A Guy’s Guide to Healthy Eating Through the Years

Gentlemen, you know that a healthy, balanced diet is key to weight control, disease prevention and top physical and mental performance throughout your years. But at each phase of your life there are some nutrients we think you should give a little more attention to—either because you may not be getting enough of them for optimal health, or because you may be taking in more than you should. The amount you eat and the number of calories you take in should also change as you get older. Our decade-by-decade guide can help you make better choices about what—and how—you eat:

In Your 20s: You’re likely very active at this age, and you may not pay much attention to what’s on your plate. But it’s never too early to become more mindful about your meals, both to tailor your nutrition to your active lifestyle and to prevent disease down the road.

Protein. It’s prime time for protein, the nutrient that’s key to muscle growth and maintenance. As you get older, it will become harder to build lean muscle, no matter how much protein you get, so seize the day. Opt mainly for lean sources, such as fish, poultry and beans, to keep calories in check.

Salt. Too much salt contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease, the number one killer of men. We encourage you to start dialing back on salt today:  “We’re starting to see younger and younger men with blood pressure issues,” says Andres Valenzuela, M.S., R.D.N., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Your recommended daily sodium limit is 2,300 mg per day (1,500 mg for certain groups). It’s easy to blow right past this mark if you’re eating a lot of processed food, canned goods and restaurant dishes—as many men do in their twenties—so limit these picks and start checking labels for sodium content.

In Your 30s: Career, family and other responsibilities take center stage for most men in their thirties, and it can be hard to find time to fit in exercise.

Portions. If you’re like many men, you’re a bit more conscious about what’s on your plate by this age, but how much isn’t on your radar yet. If you continue to eat the same amount while logging less exercise time, you will gain weight. Use these portion pointers and pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness signals before and during your meal so you don’t overdo it.

Omega-3s. The earlier you start increasing your intake of this heart-protective fat, which is found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, the better. “Omega-3s help reduce inflammation, keep blood vessels clear and reduce triglycerides, a harmful blood fat,” Valenzuela says. The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fatty fish per week. Try developing a taste for fish if it’s not your protein of choice, and ask your doctor if you should take a fish oil supplement.

In Your 40s: This is the decade when some men will begin to see the first signs of diet-related health problems, like high cholesterol, hypertension or even heart disease.

Fiber. Men often miss out on this important nutrient, possibly because protein-rich foods tend to take the starring role in their meals, crowding out produce, whole grains and other fiber-rich picks. Fiber aids digestion and controls levels of cholesterol and blood sugar, helping to reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. Foods high in fiber also tend to be high in disease-fighting antioxidants. Most men in their 40s get around 17 grams of fiber a day, but it’s best to aim higher: 38 grams are recommended.

Saturated fat. By now you’ve probably heard that saturated fat isn’t as harmful to your health as was once believed. That’s true to a certain extent, but it’s still best eaten in moderation. Foods high in saturated fat raise your cholesterol levels and trigger inflammation, contributing to your risk of conditions like heart disease and cancer. If you are going to eat red meat and other high-fat animal products, look for leaner cuts (choose a filet over a rib eye, for example) and opt for grass-fed beef, which contains some healthful omega-3 fats. Visit our article, The Truth About Fat and Cholesterol, to learn more about making healthy choices.

In Your 50s and 60s: Men who have been diagnosed with heart disease or other conditions should work on managing them, while those who have been able to sidestep these problems should strive to maintain their health.

Antioxidant-rich foods. Antioxidants are powerful compounds that help protect against cellular damage and reduce the risk for a number of diseases. The best way to ensure you’re getting a variety of antioxidants is to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits. Aim to fill about half your plate with colorful produce. Many men avoid cooked vegetables; if this sounds like you, focus on fresh salads and raw veggie snacks.

Vitamin D. Men are getting less of this nutrient than they used to, even though research indicates just how important it can be for health. (Part of this is due to the increased awareness in sun protection—the body produces the vitamin with exposure to sunlight.) Not only does vitamin D help with bone health—an issue for men as well as women—but it may also protect against heart disease, some cancers and multiple sclerosis. Aim for 600 IU per day from sources like fish, eggs and fortified foods and drinks; you’ll need 800 IU after age 71.

Sugar. Our bodies have a harder time managing our blood sugar levels as we age; we also become more resistant to insulin, the hormone that helps usher glucose (sugar) into our cells for energy. Reducing your sugar intake will not only help control blood sugar levels and protect against diabetes, it will also help prevent weight gain and fat storage, both of which can increase your risk for the disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons, per day. (The natural sugars in fruit and dairy don’t count toward this tally.)

Salt. At age 51, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of sodium drops from 2,300 mg daily for healthy adults to 1,500 mg. It’s very difficult to reach this goal, but focusing on home-cooked meals, which almost always contain less salt than store-bought food and restaurant fare, is a simple way to at least move toward it. Potassium helps counter some of the effects of salt on blood pressure, so be sure there are plenty of foods rich in this nutrient (like vegetables, fruits, dairy and beans) in your diet.

70s and Beyond: The goal now is to stay active and mobile, so you can enjoy a healthy and full life.

Calories. Our appetites tend to decrease with age, so you may find that you actually fall short on calories these days. “Men in their late 70s and older may struggle to get enough calories and protein,” Valenzuela says. When you have a low appetite, the thought of large meals may turn you off from eating at all. If you’re losing your appetite, consider switching from a few large meals to several small meals and snacks throughout the day. To make sure you’re getting enough, monitoring your weight can help. If you are continually losing weight, you may need to increase the caloric density of your snacks and meals. “This could mean adding things like nut butters to snacks and healthy fats to meals to boost calories,” Valenzuela says.

Protein. We lose muscle mass as we age (a side-effect of declining testosterone levels), so this nutrient is important for maintaining your strength. Continue to focus on lean meats and beans, and choose more protein-rich snacks such as a small serving of cheese with nuts or Greek yogurt (choose low-fat if you have heart issues, high cholesterol or are trying to lose weight).

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