Eating Well at Any Age
It's important to eat right throughout your life and to eat right for your particular stage of life.
That's because we have different nutritional needs as children than we do as adults or senior citizens.
Proper nutrition is important for healthy growth and development.
According to the CDC, eating healthy throughout your life reduces your risk for obesity and helps prevent many chronic health issues, including high blood pressure and heart disease, osteoporosis, elevated cholesterol, diabetes and cancer.
The CDC also stresses that eating a healthy breakfast improves cognition, memory, and mood.
EvergreenHealth nutritionist Marcy Dorsey recommends following these guidelines throughout your life to be as healthy as possible at every age:
- Eat a well-rounded diet with foods from a variety of food groups, including fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean protein and dairy, and healthy fats.
- Eat a recommended five to nine (or even as many as 13) servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Choose produce in different colors for a variety of nutrients and antioxidants along with fiber.
- Limit processed foods and choose whole foods when you can. Processed foods often contain high levels of sodium as well as added sugars and fats.
- Get enough calcium – from dairy and other sources -- and vitamin D, which is particularly important in a northern climate like ours.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Practice “intuitive eating.” Pay attention to your hunger cues – like babies do – and only eat when you are truly hungry, not when you are bored or stressed. Choose reasonable portion sizes, and don’t worry about cleaning your plate. Eat consciously and stop when you’re satisfied.
- Eat regularly, at least every four to five hours, to keep your metabolism steady. Don’t skip breakfast, and plan for snacks between meals to keep you from getting too hungry, which can lead you to make poor food choices.
- Get regular sleep and regular exercise.
These guidelines will help you eat well at any age, but there are additional things you can do to make sure you’re getting the right nutrition at each stage of life.
The CDC reports that on average, 40% of the calories in kids’ diets (ages 2-18) are “empty calories” from added sugars and fats in foods like desserts, pizza and fruit drinks.
In addition, most young Americans do not eat the recommended 2½ to 6½ cups of fruits and vegetables and 2-3 ounces of whole grains each day.
Children need to meet these recommendations, Marcy advises, because they need high-quality food for energy as they grow and develop. Establishing healthy eating and exercise habits when they’re young to reduce the risk of chronic disease later in their lives. Marcy recommends that parents model good eating habits:
- Keep regular mealtimes and cook meals at home
- Include kids in choosing and preparing foods
- Incorporate lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains into the meals you prepare
- Limit salt, sugar, and processed foods
- Keep healthy snacks on hand
Teens and Young Adults
Kids reaching the high-growth puberty period experience a surge in their appetites. Boys in their early teens need approximately 2,800 calories per day, while girls need 2,200.
About half of these calories should come from healthy carbohydrates, including fruits and vegetables. Kids this age get double the protein they need from a typical American diet.
Instead, a well-rounded diet should give adolescents all the nutrients they need, though they need to make sure to get enough iron and calcium. Try low-fat dairy for calcium, lean meat or fish for iron, or dark, leafy greens for both.
Marcy says that keeping teens on the right track nutritionally can be tough because they are highly influenced by food advertising and even more so by their peers.
She recommends that parents promote a healthy body image and offer healthy food choices rather than force kids to eat their vegetables.
Some teens and young adults experiment with vegetarianism, Marcy says. If they do, make sure they do it in a healthy way, getting enough protein and B vitamins from non-meat sources.
Marcy advises adults to maintain good nutrition throughout their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
“Eat lots of colorful whole foods to get fiber and antioxidants,” she says. “And begin eating foods high in calcium in your 20s to avoid osteoporosis in your later years.”
Women who wish to become pregnant need extra folate – a B vitamin found in foods such as dark, leafy greens – before and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
Pregnant women also need extra omega-3 fatty acids for healthy fetal brain development. Marcy advises getting these from fatty fish such as salmon, from walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seed, as well as from greens.
Seniors usually need to eat less than younger adults. Some seniors do have trouble getting adequate nutrition due to age- and disease-related issues that impact chewing and swallowing or digestion and nutrient absorption.
Marcy advises seniors to focus on getting protein because their bodies are less efficient in digesting protein, and it is important for them to get enough to sustain their metabolism throughout the day.
Marcy also stresses the importance of seniors getting omega-3s, which are good for preventing memory loss and dementia. She recommends that seniors eat dark, leafy greens daily, fish two or three times per week, or an ounce of nuts or seeds every other day.
Another important nutrient for seniors is calcium to help maintain bone health. Calcium also comes from greens as well as from dairy.
Eating well helps you grow, develop, learn, and stay strong. Whether you are 22 or 82, it’s important to eat well at every age to help you live a long and healthy life.
Healthy Snack Ideas
This is Marcy’s go-to list of healthy snack ideas. These portion sizes are for adults and seniors. In smaller portions, they make great snacks for kids as well. Each combines a protein or fat with a carbohydrate to stabilize blood sugar and metabolism.
- ¼ cup hummus and 1 cup vegetable sticks
- Handful of nuts or seeds (1 ounce) and a small piece of fruit
- 2 cups popcorn (air-popped) and 1 piece of string cheese
- Small apple or half a banana and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
- ¼ avocado on a small handful of whole-grain crackers
- 6 ounces plain yogurt with ¾ cup berries (can be drizzled with 1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup)
- 1 cup of bean soup
- ½ sandwich on whole-grain bread with protein and vegetables
- Hard-boiled egg with a small salad
- ½ cup tuna fish with celery or a whole-grain pita
- Fruit smoothie (8 ounces) with yogurt and flaxseed
- Small corn tortilla with cheese, beans, and salsa
- Rice cake with 1 tablespoon nut butter or 2 tablespoons hummus
- ¾ cup quinoa and vegetable salad
- ½ cup cottage cheese with ½ cup fruit
- Small baked potato or sweet potato with salsa and cheese
- Piece of dark chocolate (1 ounce) and a cup of berries