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Eating Smart After 50

Optimal nutrition changes as you age. Here's how.

You already know the basics of a nutritious diet, but did you know that those needs change as you age? "The aging process presents challenges that we need to prepare for and manage with optimal nutrition," says Kim Larson, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "What you eat every day can improve your health and help prevent diseases."

Not only can a good diet lower your risk of common health threats, such as heart disease, hypertension, and some cancers, proper nutrition is also key to warding off infection and recovering faster from illness or surgeries. And eating a healthier diet doesn't have to mean giving up the foods you love or sacrificing flavor. Just a few simple tweaks can make a big difference in your overall well-being.

Scale it down. The rate of calories you burn, known as your metabolic rate, drops three to five percent every decade, says Larson. It's not enough to just eat a tiny bit less than you did in your younger years. For example, an inactive woman age 50 or older may need as few as 1,600 calories a day, compared to an inactive 20-something woman who is good at 2,000 calories a day, according to the USDA.

Skip the sugar. For starters, ditch the soda or other commercially sweetened beverages. "We just can't afford to drink empty calories as we age," says Larson. But it's not just about empty sugar calories in drinks. Eliminating sugar throughout your diet can help lower the inflammation associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis, says Larson. If you have a sweet tooth, look for fresh, frozen, or dried fruit to satisfy it. Also, be sure to check food labels at the store, as sugar can be hiding in everything from bread to salad dressing.

Put plants first. It's no secret that whole grains and vegetables are good for you. But as you age, a side salad may not be enough to satisfy your nutritional needs. "Three quarters of your plate should come from vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and nuts," said Larson. A high fiber diet is also critical for avoiding constipation, which gets more common as you age.

Up your fatty acid intake. Are you getting several servings a week of foods high in omega 3 fatty acids? If not, now is the time to add them to your diet. These healthy fats help support brain and eye health, and they may fight inflammation. Fatty fish, such as salmon, and nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flax seeds, are all good sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

Get smart about supplements. If your diet is already healthy and varied, you may not need any supplements unless directed by your doctor. "Multivitamins are not necessary or helpful when consuming a nutrient-rich diet," says Larson. But if your doctor has tested you for a deficiency, such as vitamin D, calcium, or B12, be sure to follow his or her directions to get the vitamins and minerals you need.