Vital nutrition for your decade

Emma & Amy - Nutracheck Nutritionists | 25 Apr, 2022

When it comes to eating healthily and losing weight, there are general guidelines appropriate throughout all stages of life. However, as we move through each decade of life, our bodies change, and so do our dietary needs.

Age-specific dietary advice is often overlooked, so we thought we'd take a look at the most important areas of consideration for women at various stages of their lives.

Here are our top tips for women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

In your 20s and 30s

20s and 30s

Busy lifestyles, alcohol-fuelled nights out with friends – it can be all too easy to take advantage of your younger, faster metabolism and make poor dietary choices. But don't let a nutritious diet fall too far down your list of priorities. If you're looking to achieve a healthy weight, now is the time to approach it in a healthy way, by forming strong habits that will stay with you for life. Think of your 20s and 30s as an investment for the future – the better you eat now, the healthier you'll be in your later years. Your future self will thank you!

You might also begin thinking of having children, so planning for this from a nutritional point of view can be key to giving yourself the best chance of conceiving and having a healthy pregnancy. There are several changes to our dietary recommendations when pregnant – have a read of more comprehensive guidance here: Keeping well in pregnancy.

Note: if you are pregnant, the Nutracheck service should only be used under the knowledge and guidance of a medical professional.

Key nutrients

  1. Calcium – The structures in our bones are constantly forming and breaking down to supply our bodies with calcium as and when needed. As we grow through childhood and adolescence, bone formation is far higher than bone breakdown. This growth determines how strong our bones are (known as our bone density). Most of us reach our peak bone density around the age of 25, so it's essential to nourish our bodies with plenty of calcium to get our bone density as high as possible when it reaches its peak.

    It's recommended we have 700mg calcium per day – which we can get from 3 portions of dairy foods (200ml milk, 125g yogurt, 30g cheddar cheese for example). Calcium is primarily found in dairy products and leafy green vegetables such as kale. If you're cutting back on your dairy intake and opting for nut or oat-based products instead (as many 20- to 30-year-olds are now doing), read the label. Ensure you're choosing a brand that fortifies their products with calcium, such as Alpro.
  2. Iron – The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) found that 1 in 4 women aren’t meeting the lowest reference intake for iron, with 5% experiencing iron-deficiency anaemia (1). Women need to be eating more iron-rich foods due to the loss of iron during menstruation.

    Incorporate lean meat, chickpeas, beans, nuts and fortified breakfast cereals into your diet. If you're choosing a plant-based source of iron, make sure to pair it with a good source of vitamin C (such as a glass of orange juice) to improve absorption.
  3. Folate – If you're thinking of starting a family, it's recommended you consider taking a folate supplement. Not consuming enough folate when trying for a baby and in the first trimester of pregnancy can have serious impacts on a developing foetus, increasing the risk of neural tube defects. The NDNS found that 89% of women of child-bearing age had low folate in their red blood cells, indicating an increased risk of foetal neural tube defects (1). Look for supplements that supply 400 micrograms daily.

Exercise

Now is the time to make the most of your healthy joints and energy. Building lean tissue now is arguably the easiest point in life to do it. As muscle cells require more calories to maintain themselves than fat cells, changing your body composition to increase lean tissue can also help to increase fat loss in the long term by increasing your metabolic rate.

The best way to achieve this is by weight training (hitting the gym!) or resistance exercises using your body weight. Exercises like squats, lunges, press-ups and sit-ups are ideal. Alongside things like swimming, spinning classes, Pilates or online workout videos for cardiovascular fitness.

Top tips for your 20s and 30s

  1. Form lifelong habits
  2. Prevention is better than cure!
  3. Focus on micronutrients, especially when planning for a family
  4. Boost bone health to reach a high peak bone density
  5. Build muscle now to make maintaining a healthy weight easier down the line

In your 40s and 50s

40s and 50s

Once you hit 40, you may feel like you've tried every diet going, and put yourself through self-criticism of your body (why are we so hard on ourselves?). You've 'been there, done that', so now is the time to make better choices for yourself. Your fifth decade is a very important time as lots of changes start to happen biologically. These are the years when women are approaching perimenopause, the beginning of the menopause, which is a huge transition in a woman's life. During this time your hormone levels will change and muscle mass starts to gradually decline, making it a critical period to really focus on your health.

After previous decades spent trying fad diets, you've hopefully learnt what works and what doesn't! And you'll know the key to success is finding a long-term approach you can stick to. This means no extremes, simply focus on healthy dietary choices and follow an appropriate calorie allowance to help you achieve your goals.

We're firm believers in keeping a close focus on your diet through keeping a food diary (which should be no surprise!) and this strategy is backed by long-term successful maintainers. A study, which asked men and women who had lost weight and maintained that loss for longer than 3 years, what their top piece of advice was, found 'tracking and lifestyle' to be a common theme (2). Many maintainers stated that tracking food intake was a vital skill which formed part of a healthy lifestyle. It was also noted that people wanting to lose weight should accept that there are no short-term fixes, maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle is an ongoing task and the key to success is to simply 'not give up'.

Key nutrients

  1. Calcium – Due to the reduction in oestrogen levels during the menopause, your bones can start to lose calcium at a faster rate. It is therefore essential to meet your body's calcium needs each day. Post-menopausal women are advised to aim for 1,200mg calcium per day – 500mg more than the standard recommendation – so this means an extra 2-3 servings of calcium-rich foods.

    The best sources of calcium are dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. If you don't eat dairy foods, there are many calcium fortified dairy-free alternatives available now – just make sure they are fortified with calcium. Calcium is also best absorbed in small amounts at a time, so it's advisable to stagger your calcium intake throughout the day.
  2. Vitamin D – This is also necessary for bone health as it plays an essential role in the absorption of calcium. We make most of our vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, so during the summer months aim to have short periods outside in direct sunlight to help build up your vitamin D stores. During winter months, it's recommended that everyone takes a 10-microgram vitamin D supplement each day, but post-menopausal women should consider taking a supplement all year round.

    Not many foods are good sources of vitamin D, but there are a few that should be included as part of a balanced diet. These include oily fish, eggs, certain fortified breakfast cereals, some margarines, and certain mushrooms (it will be stated if they contain vitamin D on the label).
  3. Healthy fats – Risk of cardiovascular disease can increase during your 40s and 50s as many women go through the menopause, so it's a good time to focus on heart-healthy foods. Limit foods high in saturated fats (fatty meats, butter, cakes, and fried foods) and instead increase your intake of healthy unsaturated fats found in oily fish, avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish such as salmon, are particularly great for brain health, which can decline as you age. Your 40s and 50s are a really good time to focus on getting enough in your diet before your cognitive function begins to slow down – aim for at least one portion of oily fish per week.
  4. Phytoestrogens – Soya based products and tofu might be useful foods to include in your diet. These are rich in natural phytoestrogen which may help balance out the hormonal changes that are happening. Often, these products are enriched with calcium which is also important.

Exercise

As muscle mass starts to decline year on year after the age of 40, this is a perfect time to really focus on your activity levels and the type of exercise you're doing. Resistance style exercise which works to build muscle mass is a great choice at this stage as it will work to fight the reduction in muscle mass. This is a great way to combat the metabolic decline that also starts to happen during your 40s and 50s. So try to incorporate exercises that use your own body weight as resistance, such as squats and press-ups. Or go one step further and follow a weights programme to build your strength and muscle mass – don't worry, you don't have enough of the necessary hormones to get super bulky.

Check out our blog which explains about different types of exercise here.

Top tips for your 40s and 50s

  1. Ditch the fad diets
  2. Keep a food diary
  3. Focus on a nutrient-rich diet
  4. Start prioritising resistance exercise more
  5. Build muscle now to make maintaining a healthy weight easier down the line

In your 60s

60s

Life may begin to slow down as you enter retirement, so it's necessary to pay attention to your body's changing needs. Although weight loss at this age might seem like an arduous task without the 'benefit of youth', it's never too late to achieve a healthy weight and live your 'golden years' to the fullest! Or perhaps you've lost weight and now encounter the challenge of maintaining your hard-earned results as your metabolism faces age-related decline. Studies have shown the key to this may lie in the psychology of weight loss and maintaining this – instead of throwing in the towel at the first point you steer off-track, compensate at your next meal instead of next week (2). If you dropped your phone and it cracked, would you continue to drop it and crack it on purpose? Of course not, so why do the same with your weight loss approach? It's all about perseverance!

Following the 40s and 50s post-menopause advice is still just as valid. This means prioritising heart-healthy foods, keeping muscles and bones tip-top by exercising, and minimising caffeine and alcohol where you can.

Key nutrients

  1. Fibre – The NDNS reported a staggering 91% of adults in this age bracket not meeting the 30g daily fibre recommendation (1). Fibre is an essential nutrient for a whole host of functions, most notably heart and gut health. Due to age-related changes to the heart and blood vessels, the risk of cardiovascular disease increases as we get older. People who eat more fibre have shown to have a lower body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol level than those who eat less fibre, all of which greatly reduce heart disease risk.

    You've probably heard that fibre 'keeps you regular' – it really is true! High-fibre diets can help to prevent and alleviate constipation, as well as improve the healthy bacteria that line the gut wall and potentially reduce the risk of bowel cancer, the third most common cancer in the over 60s.

    Get your fibre fill from wholegrain foods, beans, pulses, nuts, and seeds, as well as good old fruit and veg (with the skins on of course!).
  2. Protein – With age, we see muscle loss progressively accelerate, increasing the risk of frailty and falls. This is known as sarcopenia. To combat this, it's necessary for the over 60s to keep protein intake up and take part in regular exercise that focuses on strength and flexibility. This combined strategy can help to maintain muscle tissue, which not only keeps the body functioning well, but also keeps metabolic rate higher, which can make weight loss easier.

    Any animal-based foods will give you a good amount of protein but try and incorporate a few plant-based sources as well to minimise your saturated fat intake – beans, lentils, chickpeas, Quorn, and tofu are all great options.
  3. Vitamin B12 – As we get older, stomach acid levels drop, meaning the absorption of key vitamins and minerals drops too. In addition, the secretion of the protein that helps to absorb vitamin B12 also drops, further compromising B12 levels. Vitamin B12 is vital for keeping your red blood cells healthy, so a lack of it can lead to fatigue, low energy, weak muscles, and in some cases, memory problems and confusion – definitely not what you want when you are looking forward to an active retirement.

    You'll find vitamin B12 in animal-based products like meat, fish, milk, and eggs. This can make it difficult for vegans to meet the recommended amount. If this is you, look for plant-based meat substitutes and cereals that are fortified with vitamin B12, or perhaps consider taking a B12 supplement to make up for lost nutrients. Check with your doctor if you are concerned.

Exercise

With time freed up following retirement, one of the best ways to fill your day is by getting active. Choose a sport or activity you really enjoy and get stuck in! Even better if you can find a club or society around your chosen activity – it's essential to maintain good mental health as well as physical, so adding a social aspect can encourage you to make new friends too, providing motivation to keep you consistent with your exercise. Here are some ideas to get you started if you're looking for a new venture:

Running, walking/hiking, swimming, cycling, lawn bowls, tennis, badminton, golf, Zumba and other fitness classes.

Top tips for your 60s

  1. Persevere in the face of weight loss setbacks
  2. Keep a food diary to maintain healthy eating habits
  3. Focus on fibre
  4. Choose nutrient-rich foods to compensate for decreased absorption
  5. Join a sports club and stay consistent

In your 70s and beyond

60s

You are now in your 70s, or years beyond this – so what should be your focus be now? Firstly, all the considerations in the decades leading up to this one are still just as relevant. Ensure you continue to prioritise a healthy balanced diet, giving special attention to calcium, vitamin D and healthy fats in the post-menopausal years.

It's not uncommon for women to notice a reduction in their appetite as they progress into their 70s. This can be a natural response to the body needing less energy, due to gradual reductions in muscle mass and thus metabolism. However, due to reduced absorption of vitamins and minerals combined with a lower calorie intake, it is more important than ever to choose nutrient-rich foods.

This means plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, high-fibre whole grains, calcium-rich low-fat dairy (or calcium-fortified dairy alternatives), healthy fat sources from olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds – and fewer foods rich in sugar, salt and saturated fat such as cakes, pastries, fatty meats, processed foods and takeaways.

Due to a loss of muscle mass and reduction in bone density, now is a really good time to focus on weight-bearing and strength-based exercises to help counteract this. It can help to lessen the chance of mobility issues which can arise at this time.

Key nutrients

  1. Vitamin D – In later life, without the need to leave the house for work or the school run, you might find yourself staying indoors more, which greatly reduces sun exposure. This places the 70s+ category at most risk of vitamin D deficiency, increasing the risk of osteoporosis, frailty and risk of fractures. It’s recommended that people over 70 take a 10-microgram supplement of vitamin D every day all year round to keep bones healthy.

    You could also combine this with oily fish, eggs, certain fortified breakfast cereals, some margarines, and certain mushrooms for an additional hit of vit D.
  2. Protein – Due to natural reductions in muscle mass over time, ensuring you eat plenty of protein at this time of your life may help to slow down this process. Coupled with adequate and appropriate activity, this can help to maintain muscle mass and reduce the risk of sarcopenia. Healthy sources of protein are lean meats such as skinless chicken and turkey, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, pulses, nuts and meat substitutes such as tofu and Quorn.
  3. Iron – There is some evidence that iron status can reduce with age, and people in their 80s are most likely to have low iron levels. It's not completely clear why this is the case, but an inadequate diet and poor absorption likely play significant roles. It is therefore a good idea to aim for a diet rich in iron during this time. Red meat, seafood and beans are particularly good sources of iron, along with green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals.

Exercise

Issues with mobility and fall risk increase as people move into their 70s and 80s so making a continued effort to exercise in this stage of your life paramount! Remaining active and focusing on resistance-style exercise which help to build and maintain lean muscle mass is crucial. This can help to maintain strength in your muscles and bones and reduces the chances of falls and injury.

Even if you are someone who hasn't really done this type of activity before, it is never too late to start. We've all seen articles about someone in their 70s taking up running and entering their first marathon well into their 8th decade. Inspiring stuff! While you don't need to start running marathons, aiming to up your activity level and work on building your strength at this time is absolutely doable and so beneficial.

Top tips for your 70s and beyond

  1. Focus on vitamin- and mineral-rich foods
  2. Eat little and often and aim for quality calories
  3. Stay active or get active if you’re not already
  4. Limit intake of high-sugar, high-fat foods

Nutritionists Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition and Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition, are passionate about diet and how this impacts overall health. They support evidence-based advice around nutrition and aim to help everyone better understand how different nutrients affect the body and long-term health status.