Nutrition through the ages

What’s on your plate affects your mood and energy level right now, but it can also impact your long-term health – and the foods and nutrients women need the most actually change as they navigate the ages and stages of life. Here’s a decade-by-decade guide:


Wash down your kale with a glass of milk: This decade is your last shot at building bone mass (after this, you stop making new bone and start losing it). So get at least two servings of calcium-rich foods a day. Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt are obvious choices (plus non-dairy milks fortified with calcium) but surprise: kale has more calcium than any other raw leafy green, and your body is great at absorbing it.

Focus on folate: Birth defects such as spina bifida can be prevented by getting enough folate, especially around the time of conception. Not planning a pregnancy? Neither are about half the women who get pregnant each year! Take a multivitamin with 100 percent daily value of folic acid (the synthetic form of folate). And be sure your diet includes folate-rich foods like asparagus, spinach, peanuts and whole wheat bread.

Scale back on sugar: Soda, candy and sweets were probably mainstays of your diet as a teenager, but it’s time to cut back. It’s now believed that added sugar, the kind put in by manufacturers, may contribute to weight gain and even health problems like heart disease. Women should get no more than six teaspoons a day (men no more than nine). An easy label-reading trick: every four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon.


Fight fatigue with iron: You’re juggling a career, a relationship and maybe kids – so you’re exhausted! But fatigue can also be a sign of low iron stores, common among women in their 20s and 30s who don’t eat much meat (you’re at an increased risk if you have heavy periods, too). Your body absorbs iron better from animal protein like beef and chicken, but you’ll soak up more from plant foods like beans and spinach by eating them with vitamin C-rich foods (think strawberries on a spinach salad or red peppers with a bean burrito).

Stop ordering egg-white omelets: Egg yolks are rich in choline, a vitamin that’s crucial for a baby’s brain development through pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and most women get less choline than they need. In addition to eggs, you can nab choline from salmon, ground beef, ham, kidney beans and broccoli.


Eat more fiber: Thanks to reduced muscle mass, your metabolism dips and your calorie requirements drop as you get older. Fiber can help you feel full while you’re eating a bit less. Plus, fiber fends off constipation, which becomes more common with age. Most women get about half the fiber they need on a daily basis. Get yours from natural food sources such as 100 percent bran cereal, beans, fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole wheat pasta. Snack bars and drinks with added fiber may not have the same health benefits (and added fiber may cause gas and bloating in some people).

Ditch processed foods: Even if your blood pressure has been stellar, it often creeps up as you get older so start thinking about sodium. About three-quarters of the sodium people get is from processed and restaurant foods. Eat less packaged food and take-out meals but keep the salt shaker for healthy stuff like roasted veggies. Eating more potassium will help reduce the effects of sodium, so include foods like potatoes (white or sweet), bananas, halibut, milk, lentils and pork.

Include fruits and vegetables: Antioxidant vitamins are natural plant compounds that keep your mind sharp by blocking reactions that can damage (or even kill) the cells found in brain tissue. So eating foods rich in antioxidants may help prevent cognitive decline (such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) as you age. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Some of the highest in antioxidants are blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, dried plums, Granny Smith apple, red grapes, Russet potatoes, artichoke hearts, broccoli raab and raw cabbage.


Get your B12 checked: Ask your doctor for a simple blood test to check your B12 status. Many older adults don’t make enough stomach acid to break down and absorb the B12 found in foods. The vitamin makes healthy red blood cells and is involved in brain function, which is why you may feel weak and fuzzy-headed if you’re low. The B12 in supplements and fortified foods is easier to absorb than the natural kind found in beef, yogurt and milk, so take a multivitamin or have a daily bowl of fortified breakfast cereal (look for one with 100 percent daily value of B12) if you’re lacking.

Fight disease with vitamin D: Adequate vitamin D is linked to a broad range of health benefits, from lowering cancer risk to taming depression. Although the vitamin is important throughout life, getting it at this time is crucial because your body loses the ability to make its own D from sun as you age. Slathering on SPF lotion (a good idea for your complexion and reducing your risk of skin cancer) means even less D, since sunscreen blocks its production. Take a multivitamin with D and eat foods like canned light tuna, milk, yogurt and vitamin D-fortified juice and eggs.

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian, educator, freelance writer and the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. She lives in Clintonville and blogs at