Dairy-Happy 20s, Soy-Full 60s: Foods to Focus on at Every Age

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There are some undisputed basics when it comes to healthy eating. You want to eat lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. And you want to make sure you’re consuming enough calories to keep you healthy and energetic — but not so many that you gain excess weight. In other words, a nutritious, balanced diet.

As with most things, diet is not one-size-fits-all. Here are the key extras you need to focus on decade by decade.

In your 20s

“This is the time to establish good eating habits that will be the foundation for your healthy lifestyle,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These are prime years for building bone (bone mass peaks in the 20s), so be sure to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D.

Dairy products — like yogurt, milk and cheese — are the best sources of calcium, but you’ll also find some calcium in dark, leafy greens, broccoli and edamame. Vitamin D is harder to get through diet alone, so talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.

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In your 30s

This is when many women focus on having children and need to make their health a priority. Folic acid is a must-have nutrient during this decade for anyone even considering conceiving. “Folic acid helps prevent birth defects of the spinal cord and brain, which occur at a very early stage of development, before many women even know they’re pregnant,” says Wright. “So it’s important to take a vitamin with folic acid and eat folic acid-rich foods like dark green, leafy vegetables, beans, seeds and citrus fruit.”

Omega-3s are important for heart health, but also for developing babies, so try to include omega-3-rich foods, like salmon and walnuts, in your diet. And since many women in their 30s suffer from anemia, getting adequate iron is essential. You can find it in spinach, dried fruit, red meat, beans and iron-fortified breads and cereals.

In your 40s and 50s

“Hormonal changes and a declining metabolism can lead to unwanted weight gain around this time,” warns Wright. So a healthy diet that helps you maintain your weight is vital.

Load up on fruits and vegetables — they’re packed with fiber and nutrients, but have very few calories, making them ideal for helping maintain a healthy weight. They’re also a great source of antioxidants, the chemicals that help prevent cell damage and may play a role in preventing many diseases, including cancer.

In your 60s and beyond

How you eat can help slow down bone and muscle loss as well as keep your energy levels high. Getting plenty of lean protein — fish, lean meat, beans, soy — will bolster your muscle mass, allowing you to maintain strength and stay active.

Since this is also a time when bone loss can lead to fractures, make sure you’re getting adequate calcium and vitamin D in your diet or through supplements. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Being dehydrated will zap your energy, so keep a bottle of H2O handy and sip on it throughout the day.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.