A Dietary Guide to Healthy Ageing in Middle Age
As we age, we naturally experience various degrees of muscle loss, bone loss, and a slowing metabolism. While ageing is inevitable, and we have no control over our genes, we can significantly influence healthy aging by modifying our lifestyles, by refraining from smoking and substance use, and by optimizing social activities, diet, and physical exercise. By healthy ageing, I mean extending the number of healthy, active years of your life. While it is generally accepted today that smoking and substance use are detrimental for our health, it remains unknown to many people that having a strong social support system, exercising regularly, and consuming a largely plant-based diet have been shown to be some of the strongest promoters of healthy ageing. In this article, I will be focusing on the role of diet in healthy ageing.
I’ve written an article in the past on the importance of protein in our diet to prevent sarcopenia, but didn’t go into detail about protein’s role in preserving lean body mass, as well as improving metabolism. It has been shown that a “higher” protein diet can aid in weight loss, specifically burning fat while maintaining muscle mass (with physical exercise). A study that observed two groups of subjects, those on a lower protein diet, and those on a higher protein diet, found that after 6 weeks, those on the higher protein diet gained 2.4lbs more muscle and lost 2.9lbs more fat. This is relevant to those in middle age since it is generally more difficult to gain/maintain muscle and lose those extra pounds around your waist.
The current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight (0.8 g/kg), but research suggests that adults over the age of 50 require more to preserve their muscle mass. According to the studies above, the amount of protein needed to maintain muscle mass and support an active lifestyle at this age is closer to 0.5 – 0.9 grams per pound of body weight (1.2- 2.0 g/kg).
Important to note is that increasing your protein intake does NOT mean you have to eat more meat. Plant-based foods such as beans, lentils, and various seeds are packed with protein, as well as fiber, polyphenols and essential vitamins and minerals.
Next up, fiber. Consuming adequate amounts of fiber promotes a healthy gut microbiome, healthy digestion, heart health, slows the absorption of sugar, and helps maintain a healthy weight. We recommend getting fiber from as wide of a range of fruits and vegetables as possible. This allows our gut microbes to feed on a variety of fiber molecules, improving gut microbial richness and diversity.
The RDA for fiber is 25 – 38 grams per day for women and men, respectively; however, as an insider, Dr. Mayer strives for as much as 50 grams/day from fruits and vegetables alone!
Next, we have Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet are associated with lower rates of cognitive decline and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. While there is no RDA for omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA, DHA), we recommend incorporating nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and smaller fish (mackerel, sardine, herring) regularly in your diet – if you choose not to eat fish, algae is a great alternative as that is actually where the levels of omega-3 originate from in the fish. I’m not familiar with the optimal way to consume algae, but there are plenty of omega-3 supplements with algae in them.
Polyphenols. If you’re a follower of Dr. Mayer, you know these are his favorite topic. If you’re unfamiliar with what polyphenols are, they are an extensive family of large organic compounds found in plants. Flavonoids, flavanols, and flavones are all classes of polyphenols and have been shown to benefit not only our gut microbes, but once broken down into smaller, absorbable components have been shown to have beneficial effects on metabolism, the heart, and the brain.
Unfortunately, like omega-3s, there is no RDA due to the FDA not recognizing them as health-promoting. Because of this, we recommend consuming a largely plant-based diet to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of polyphenols in your diet. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, cocoa, red wine, coffee, and green tea are all excellent sources of polyphenols.
Lastly, ensuring an adequate number of micronutrients, such as vitamin B12, potassium, vitamin D, and calcium in your diet is important as we age. Again, consuming a largely plant-based diet with a wide range of fruits and vegetables will get you an adequate amount of these, except for vitamin B12.
Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte with an RDA of 2,600mg for women and 3,400mg for men. It is associated with lower risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease, while also supporting healthy bones. Some of our favorite sources are bananas, dates, peaches, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamin D is important for both bone and immune health. Lower levels are associated with a higher risk for cognitive decline, frailty, poor heart health, depression, osteoporosis, and type-2 diabetes.
While we’re able to get vitamin D from some foods such as mushrooms, egg yolks, fatty fish and some dairy products, our bodies can also produce vitamin D from the sun. Ensuring enough time outdoors is critical for sufficient levels. However, because many of our careers don’t allow us to be outside for extended periods of time, once around age 50, it is often recommended to take a supplement of 600 IU or greater (please consult your doctor).
Like vitamin D and potassium, calcium is also important for the health of our bones. It is important to note that postmenopausal women have a higher risk for osteoporosis and don’t absorb calcium as efficiently. The RDA for those individuals is 1,200mg per day while others need around 1,000mg per day.
Foods with high amounts of calcium are cheese, yogurt, leafy greens, as well as soy and almond milks (recommended over dairy milk).
Lastly, vitamin B12. B12 plays a key role in energy metabolism, red blood cell production, immune function, as well as brain and heart health. Around age 50, our bodies don’t absorb vitamin B12 as well as they did before.
Those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, pay close attention here! Because vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, you may be at risk of low B12 levels. Adults over the age of 50 are recommended to consume 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day, but it is likely your doctor may recommend a supplement as many are deficient in this vitamin.
All in all, the best way to age healthily in your middle age years is to consume a largely, varied plant-based diet, packed with whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, various beans, whole grains, lean proteins (if not vegan/vegetarian) and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil. Limiting processed foods as well as consuming fruits and vegetables at each meal can do wonders for your long-term health and allow your body to age gracefully.
E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with both a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He is fascinated by the interactions of brain, gut and microbiome, and the role of nutrition in influencing the health of our microbiome, as well as our own well-being.