To grow old gracefully, living a healthy lifestyle is a must. And a big component of that is what you eat.
Whereas it might have been easy to bounce back after a day of noshing on fast food in your college years, your body might not recover so well as you add candles to your birthday cake.
No matter what your age, one thing's clear: "It's never too late to start eating healthfully," Allison Bowers, RD, a dietitian in Utica, New York tells LIVESTRONG.com.
A well-balanced diet will fill your plate with everything you need — but don't forget these seven nutrients for longevity.
Protein is a muscle-building macronutrient. And when you're thinking about aging, maintaining muscle mass is about more than just looking lean, it's about building a strong and resilient body against conditions that affect older folks, such as sarcopenia, aka age-related muscle loss.
To guard against sarcopenia as you age, "I typically recommend an even distribution of protein throughout the day by eating three well-balanced meals plus two snacks that have a protein component," Elizabeth Adrian, RD, CDN, founder of City to Sea Nutrition and clinical dietitian at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Studies have shown that an even distribution of protein throughout the day may be associated with higher muscle mass in older adults," she explains.
2+3. Collagen + Vitamin C
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, found in connective tissues (e.g. skin, joints, muscles), according to a 2011 report in Advanced Wound Repair Therapies.
"Our bodies produce less collagen as we age," Adrian says.
For your skin, that loss of collagen translates into a loss of the supportive structure of your skin, leading to wrinkles and loss of elasticity that contributes to sagging.
Collagen supplements, available in powder, capsule and even gummy form, have become popular in recent years. And Adrian points to some limited research that shows taking a collagen peptide supplement daily was found to improve skin elasticity by 40 percent and reduce joint pain by 43 percent compared to a placebo, per the September 2018 issue of Nutrition Research.
However, Adrian suggests keeping perspective: "There is no strong scientific evidence to support that collagen, in food or supplements, can treat or reverse the natural aging process." Still, she emphasizes the importance of getting enough protein in your diet from food.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A type of polyunsaturated fatty acid, omega 3s are found in fish — especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines — as well as plant sources like walnuts and flax seeds.
"These foods can be an excellent source of protein because they also have these fatty oils that reduce the risk of blood clotting," Bowers says. "As we think about aging, we know that healthy blood flow will reduce the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes, which we're more at risk for as we get older," she adds.
Following a Mediterranean-style diet, which emphasizes nuts, seeds and fish and limits red meat will help you get the omega 3s you need. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of non-fried fish per week.
5+6. Calcium + Vitamin D
"We often forget about calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients that are really important for aging, especially if you live in colder climates with less sun exposure during the winter," Bowers says.
"Both calcium and vitamin D support a healthy bone structure and teeth as well as help with blood flow — parts of the body that tend to break down with age," she says. Reminder: vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium.
"For women, in particular, osteoporosis is often a major health concern later in life. Building high bone density in your earlier adult life can help minimize bone loss and protect against osteoporosis later on," Adrian adds.
Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from damage, according to the NIH. They neutralize free radicals, which can contribute to oxidative stress, a process that's linked with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
"Because of the known role of antioxidants in helping to lessen the effects of oxidative stress and cellular damage, naturally occurring antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids and polyphenols, are considered generally beneficial components in the diet," Adrian says. However, for these benefits, you'll have to get antioxidants from food rather than taking a supplement.
"Antioxidants have been shown to work most efficiently when combined with other nutrients and even other antioxidants," she explains. That means aiming for a wide variety of plant foods — eating the rainbow, if you will.
- Carotenoids: These antioxidants are found in leafy green and orange vegetables, like kale, spinach, orange peppers and carrots, per Oregon State University.
- Polyphenols: These antioxidants are found in herbs, spices, dark chocolate and dark-colored berries, per a 2010 report in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- Vitamin C: This nutrient pops up in green peppers, kiwi and strawberries.
- Vitamin E: This nutrient can be found in sunflower seeds, almonds and peanut butter.
- Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism: “Clinical definition of sarcopenia.”
- ScienceDirect: “Collagen”
- Nutrition Research: “Daily oral supplementation with collagen peptides combined with vitamins and other bioactive compounds improves skin elasticity and has a beneficial effect on joint and general wellbeing”
- National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin C”
- National Institutes of Health: “Omega-3 Fatty Acids”
- American Heart Association: “Eating fish twice a week reduces heart stroke risk”
- National Institutes of Health: “Antioxidants: In Depth”
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer database”
- Oregon State University: “α-Carotene, β-Carotene, β-Cryptoxanthin, Lycopene, Lutein, and Zeaxanthin”
- National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin E”