As women age, it becomes increasingly important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet. A healthy eating plan for women over 50 should incorporate certain foods to provide essential nutrients and protect the body from diseases associated with aging.
Daily Caloric Intake for Women
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that women in their 50s consume between 1,600 to 2,200 calories per day. The lower end of the range is for sedentary adults, while the upper range is for active individuals, or those who walk more than three miles a day at 3 to 4 miles per hour.
Healthy food for 50-year-old women should focus on nutrient-dense sources and lean protein to support bone, muscle and heart functions. There are also hormonal changes, such as decreases in estrogen and progesterone, that have effects on what is needed in a daily diet.
Essential Vitamins for Women
According to the National Institute on Aging, there are key vitamins and nutrients to help maintain healthy body functions for people over 50 years old.
Calcium: Women 51 and older need 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. The body natural breaks down old bone tissue and replaces them with new bone tissue, and calcium is important for building and maintaining bone strength. Peak bone mass is usually reached in the 20s. Sometime around age 30, bone mass stops increasing, which puts older people, especially women, at risk for osteoporosis, a condition where bones are weakened and can break easily.
Women are more likely than men to get osteoporosis for a combination of reasons. Generally speaking, they have smaller frames and thinner bones, they may eat fewer nutrients to support their needs, and they may participate in less resistance exercise to strengthen bone. In addition, when women reach menopause, which, on average, occurs around age 51 in North America, estrogen levels drop, which has negative effects on bone density.
Good food sources of calcium include milk and dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, soybeans, sardines and salmon with bones and fortified foods.
Vitamin D: Women 51 and older should aim for 600 milligrams of vitamin D per day. Vitamin D helps promote the absorption of calcium, which is important for bone strength. Good sources of vitamin D include fish liver oils; fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel; and vitamin D-fortified foods like milk, cereal, orange juice and yogurt.
Vitamin B12: Women 51 and older should consume 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12, which helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy and make DNA. Good sources of vitamin B12 include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, clams, milk, dairy products and fortified food products like some cereals. However, women over 50 may have problems absorbing vitamins through foods and can talk to their doctor or registered dietitian about taking a supplement such as a multivitamin.
Magnesium: Women age 51 and older should get 320 milligrams of magnesium per day. Magnesium is found in bones and tissue and is important to regulate things in the body such as protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function and blood pressure.
Good food sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables such as spinach; nuts such as almonds, cashews and peanuts; black beans; soy milk; edamame and peanut butter.
Potassium: Potassium is important for kidneys, muscles, nerves and the heart. A May 2013 article in Advances in Nutrition showed there was a positive association between potassium intake and reduced hypertension, which is a risk factor for stroke and coronary heart disease. The study notes that adults age 50 and older have a 90 percent lifetime risk of hypertension, making potassium an important nutrient for a 50-year-old woman to focus on.
Many fruits and vegetables are naturally good sources of potassium such as potatoes, tomato paste, orange juice and bananas.
Most adults can get the required amounts of vitamins through foods, but consult a doctor to see if you are missing any key vitamins and nutrients or if you are thinking of adding any supplements to your diet.
Protein for Women
Strength and muscle mass gradually decline with age, especially after age 30. After age 50, there is a lean body mass and strength loss of 1 to 2 percent and 1.5 to 5 percent per year, respectively. This, along with the tendency for a more sedentary life in older adults, can lead to sarcopenia, or muscle loss that can be linked to functional decline and increased mortality.
A December 2017 study in Endocrinology and Metabolism found that individuals over 50 compared to those under 50 had larger decreases in lean body mass and smaller decreases in fat mass. This decrease in lean mass was more prominent in women compared to men, likely due to hormonal and body changes during menopause.
Both diet and exercise are important to maintain lean muscle mass, and a diet plan for a 50-year-old woman should include protein to maintain muscle function. A November 2013 study in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society showed women ages 50-79 who had an increased protein intake had better physical function and slower rates of decline.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that women in their 50s consume 46 grams of protein daily. Complete protein sources (containing all the amino acids needed to make new protein in the body) can be found in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products.
Incomplete proteins (those that are missing at least one of the nine essential amino acids) include fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. However, you can eat a variety of incomplete proteins in order to get all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Foods for Heart Health
At age 50 (and prior to that), it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle to protect your heart. In addition to physical activity and managing stress and body weight, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has suggestions for a healthy eating plan for women over 50.
Foods to include in a heart-healthy diet include vegetables; fruits; whole grains; fat-free or low-fat dairy products; proteins such as fish, lean meats, eggs, and nuts. In addition, you should have oils and foods with monounsaturated fats such as canola and olive oil, avocados and tofu.
In fact, eating less dietary fat and more fruits, vegetables and grains is linked to a reduced risk of dying from breast cancer as well as a lower risk of getting heart disease and type 2 diabetes in postmenopausal women, according to a June 2019 report in the Journal of Nutrition.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- National Institute on Aging: "Osteoporosis"
- National Institute on Aging: "Vitamins and Minerals"
- North American Menopause Society: "Are We There Yet? Navigate Now With Our Guided Menopause Tour"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin D"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B12"
- National Institutes of Health: "Magnesium"
- National Institutes of Health: "Potassium
- Advances in Nutrition: "Potassium and Health"
- Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal: "Strength and Muscle Mass Loss With Aging Process. Age and Strength Loss"
- Clinical Nutrition: "Protein Intake and Exercise for Optimal Muscle Function With Aging: Recommendations From the ESPEN Expert Group"
- Endocrinology and Metabolism: "Changes in Body Composition According to Age and Sex Among Young Non-Diabetic Korean Adults: The Kangbuk Samsung Health Study"
- Journal of American Geriatrics Society: "Biomarker-Calibrated Protein Intake and Physical Function in the Women's Health Initiative"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Protein"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Women and Heart Disease"
- National Institute on Aging: "Heart Health and Aging"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Changes"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Low-Fat Dietary Pattern among Postmenopausal Women Influences Long-Term Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease, and Diabetes Outcomes"