Women's food choices should be keyed to age, lifestyle, and nutritional needs.

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Diets for the Ages

Women's food choices should be keyed to age, lifestyle, and nutritional needs.
By Star Lawrence

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

WebMD Feature

Most women reach a point where they taper off eating cheese fries and fix salads instead -- but nutritionists say there is more to "eating your age" than that.

People of any age need certain core foods, points out Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. These are fruit, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and certain fats. They provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that build strong bodies and stave off diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

How to get these -- and how much of them to eat -- depends on age and level of activity. You must eat less as a grownup than you did when you were younger.

In the teen years, most girls are pretty active. "Even though they are still growing, most American teens get enough protein," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical School, pointing to an otherwise regrettable intake of hamburgers.

Calcium is important during the teen years because the bones that will support you for a lifetime are being built up. "Some kids, especially girls, do not get enough calcium," says Audrey Cross, PhD, assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the Columbia University School of Public Health. "They need four servings a day of dairy or dark green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, kale, or collards." Cereal with milk, a colorful salad at lunch, rice tossed with red and yellow peppers, chicken, a glass of milk with dinner, maybe a bowl of frozen yogurt later -- it adds up. "But some girls think dairy is 'fattening,' forgetting about skim milk and nonfat yogurt. Teens should drink skim milk instead of soda."

"Kids do not get enough vegetables," Heller agrees. "The best way to be sure kids eat enough is have veggies in the house and set a good example. Kids need to see parents eating a couple of vegetables [as well as beans, tofu, and nuts] with their meals." The beauty part of this is once the kids get "the habit," they will carry it over and show their own kids how it's done.

Eating Correctly in Your 20s and 30s

These are the childbearing years. Women must be sure they eat enough green veggies to keep their bodies ready with sufficient folic acid to prevent birth defects in any babies that come along. This means loading up on the dark green, leafy vegetables as well as taking a folic acid supplement before getting pregnant.

According to nutritionist Cross, eating correctly in your 20s and 30s can be a matter of visual aesthetics, rather than a tiresome exercise in milligram counting. "Eat by the colors," urges Cross. She explains that if you put a rainbow on your plate, you will probably be getting the nutrients you need. Iceberg, potatoes, white bread -- these probably are not as loaded with goodies as a riotously colorful plate of sweet potatoes, mixed greens, peppers and penne, and golden roasted chicken! Put the mushy next to the crispy, the smooth next to the noisy.

"Stop worrying about counting things and worry about taste and eating," Cross says.

However, the 20s and especially your 30s may also mark the end of your participation in the work softball team; you may go salsa dancing less than you did before. Your caloric requirements begin to drop. An active woman in her 20s, Nelson says, may get away with 2,500 calories a day -- she has to see if she is gaining weight on that. Two thousand calories are probably a better target.

Calcium is also important in your 20s. Bones aren't fully formed in your teens, they continue to strengthen until age 30. Vitamin D is also important in these years -- you may get enough from milk if you drink it, or the sun, but Nelson says some women should supplement. You need 200 IU of the vitamin up to age 50, increasing to 400 IU a day from age 50 to 70, and 600 IU above 70.

Molly Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital in New Orleans, says magnesium is also important at this age because it can help with PMS. Load up on spinach, peanuts, black beans, brown rice, and sea bass. Similarly, vitamin B-6, found in garbanzo beans, sunflower seeds, and avocado, can help with fluid retention.

Women who menstruate heavily may need additional iron. "Many breakfast cereals are supplemented or you can cook in an iron skillet," advises Heller. Other sources include red meat, dried fruits, and dried beans. Kimball adds that iron from non-meat sources is absorbed better if vitamin C is added -- so throw some orange slices in that spinach salad.

The 40s and 50s

These are the menopausal years. All of a sudden, your body is using food very efficiently, socking away excess fat the second after you miss your morning jog. That Toll House cookie can take a toll compared with a serving of fruit salad.

Constipation may become an issue -- women should increase their fiber to 20 to 30 grams a day -- not a problem if you are eating those five to seven servings of colored veggies.



Diet for the Ages - Women

By Star Lawrence

Reviewed by Michael Smith, MD