Healthy dietary adjustments in middle age can have significant effects later in life. Research shows that healthy habits, including eating a healthy diet, can increase the number of years lived without a chronic condition like type 2 diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease and can increase overall life expectancy.

It's never too late to start eating healthy, and knowing the age-specific dietary needs of middle-aged adults can help you ensure you get the nutrients you need for the biggest benefit.

Nutritional shifts for middle-aged adults

Middle-aged adults need increased amounts of some micronutrients. For example, middle-aged men and women should increase magnesium, folate, and vitamins B6 and B12.

Consuming foods high in antioxidants in middle age can help reduce the risk of cancer, and some phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables may protect against the harmful buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. Adults in this age group should also consider eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent coronary artery disease.

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Adjusting macronutrients

Research shows that a healthy low-fat diet in middle age can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and early death. In this research, a healthy low-fat diet was characterized as having a low intake of saturated fats and high intakes of high-quality carbohydrates and plant proteins.

Low-carbohydrate, low-fat diets can benefit people in middle age, but it is important not to eliminate all carbs and fats. Choosing high-quality carbs, like whole grains and fruits, and avoiding saturated fats can have many benefits.

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Preventive nutrition

Dietary changes can help prevent the onset of some age-related diseases. For example, beverages with added sugar and highly processed foods not only lead to obesity, weight gain, and conditions like type 2 diabetes, but they also increase the risk of multiple types of cancer, including uterine cancer and colon cancer.

Consuming too much sodium can increase blood pressure and the risk of stroke. More than 70 percent of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed, packaged, store-bought, and restaurant foods. Buying fresh foods, preparing meals at home, and avoiding fried foods and added sugar are good strategies for lowering sodium intake.

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Key diet components

Sticking to a heart-healthy diet can help prevent cardiovascular diseases. Generally, cutting back on sodium, eating less saturated fats, and getting more fiber in your diet is a good place to start.

Specific foods that are considered heart-healthy include fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, seafood, lean meats, and poultry.

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Reducing unhealthy fats and cholesterol

Strategies for eating a low-cholesterol, low-fat diet include:

  • Avoiding high-fat processed and convenience foods.
  • Limiting red meat.
  • Avoiding organ meats.
  • Eating more poultry and fish.
  • Choosing low-fat or non-fat dairy.
  • Choosing whole grains.

How you cook your food matters, too. Opt for baking, boiling, broiling, poaching, or roasting over frying.

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Incorporating antioxidants and omega-3s

If you're middle-aged, adding more omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants to your diet is good for your heart. Omega-3s have many benefits for heart health including lowering triglycerides, slowing the rate of plaque buildup, reducing the risk or arrhythmia, and lowering blood pressure.

Research also shows that antioxidants can decrease oxidative stress which can help prevent heart disease.

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Impact of hormones on weight and health

In middle age, both men and women experience hormonal changes that can affect their overall health and wellness. For example, parathyroid hormone levels rise with age, which can contribute to osteoporosis. The body also becomes less sensitive to insulin, which causes blood sugar to rise and can lead to diabetes.

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Dietary strategies

Certain dietary adjustments can help stabilize some hormonal fluctuations that occur in middle age. For example, phytoestrogens, which are estrogen-like compounds derived from plants, can have a variety of beneficial effects. They may help alleviate perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, preserve bone health and bone density, and reduce LDL and total cholesterol. Foods high in phytoestrogen include seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

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Supplements and natural remedies

Some natural remedies and supplements can help manage the symptoms of hormonal age changes. For example, research shows that a combination of dong quai, a traditional Chinese herb, and German chamomile demonstrated clinically significant improvements in the frequency and intensity of hot flashes of menopausal women. Some studies have also found that herbal remedies can treat menopause symptoms, like hot flashes and night sweats.

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Importance of protein

Declining muscle mass is a part of aging, but one of the things that can slow it down or stop it is eating protein. Some research found that older adults who do resistance training should have a daily protein intake of one to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, compared to the recommended daily allowance of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

  • Healthy tip: to get this extra protein, choose lean meats, poultry, beans, and Greek yogurt instead of red meat.

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Metabolic rate changes

While metabolism does slow down with age, it may not slow down as much as you think. One study found that metabolism doesn't slow significantly until after age 60.

Still, some dietary changes may be beneficial for increasing metabolism. Stick with protein—and mineral-rich foods, like beans, legumes, fish, lean meats, and low-fat dairy.

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Exercise and nutrition synergy

Research shows that the combination of diet and exercise is more effective for reducing body mass than either diet or exercise alone and that combining the two effectively can lead to changes in body composition and markers of metabolic diseases. Combining a nutritious diet with exercise can have significant health outcomes including improved mental health and a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

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Fiber’s health benefits

Fiber helps regulate blood sugar to help keep blood sugar and hunger regulated. Fiber cannot be digested. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and can help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water, helps move food through the digestive system and regulate stools.

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Sources of fiber

Some specific foods can add more fiber to the middle-aged diet. To add soluble fiber, choose foods like nuts, chia seeds, and oatmeal. For insoluble fiber, choose whole wheat products, like brown rice and quinoa, leafy greens, and fruits with edible skins.

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Balancing diet for optimal digestion

While increasing fiber intake may have many benefits, it can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort. To increase fiber without discomfort, add fiber-rich foods gradually. Drink plenty of water to prevent the fiber from hardening as it passes through the gut, and avoid carbonated drinks that can cause excess gas.

If you're adding dried beans to your diet, soak them overnight to help make them more digestible. Use fresh water to cook the brands to help eliminate some sugars that can cause flatulence. Chewing slowly to avoid swallowing excess air can also help.

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Meal planning tips

Meal prepping has many benefits, but it can be time-consuming. To get started, you can try the following:

  • Use versatile, affordable, and convenient foods like beans and legumes.
  • Try to incorporate a whole grain in every meal, whether that's whole wheat bread, brown rice, or oatmeal.
  • When preparing vegetables, try different cooking methods to keep them interesting. For example, try broiling them for one day and steaming them for the next.
  • Use the same ingredient for many meals. For example, you can roast several chicken breasts to make chicken wraps, chicken salad, chicken soup, and chicken salad.

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Healthy snacking

Making healthy snack choices can be an essential part of a healthy diet in middle age. Good snack choices include fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, air-popped popcorn, nuts, and low-fat string cheese. There are other things to consider, too. You should have a portion size that is enough to satisfy you but won't prompt weight gain. Limit foods with added sugar and those high in salt and fat.

  • Healthy tip: to stay full longer, pair a protein with a carbohydrate.

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Navigating dietary trends

Some diet trends may be beneficial for those in middle age. For example, the ketogenic dietrequires people to severely limit carbohydrates to put the body into a state of ketosis when it starts burning fat instead of carbs for energy. Research shows the keto diet can have benefits, like weight loss and improved risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but depending on what you eat, it can be high in saturated fats, which can have the opposite effects.

Another popular trend is intermittent fasting, which can also benefit those in middle age. For example, the 5:2 diet, when you eat routinely five days a week and restrict intake to 500-600 calories two days a week, can produce clinically significant weight loss and reduce blood pressure.

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Cultural and lifestyle considerations

Culture and lifestyle can significantly impact food choices, but there are ways to adjust without compromising values. For example, some cultures eat a lot of white rice, and others eat a lot of bread or pasta. A simple thing you can do is use brown rice, whole-grain bread, and whole-wheat pasta to make dishes healthier.

Adjusting your diet while still respecting your culture takes some time and planning, but it is possible.

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Supplement use

Generally, it is better to improve diet to get necessary nutrients instead of taking a supplement, but some supplements can have benefits in middle age.

For example, omega-3s can benefit cardiovascular health, and vitamin D and calcium support healthy bones.

  • Healthy tip: If you think you have a micronutrient deficiency, talk to your doctor about your concerns. Blood tests can determine what deficiencies you have and what supplements can help.

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