You Really Are What You Eat: When It Comes to Staving Off the Problems of Aging, Your Diet Is Your Friend- or Enemy
If your mental image of an older person is someone frail and thin, it may be time for an update. For the generation currently moving through middle age and beyond, a new concern is, well, growing: obesity. Government figures show that Americans in their 60s today are about 10 pounds heavier than their counterparts of just a decade ago. And an even more worrisome bulge is coming: A typical woman in her 40s now weighs 168 pounds, versus 143 pounds in the 1960s. “People used to start midlife [at a lower weight] and then lose weight when they got into their 50s, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore,” says David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of The End of Overeating.
If you’re entering that danger zone now, be aware that it’s not going to get any easier to lose weight, because people need fewer calories as they age. Blame slowing metabolism and the body’s tendency starting in midlife to lose muscle mass—a process known as sarcopenia—and gain fat, especially around the abdomen. (Fat burns fewer calories than does muscle.) “All that conspires to make it harder for people to maintain the same body weight when they eat their usual diets,” says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “People have fewer discretionary calories to play with, so they need to make better food choices.”
But paying attention to what you eat isn’t only about controlling weight; the need for certain vitamins and minerals increases with age. One is calcium, necessary to protect bones. Another is B12, since some older adults make less of the stomach acid required to absorb the vitamin. More vitamin D also is required. “The skin gets less efficient at converting sunlight into this vitamin, so more is needed from other sources,” Lichtenstein says. Fewer than 7 percent of Americans between ages 50 and 70 get enough vitamin D from the foods they eat, and fewer than 26 percent get enough calcium.