Over 50 is hardly over the hill, but if you're in that age range, you know your body and metabolism are changing. While there isn't one best diet for over 50 years old, there are some good foods to include in your diet and a few to limit. Doing so can prevent weight gain that often comes with aging.
If you’re over 50 and having trouble losing weight, avoid sugary and highly refined carbs. Instead, choose more high-fiber fruits and vegetables, and pair them with healthy fat and lean protein to help jump-start your metabolism. Consult with your doctor for guidance.
Aging and Your Metabolism
It's probably no surprise that your metabolism slows down as you age. Many people start to notice it as early as their 30s. What is surprising, however, is just how much your metabolism slows down and which population experiences the greatest impact.
As you age, your body composition changes and this accounts for much of the slowdown in your metabolism. Everyone loses muscle mass and most people gain more fat mass. Since muscle tissue is what's most metabolically active, that affects how many calories you burn, or your resting energy expenditure (REE).
A study published in April 2015 in the journal Maturitas found that the rate of the slowdown in your metabolism is largely affected by your sex, age and body mass index (BMI).
In this study on 3,442 adults of various ages and BMIs, researchers found that the more overweight you are, the more your REE declines with age. They also found that all women start to gain weight around the age of 47, which coincides with menopause. In men, the shift in metabolic rate seems to depend on weight. Normal weight men start to slow down around the age of 39; overweight men around the age of 43; and obese men, around the age of 54.
They confirmed that those who are leaner maintain their metabolic rate better than those who are overweight or obese. Everyone slows down though, which means your calories need to come down to compensate. Depending on your weight and BMI, you can benefit from downsizing what you eat by about 40 to 90 fewer calories per day each decade.
Read more: Recommended Calorie Intake for Weight Loss
Aging, Calories and Weight Loss
If you're over 50, it's a good time to clean up your diet now, rather than waiting until weight gain gets out of control. That doesn't mean you have to follow a special low carb diet or a very low calorie diet though.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the best diet for over 50 years old, or healthy aging in general, involves making shifts away from higher calorie meals and snacks toward lower calorie, more nutrient-dense foods.
They recommend swapping out foods, especially snacks that are high in sugar and fat, for healthier, whole foods, like fruits and vegetables. For example, swap carrots and hummus for chips, a piece of fruit for cookies, or unsweetened iced tea instead of soda.
By making some swaps to get rid of excess sugar, you'll automatically be eating fewer calories, and more of a low carb diet, without having to follow a specific diet plan. Another bonus of eating more whole foods, and especially fruits and vegetables, is that they provide more vitamins, minerals, fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants that can keep you healthy as you age.
When it comes to cutting calories, it's not just about eating the best diet for over 50 years old. Cleaning up your diet certainly helps to cut calories, but increasing your activity is just as important. The more physically active you are, the more flexibility you can have with your diet.
According to the National Institutes of Health, if you're over 50 and physically active, you can eat between 400 and 600 calories more than someone who's sedentary. Or, you can bank those extra calories and lose weight faster.
Where You Store Fat Matters
When you're over 50, where you carry your weight is even more important than how much you weigh. People who carry weight around their abdomen versus their hips and thighs are at greater risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
If you're more of an "apple shape" it means you have more abdominal or visceral fat, and it's the visceral fat that increases your risk. Because visceral fat drives up your blood sugar, you can benefit from a diet low in carbs that's also high in fiber and includes some lean protein and healthy fats with each meal and snack.
A large study that analyzed 11 clinical studies with 1,369 participants found that very low carb keto or Atkins-style diets promoted the most weight loss and reductions in metabolic disease risk compared to other diets. The results were published in the British Journal of Nutrition in February 2016.
Read more: Diets for Visceral Fat
You don't have to go keto-low though. Several other studies, including one published in December 2015 in Clinical Nutrition, found that a Mediterranean-style diet is helpful in reducing overall weight, waist circumference, and BMI. The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced risk of metabolic diseases.
The Mediterranean diet is focused around more fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil. It also includes small amounts of chicken, dairy foods and eggs but its very low in sweets and added sugars.
Worst Carb After 50
For most people, the worst carb after 50, or any age for that matter, is sugar. Foods that are high in added sugar, like baked goods, sweetened soft drinks, candy, ice cream or other sweet treats are high in calories and provide low to no nutritional value.
If you want a good place to start cutting calories, start with your sweets. Many people are surprised to learn just how many calories they're eating from sugary foods. They focus instead on limiting starchy carbs.
Carbs like potatoes, pasta, bread or rice aren't off-limits just because you're over 50 and gaining weight. You might have to limit your portion sizes and balance them with more vegetables and lean protein, but they can have a place in a healthy diet and definitely aren't the worst carb after 50.
Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health agrees that your body doesn't need any carbs from added sugar. It gets all it needs from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, so those are foods you should be including in your diet every day.
They state that the average American eats the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, which contributes 350 excess calories. If you need to avoid some foods to lose weight, start looking for those with added sugar.
Check your food labels and avoiding foods with these sources of sugar:
- Agave nectar
- Corn syrup
- Crystalline fructose
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
If you eat many foods with added sugar, try to wean yourself off them gradually. You'll find it gets easier over time. When you work on adding in more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins at each meal, any sugar cravings will gradually subside and you'll probably find it easier to maintain a healthier weight as you age.
- Maturitas: “Age-Related Changes in Resting Energy Expenditure in Normal Weight, Overweight and Obese Men and Women”
- National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Aging: “Smart Food Choices For Healthy Aging”
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Effects of Low-Carbohydrate Diets v. Low-Fat Diets on Body Weight and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials”
- Clinical Nutrition: “Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet Is Inversely Associated With Visceral Abdominal Tissue in Caucasian Subjects”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Added Sugar in the Diet”
- Medline Plus; Weight Control; April 26, 2011
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; Weight Management Tips — Diet
- Medline Plus; Fruits and Vegetables; May 2, 2011