Eat Right After 40
Choose low-fat, nutrient-rich foods for energy, not excess

By Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD

If you're noticing a few tell-tale signs of aging as you reach age 40 and beyond—less-sharp vision, fatigue, or creeping weight gain, to name a few—it's time to reassess your eating habits. By emphasizing nutrient-dense choices while minimizing foods that lack nutritional power, you can delay and even reverse many nagging symptoms of aging.

Root For Plant Foods
Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains top the list of must-eat foods for the 40 and over crowd. These foods are rich in phytonutrients and fiber, natural allies in the prevention and treatment of disease. Catherine Downey, ND, associate dean of the National College for Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, prescribes a simple 3-2-1 formula: "Eat three servings of vegetables, two pieces of fruit, and a whole grain—for example, a cup of brown rice or oatmeal—every day," she says, noting that one cup of food equals one serving. "I don't care if you have to eat them in bed before you go to sleep to fit them in."

Take your pick
Yes, you are what you eat—so make smart food choices to help your body stay healthy as you age. Best bites: deeply colored fruits and vegetables that are packed with age-defying antioxidants.

Ideally you don't wait until bedtime to fulfill your daily quota, but Downey's exuberance is well-founded. Phytonutrients—compounds in plant foods with powerfully beneficial properties—may be your best line of defense against aging, with promising discoveries made almost daily. In one recent study, men aged 40 to 75 who ate two or more servings a week of tomato products, which are rich in lycopene, reduced their prostate cancer risk by up to 36 percent, compared with risk levels prior to the study (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2002, vol. 94, no. 5). Lutein, an antioxidant found in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, appears to protect against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, the major cause of blindness among those over 65 (Journal of Nutrition, 2002, vol. 132, no. 3).

With nutrients that can help stop age-related illness, consistency is key. "Focus on increasing your antioxidant intake all day long because generally antioxidants stay in your bloodstream only for about six hours," says Cheryl Forberg, RD, author of Stop the Clock! Cooking (Avery Penguin Putnam, 2003). "You need to have little infusions of antioxidants throughout the day to maintain optimum levels of antiaging nutrition." To achieve this, choose smart between-meal snacks. Instead of nutrient-deficient crackers, munch on carrots, cherry tomatoes, or dried fruit, and drink unsweetened juice or green tea instead of soda, Forberg advises. And remember to eat high-fiber snacks, such as low-fat, low-sugar granola and whole fruit. A fiber-rich diet protects against colon polyps, precursors to colorectal cancer, currently the second-leading cause of cancer death in American men and women—with people age 50 and older accounting for most cases.

B6, B23, B Wise
It's never too early (or too late) to think about preventing a heart attack or a stroke, devastating health conditions more common in aging bodies. Pay attention to getting enough folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, heart-healthy nutrients that work together to reduce artery-damaging homocysteine in the blood. Legumes, spinach, broccoli, avocados, wheat germ, orange juice, and fortified cereals offer notable amounts of folate, a crucial nutrient. To guard against B12 deficiency—a rare but serious health hazard that a high folate intake can mask—it's wise to take a B12 supplement along with folate.

For vitamin B6, look to meat, fish, poultry, beans, fortified cereals, potatoes, tomato juice, spinach, and bananas. All animal foods contain vitamin B12, as do fortified cereals. Many adults over age 50 lose their ability to absorb vitamin B12 effectively from food sources because their bodies produce less stomach acid and other substances that aid B12's assimilation, so a supplement may be warranted.

Yes To Healthy Fats
The likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common heart-rhythm disorder, increases with age. People with AF, especially those over 65, have a three- to five-times greater risk of stroke than the general population. Healthy fats found in cold-water fish guard against blood clots and irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias, and lower the level of blood-thickening triglycerides. To protect your heart after 40, as risk increases, eat at least two servings a week of salmon, mackerel, herring, or sardines.

Rich in alpha-linoleic acid, flaxseed is the plant world's nutritional equivalent of fatty fish. Grind the seeds or chew them well, or use flaxseed oil in place of less-healthy fats. An added bonus: Flaxseeds are a rich source of lignans, phytoestrogens that may offer protection against certain cancers.

No To Simple Sugars
Limiting saturated and trans fats benefits the heart (and the waistline) at any age—but don't fill up on simple carbohydrates in their place. "Eating tons of sugar in the form of soft drinks and candy can do just as much damage as eating a high-fat diet," says Downey. Too many simple-carb calories lead to high triglycerides and unwanted pounds, and predispose you to Type II diabetes, which accounts for 90 percent of all cases of diabetes in the United States.

Simple sugars also sap energy. "When you're talking about energy, it's as much about what you lose as what you choose," says Forberg. "Whole-grain carbohydrates last a lot longer [in your body] than refined foods. With refined foods, you get quick energy that dissipates quickly, while with whole foods, energy is sustained."

Choices For Life
The ideal antiaging meal, according to Downey, is "a piece of wild salmon, a large bowl of dark green leafy vegetables, and steamed broccoli." Forberg favors whole-grain couscous, "which has three times the fiber of regular couscous and still cooks in the same amount of time."

If you're thinking about a leaner diet similar to what these experts recommend, check with your health care provider if you have a medical condition that requires special dietary consideration. With choices like these, you can eat tasty, healthy foods appropriate not just for today, but for a lifetime.

Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD, is a nutrition educator and the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition (Human Kinetics, 2000).