By Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D., November/December 2007
From your head to your toes and in between, here’s what to eat to help ward off aging starting in your twenties and into your fifties, sixties and beyond.
From our mid-twenties on, the brain—particularly the frontal lobe, where much of problem-solving and short-term memory is processed—shrinks at a rate of 2 percent per decade. A 2006 study in Neurology showed that people who ate two or more daily servings of vegetables, especially leafy greens, had the mental focus of people five years their junior.
In our twenties, production of collagen (a fiber that keeps skin firm) slows and dead skin cells shed less quickly. Good genes can keep you looking young but research suggests that lycopene and beta carotene also may help by scavenging for free radicals that contribute to skin aging. Eat sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe and leafy greens for beta carotene and include lycopene-packed tomatoes and watermelon in your diet.
As we age, nerve cells that control muscles that move food through the digestive tract gradually die off, especially in the large intestine—one reason why constipation may occur more frequently as you get older. Fiber helps keep things moving. Men 50-plus should aim for 30 grams of fiber per day; women, 21 grams. Get your fill by eating plenty of whole-grain cereals and breads, fruits, vegetables and beans.
Metabolism slows by 1 to 2 percent each decade after age 30. When you’re young, muscle burns up to 10 times more calories per pound than fat. As you age, muscle metabolism decreases. So even if you maintain the same level of exercise and calorie intake, you tend to accumulate fat. Regular exercise can help offset reduced muscle metabolism and help you stay lean. So will choosing nutrient-dense, lower-calorie foods.
Years of exposure to UV light and smoke may contribute to age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in older people. But an antioxidant-rich diet may help. Studies link higher intakes of vitamins C and E, beta carotene and zinc as well as lutein and zeaxanthin (antioxidants in yellow and green vegetables and egg yolks) and omega-3 fats with reduced risk for AMD.
Over the years, the heart and artery walls thicken and stiffen, which often results in high blood pressure and plaque buildup. Earlier this year, Greek scientists reported that the more closely people followed a Mediterranean diet—rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, fish and poultry, dairy and olive oil, with moderate amounts of wine and little red meat—the less likely they were to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol or obesity.
From age 30 on, cells that build bone become less active while those that dismantle bone keep working. (In women, decreasing estrogen during menopause accelerates this loss.) Bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D, which enhances calcium absorption, become increasingly important as you age. New research indicates that vitamin K—essential to the proteins that rebuild bone and abundant in leafy greens—also helps reduce age-related bone loss.