How to eat in your 20s: What you need to know about nutrition and health

These key years impact how our bodies process foods down the line

When it comes to our nutrition there is something to learn at every age, especially in our 20s when eating habits may not be at the top of our list of priorities. This may be the decade when we feel unshakable, when staying in shape may seem easier, and when our bodies appear to tolerate a lot more than in our later years with a quick recovery to boot. In reality, while our bodies and minds may be working at peak performance, we have an opportunity to protect our health from here on in. The most significant thing to learn about eating in our 20s is that it is a time to form concrete and worthwhile habits about how we exercise, what we eat, and how we eat.

"In our 20s, many people feel invincible," says Katherine O Loughlin, a nutritionist specialising in workplace wellness clinics. "Aches and pains of old age are absent. This is a time when many people are finishing college or starting their first jobs. With that can come less sleep and more nights out. It can also be a time when people are moving out of the family home and starting to cook for themselves. All of these factors can lead to poor food choices at a time when life habits should be created."

It’s easy to think that instant noodles, takeaways and extra nights out down the local are harmless as we navigate our college years. We can get away with drinking more, eating more junk food, and possibly not exercising as much. But these years and habits will certainly have an impact on how our bodies process these foods down the line. Nutrition can easily take a backseat but forming good habits now will not only benefit us as we build our careers but also have a significant impact on our health in our later years.

“Your diet should provide you with the nutrients that are required for optimal health,” says O’Loughlin. “This is a point that is lost on many, especially those in their 20s. There are now people who are suffering from malnutrition while having adequate daily calories. The problem is that they are not getting the nutrients that are required for health from the food they are eating. In our 20s, we need to consider what we would like our life to be like in old age as it is now that the groundwork is done.”

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During our 20s building muscle and strong connective tissues is a lot easier as we build a foundation for our bodies. In fact, until we are 25, our body is still building bone, making it the ideal time to focus our habits on eating well to continue building strong bones. This is the decade when we are possibly most active. Maintaining this energetic lifestyle as we age and ultimately reducing the possibility of osteoporosis later in our lives, means we need to include a diet of healthy vitamins, and minerals.

'It's not about going on a diet for six or eight weeks but creating healthful habits that will follow through from decade to decade'

“While osteoporosis is unusual in 20-year-olds, this is when your bone density develops with it reaching the peak around 30,” advises O’Loughlin. “The greater your peak bone mass the better chance you have of minimising osteoporosis in the future. There are a number of factors that affect bone health but from a nutrition point of view, you will need to include foods that contain calcium. Good sources are dairy products, tinned salmon (with bones), kale, tofu, etc.

"Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, therefore you also need to pay attention to vitamin D intake. This is one vitamin that is quite difficult to get in adequate amounts in food and the best source is sunlight but considering we live in Ireland this is a vitamin that may need to be supplemented."

An unhealthy eating regime can play a significant role in developing certain risks which could lead to heart disease including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and coronary disease.

“Once again there are many factors that influence a healthy heart,” says O’Loughlin. “From a nutrition standpoint, your habitual diet, what you eat most of the time, will be most important. Ideally, we are aiming for a less westernised diet. The emphasis should be on whole-grain foods, a good variety of plants, with or without meat, fish, and poultry.”

The Mediterranean diet is known as one of the best heart-healthy diets as it is nutrient rich, low in saturated fat and sodium and rich in vegetables, whole grains, and fish.

The best foods to eat in your 20s

“When deciding what is best to eat, you should look to see what you are trying to achieve with your diet,” advises O’Loughlin. “In your 20s your brain is still developing, you are priming your body for reproduction, and you are aiming to avoid chronic diseases such as diabetes, sarcopenia, osteoporosis, and heart disease in later life.

“Creating nutritional habits for life will be most beneficial for you. You should aim to have a balanced diet that includes adequate protein, carbs, fats, and vitamins and minerals. You should limit processed food and refined starches and the emphasis should be on whole-grain foods, a good variety of plants, with or without meat, fish, and poultry.”

Including complex carbohydrates like quinoa, sweet potatoes and brown rice are a great addition to our diet in order for us to sustain our natural energy for an active lifestyle in our 20s.

“Prevention is better than cure,” says O’Loughlin. “It’s not about going on a diet for six or eight weeks but creating healthful habits that will follow through from decade to decade. Lifestyle factors, in particular nutrition and exercise, play an important role in overall health and quality of life but it is a cumulative effect. What you do in your 20s may determine the quality of your life in later years.”

Top tips for nutrition and health in your 20s

1 Create a strong nutritional foundation by building good habits to support bone, heart, and overall health.

2 Avoid ultra-processed foods which can lead to excess calorie consumption.

3 Focus on calcium-rich foods, along with complex carbohydrates and protein.

4 Build a fitness base in your 20s to encourage strong bones and muscle strength.

5 Watch your alcohol intake and be wary of recreational drug usage.