than half the recommended amount of potassium. But it’s not hard to make sure you get enough—a couple cups of fruit and vegetables every day will provide all the potassium you need.
If pregnancy is a possibility, folic acid is extremely important in preventing birth defects. It is most effective when taken at the time of conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Green vegetables, chickpeas, fortified whole grains, orange juice, and beans can help meet the daily 400 microgram requirement.
When life gets hectic and sleep is sacrificed, caffeine is a natural go-to. However, caffeine interferes with the absorption of iron. Studies from the USDA have shown that 20 to 80 percent of women in their twenties are iron deficient. Because of this, choose iron rich foods and consume caffeine in moderate amounts. Foods rich in iron include beef, turkey, tahini, oat flakes, almonds, and figs. The recommended daily allowance for women is eighteen milligrams; pregnant women should aim for twenty-seven milligrams.
Thirty and Feeling Purty
By the time we reach our thirties, the flurry of schoolwork and socializing may have decreased, but it is often replaced by the active lifestyle of small children and busy families. And it is often the time when unhealthy lifestyles will begin to manifest in the form of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, according to James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. Dr. Hill says that if you’re overweight, dropping 10 percent of your weight can greatly decrease these risks. Continue to make healthy choices concerning quick meals and continue to get plenty of folic acid and iron.
Folic Acid and Iron
In addition to preventing birth defects, folic acid also helps a body make new cells and it may reduce the risk of heart disease. Iron deficiency causes fatigue and interferes with cognitive tasks, and as women may be juggling career, kids, social engagements, and the like, we need all the energy and mental stamina we can get. Keep iron rich foods as an integral part of the diet.
If you take birth control pills, it’s important to remember that they can affect the absorption of vitamin B-6, which helps with the regulation of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin can cause emotional ups and downs—a fairly common complaint associated with birth control use. So make sure to include B-6 rich foods in your diet such as chicken breast, bananas, and nuts.
Women continue to build bone tissue until their mid-thirties; after that, they gradually begin to lose bone. At this stage of life, women should stock up on calcium to ensure strong, dense bones and to ward off osteoporosis later in life. Three servings of yogurt and calcium-fortified orange juice are great sources. Calcium supplements may also be necessary. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of calcium so a supplement with a small glass of orange juice could be just the ticket.
Another addition to make to your diet at this age could be phytonutrients, which provide antioxidants. Antioxidants help slow the aging process and ward off disease, according to Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Phytonutrients can be found in plants, but the highest amounts are found in dark chocolate, red wine, and coffee, so don’t be afraid to occasionally indulge (without overindulging) in these tasty treats.
Not Quite Over the Hill
According to Dr. Bonci, women in their forties begin to lose about 1 to 2 percent of their muscle mass every year. Since more muscle means higher metabolism, the loss of muscle slows the metabolism, which can result in excess weight. In order to maintain healthy muscle tissue (which burns more calories), incorporate a program of muscle building exercises. And frequent, smaller meals will keep metabolism higher, which will also help keep weight off.
The approach of menopause also creates a decline in the bone-building estrogen. In addition to this decline, the stomach creates less of the acid used to absorb calcium in our forties and so the daily recommendation for calcium increases to 1,000 milligrams.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. It also keeps the immune system strong and protects against breast and colon cancers and hearing loss. The forties also begin a dramatic decrease in the levels of vitamin D and it can be hard to get adequate amounts. There are two ways to get your recommended amount: from the sun or through the diet. Ten to fifteen minutes in the sun is usually enough time to get your Vitamin D fill (our bodies make it when exposed to the sun’s rays). Dietary sources in include fortified milk and dairy products, fish, eggs, and fortified cereals. The current daily recommendation is 600 to 1,000 international units.
Most women worry about cancer, but according to Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, the real threat to middle age women is heart disease. Fiber helps decrease cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and colon cancer. So maintaining a diet of high fiber—one rich in beans, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables—and low saturated fats can help reduce these threats.
Nothing Senior About This Citizen
Experts claim that for every decade after forty, the body’s daily caloric requirement decreases by 1 percent. Maintaining a diet of small and frequent meals (every three to four hours) will help combat weight gain in your fifties and sixties by keeping the body’s metabolism running as high as possible.
According to the American Heart Association, risk of high blood pressure also increases during your fifties. To help prevent heart disease and hypertension, physicians recommend regular exercise, limited alcohol intake (fewer than two drinks per day), no smoking, and weight management.
It’s also important to continue getting enough calcium, either from diet or from supplements, which can help ward off osteoporosis. Not enough water can lead to fatigue so aim to drink plenty of water throughout the day. If you already incorporate daily supplements, consult a physician with regards to the best options available.
The body’s metabolism and ability to burn fat continues to decrease, so limiting fat is important; however, it can be an important source of energy. A diet high in vegetables, fruits, and low fat dairy products and lean meats will help maintain a healthy immune system without adding the calories of full fat foods.
With continued attention to the latest research in nutrition, listening to my body, and feeding it properly, I fully intend to race well into my fifties. After all, a teammate of mine—who is ten years my senior—consistently continues to beat me in time trial races. And if nothing else, I think I’d like to beat her just once before I’m sixty.