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A healthy diet is a key component of self-care—but the best nutrition choices for a 25-year-old person won’t look the same as the best choices for a 60-something.
What we put in our bodies matters. The food, vitamins, minerals and liquids we consume have a dramatic impact on our health throughout life. The effects of what we consume can optimize our health with the right choices and balance. They also can be detrimental when our choices and balance are wrong.
Nutrition plays an important role in our overall health and well-being, affecting how we perform and feel. If we can make one choice to improve our health, many experts say, it’s being more aware and careful about what we choose to put — and not put — in our bodies. While exercise and physical activity also are important, it’s nearly impossible to exercise oneself out of a bad diet at any age. Food input, it turns out, is even more important than calorie-burn output.
How can we make the best nutrition choices at a time when everyone is busy and options for less-than-optimal food choices seem to beckon from every intersection?
Experts say an important part of success is understanding the role of nutrition and keeping what we eat and drink top-of-mind. Once we understand the building blocks of nutrition, we can make better choices, recognizing we also have some leeway for days when we fall short of goals — or when we just want to have a slice of birthday cake.
Proper nutrition doesn’t have to sound and feel like a job. Rather, experts say, it is far better to develop healthy eating habits that simply becomes a part of what we do. Eating right can even become fun when we add creativity to commitment.
“It gets down to developing healthy eating patterns,” says Maria Boosalis, PhD, MPH, RD, LD, a nutrition, health and wellness consultant and educator. “We should be looking at the totality of what we consume. Think of nutrition as putting together all the pieces of a puzzle. You want to get enough of everything without getting too much of anything.”
Boosalis adds, “The other part is that we should enjoy what we eat. That is important if we’re going to succeed with healthy eating. When we’re trying to eat right, Americans [tend] not to do this. Instead, we focus on what we can’t eat.”
And that’s no fun. It makes nutrition too much like “eat your vegetables,” Boosalis says. Instead, she counsels to add more variety to our plates — and eating foods (including vegetables, of course) that taste good as well as being good for us.
Most nutrition experts suggest the best outcomes result when people develop healthy eating habits for life, no matter what stage of life they are in.
“One thing we all need to do in America is stop eating so much processed food,” says Amrit Devgun, ND, a naturopathic doctor who practices at Northwestern’s Health Clinic in Bloomington. “We are an overwhelmed and overbooked society. As a result, one thing we’re putting on the back burner is time in the kitchen. We need to bring people back into the kitchen to cook real food.”
Devgun says the experience of preparing and eating a meal impacts the digestive system and nutritional intake. Eating fast food in the car strains the body in ways that go beyond the health impacts of the poor choice of food, she says. Conversely, preparing a meal and taking in all the smells and experiences leading up to eating surprisingly help the body digest food.
“The digestive process starts when you start to think about a meal, smell the food and cook the food,” she says. “It starts well before you get to the table to eat — and hopefully you are getting to a table to eat.”
She adds, “Getting back to the kitchen helps people enjoy their food more. Kids will take more interest in their food. When I was in elementary school, my grandma lived with us. We could smell her cooking outside on our street as we headed for home. The salivary and digestive enzymes started flowing right there. I think that element is too often missing today.”
While many nutritional basics apply throughout life, experts say certain advice can benefit specific age groups. We interviewed experts across the disciplines whose practices focus on nutrition to make age-specific recommendations.
20s & 30s
While many Americans might think these are the years when we can afford not to focus so much on nutrition, our experts say it’s just the opposite. They note these are critical years to develop an appreciation for and an ability to eat healthy — habits that have the best chance of sticking and positively impacting health for life.
Boosalis is a strong advocate of the healthy eating guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at choosemyplate.gov.
“We have to choose wisely, and these guidelines are a great place to start, especially if you start early in life,” she says. “The availability today of unhealthy foods is a real problem. A lot of the time, the hardest thing for people to get are vegetables. I will hear people say, “Oh, I have to prepare them — go home and wash and cook them. I don’t have time.’
“But if you go to the market, you can find lots of individual packages of prepared, washed vegetables,” Boosalis adds. “They have all of these grab-and-go fruits and vegetables. Also, you can get different blends of lettuces that are pre-mixed and even pre-washed.”
Devgun advises young people, as well as parents with children, to learn to shop thinking of the colors of the rainbow.
“Here’s a simple tip when you’re putting your vegetables and fruits in your cart: Lay them out as the different colors of the rainbow,” she says. “The reds, oranges, yellows, greens — all the way to the purples and whites. Then, as you’re shopping, look and see what you are missing.
“You may see that you don’t have enough in your white pile. So instead of picking up purple onions, pick up white onions,” Devgun continues. “Even if you’re not able to get all of the colors of the rainbow, just doing this will raise your awareness.”
Devgun also advises young people to learn to “shop in the peripheries” of the grocery store, where fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins and dairy foods are sold. The middle aisles are stocked with more processed foods.
Along with developing healthy eating habits in one’s 20s and 30s, experts say, younger people need to ensure they are getting enough calories from the right sources, especially if they exercise a lot or are otherwise active.
These also tend to be years when young families are growing, so women should focus on getting enough folic acid and iron in their diets to aid with pregnancy and menstruation. Young men should focus on adequate zinc intake, which aids in sperm production.
40s & 50s
“These are the years when our hormones start to shift,” Devgun says. “They start to go down. People think it starts happening in their 60s. But these changes start to take place for men and women much earlier.”
As a result, she says, “This is the time to think about making sure people are getting enough root vegetables. And they need to start thinking about getting a lot of orange and red food in their diets for some of the nutrients that are available.”
These bright-colored fruits and vegetables contain zeaxanthin, flavonoids, lycopene, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A (also known as beta-carotene), among others.
Older adults also can show early signs of arthritis and other degenerative conditions in these middle years. For them, realizing what foods to pick and to avoid so as not to exacerbate these conditions is an important nutritional need, says Noah Emanuel, DC, a sports chiropractic fellow at Northwestern’s Human Performance Center includes an emphasis on nutrition.
“For older adults, the question I have is whether their food is meeting their needs with aging,” Emanuel says. “For example, if they have arthritis, are they choosing the correct nutrients to keep inflammation down so they can be active?”
Similarly, Emanuel says, older adults need to be more focused on what foods could make nascent health issues worse.
“There’s an acronym for it: GPS,” he says. “Glutens, processed foods and refined sugar. Refined sugar in particular is really going to throw off your blood sugar and cause problems with inflammation in the body. If we cut out those foods, the symptoms usually drop, and people are able to accomplish much more with physical activity.”
60s & 70s
“I guess what I notice a lot with the older population is their food timing isn’t always beneficial for them,” Emanuel says. “They may skip multiple meals and not focus as much as they should on food choices. So they go for the same granola bar rather than taking time to cook breakfast. It can make a huge difference to start with something higher in protein than a granola bar or a bowl of cereal.”
Emanuel will suggest certain supplements to older clients. “I work with some former pro football players, and I have prescribed supplements such as magnesium to help with brain function and omega 3 if they have had concussions,” he says. “Also, if older patients are not consuming enough calories, I can give them some kind of medical food shake to help.”
But even with supplements, Emanuel notes: the biggest thing he preaches to his patients is that food comes first. A supplement can only supplement a healthy diet. Otherwise it’s kind of worthless. I want to make sure my patients have the base groundwork of a solid diet in place. Once they have that, we can supplement to achieve the goals they’re trying to achieve.”
Boosalis is not a fan of supplements and instead suggests referring to the healthy eating guidelines at choosemyplate.gov, which change with age and levels of physical activity.
“The beauty is there are eating plans that have been developed and attached,” she says of the website. “Generally, later in life, for a lot of reasons, we tend not to need as many calories. But it depends on the person’s overall health, level of muscle and level of physical activity.”
Devgun says, “In our 60s and beyond, we have to start thinking about issues such as skin dryness. Things are breaking down with the aging process. So, essential fatty acids such as omega 3 fish oils are really important.”
We also know the purple-colored vegetables are important for brain health, Devgun adds, and bones are becoming weaker. Therefore, she said, “we want to make sure people are getting a little bit more meat for bone health and density.”
Start with Awareness
All of the people we spoke with say the most important piece of nutrition advice they give people — no matter what their age — is to start focusing on nutrition. Achieving healthy nutrition starts with awareness.
“Across all age groups, I talk to my patients about the issues of convenience and fad diets,” Emanuel says. “I ask them, ‘Is it convenient to eat healthy?’ Most of the time they will tell me no, or they think they don’t have time to make healthy eating convenient. So we work on that. Also, what they are seeing in social media often is not helpful — messages such as, ‘With this diet you can lose 20 pounds in three weeks.’ I try to educate my patients about what will happen if they keep up unhealthy eating habits or follow fad diets.”
Boosalis says, “My big mantra is variety and moderation. Get a variety of different foods and eat in moderation within your caloric needs to maintain healthy weight. The ancient Greeks said, ‘Moderation in all things.’ How does moderation fit into your healthy eating patterns, and are you getting all of your nutrients before you go to other foods?”
About the Author:
Rob Karwath is a former newspaper and TV reporter and editor who is president and CEO of North Coast Communications, with offices in Duluth, Minnesota, and Lawrence, Kansas.