As we reach midlife, our bodies may compel us to make a few tweaks here and there when it comes to what we put on our plate as our nutritional needs require a little adapting.
"Our need for energy or calories reduces as we age," says registered dietitian Maria Lucey. "We tend to be less active, and our metabolism begins to slow. Although this means that if we want to prevent weight gain, we need to eat less, our requirement for vitamins and minerals remains largely the same. In fact, we need slightly more protein and the same amount of vitamins and minerals as we always did. Over the age of 50, this ageing process is gradual and consistent in men. However, for women the changes tend to be more dramatic, coinciding with the onset of menopause."
The average age for menopause in Ireland is 51, says Kathryn Stewart, registered dietitian at the Dublin Nutrition Centre. "During this time our nutrition needs may change, requiring more calcium, less iron, and focusing on protein-rich foods," she says. "Oestrogen declines during menopause, which is why calcium needs increase to 1,200mg per day, as you don't have the bone protective effect of oestrogen. Iron needs decrease due to cessation of menstruation, and often individuals may notice a change in body composition with a loss of lean body mass, so incorporating lean proteins such as chicken, eggs, fish, high-protein yogurts, milk, beans and lentils is important to help maintain muscle mass. Reducing caffeine and alcohol may also reduce symptoms of menopause, such as poor sleep and hot flushes."
After menopause, women lose the cardioprotective effect of oestrogen, which puts them at a higher risk of heart disease. “Heart disease is also a big issue for men over 50,” says Lucey. “Therefore, it is important to focus on heart-healthy fats like olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocados, nuts and seeds and try to replace butter, lard and ghee with plant-based fats which can help lower cholesterol levels.”
Other foods that can help lower cholesterol, advises Lucey, include oats, as they contain a substance called beta-glucan, which helps excrete cholesterol from the body. “If you don’t like porridge,” she says, “try adding dry oats to muesli or other cereals or look for breads and biscuits made with oats. Beans and lentils are also high in fibre, which helps lower cholesterol levels. Aim to have beans or lentils three to four times a week. They are very versatile and can be added to soups, salads, stir-fries, and casseroles.”
For men over 50 there should be a focus on heart and bowel health, says Stewart. “More than nine out of 10 cases of bowel cancer develop in adults over the age of 50,” she says. “Diets rich in wholegrains, fruit and veg, and reduced red meat are associated with decreased risk of bowel cancer. Replacing saturated fats such as butter, cream, chocolates, crisps and takeaways with unsaturated fats such as oily fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil can also help reduce cholesterol levels.”
As we age, we tend to sit more and exercise less, which compounds a natural ageing process called sarcopenia – loss of muscle mass. “It’s crucial to maintain your muscle mass to allow you to stay active for as long as possible,” says Lucey. “Eating enough protein reduces the impact of that muscle wasting. However, as we age, our body is less responsive to dietary protein, so we need more. Additionally, your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at one time, so it is important to spread your protein intake out throughout the day.
“Good protein sources include meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds. Make sure to include a protein source at each meal. A common mistake people make is having all their protein in their evening meal – for example, steak or chicken for dinner and little to no protein at breakfast and lunch.”
As we move through our 50s, our bone health is an important factor to take into consideration. “Bone is a living tissue that the body continually removes and replaces,” says Lucey. “As we get older, this process slows down, and usually more bone is lost than formed. When new bone formation does not keep up with the loss of old bone, it will result in osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is probably the most serious debilitating disease associated with menopause. Once established, the disease can give rise to chronic back pain and fractured bones, severely affecting quality and enjoyment of life. One in three women aged 50-65 will develop osteoporosis. Osteoporosis affects men, too, but not at such high rates, with approximately one in five men over 50 affected.”
The good news is that diet and appropriate exercise can help strengthen your bones, and Lucey suggests focusing on calcium and vitamin D, which are essential nutrients for healthy bones.
"Foods that have great amounts of calcium in them include all dairy products (milk, cheese, and yogurt)," says Lucey. "Men and women are advised to eat enough calcium-rich foods to provide 700- 800mg of this essential bone mineral each day. That is just three servings of calcium-rich dairy. If you don't eat dairy, you can choose calcium fortified soya, nut or rice-based products. Magnesium and phosphorus are also important bone-friendly minerals. Good sources of magnesium include Brazil nuts, peanuts, kidney beans and lentils. Good sources of phosphorus include bran and wheatgerm, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and almonds."
A change in eating habits can help manage or improve symptoms of many health conditions. Even if you are not advised by your doctor to make changes, looking at your diet in your 50s can be very beneficial to your overall health.
TOP TIPS FOR NUTRITION AND HEALTH IN YOUR 50S
1 One in every 10 men over the age of 50 in Ireland is a healthy weight and fewer than three in every 10 women over the age of 50 in Ireland are a healthy weight. Healthy eating and active living are essential in order to maintain a healthy weight.
2 Continue to eat complex grains, keep your sodium intake low, and fill your plate with bright colours including vegetables that are green, orange, red, purple and yellow, as these foods have antioxidants to help fight ageing.
3 "Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium and plays a vital role in bone health," says Lucey. "Without sufficient vitamin D, we can absorb no more than 15 per cent of the calcium we consume. Very few foods are naturally good sources of vitamin D, therefore for most people taking a vitamin D supplement of 10µg is the most straightforward way of ensuring you are getting enough. When choosing a vitamin D supplement, choose vitamin D3, as this is the active form."
4 A good exercise regime can stop, delay or help manage illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, arthritis, and osteoporosis, while also focusing on your mental wellbeing.
5 How the body handles alcohol changes with age. Alcohol can negatively interfere with our sleep by making it harder to fall into a deep sleep.