Tweaking what you put on your plate to suit your life stage is an easy, low-cost anti-ageing strategy. Here’s how to make it work for you.
The idea that diet can be an effective anti-ageing tool is fairly new. Researchers of a US study published late last year discovered that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains — but low in added sugar, sodium and processed meats — preserves the length of telomeres. These are structures that promote healthier ageing by protecting your DNA, but which lose their effectiveness as they gradually grow shorter.
“The key takeaway is that following a healthy diet can help us to maintain healthy cells and avoid certain chronic diseases,” the study reports.
There are also specific foods you can focus on, depending on how old you are. These will help protect you against age-related diseases and slow ageing.
In your 20s
Protect against stress
More than one in three Australians say they are ”very” stressed — and it’s younger people in particular who consistently report lower levels of wellbeing, the Australian Psychological Society says. Unfortunately, research indicates that high stress levels correlate with telomeres that are one decade shorter than they should be. But you can fight back!
It contains marine-sourced omega-3 fatty acids, which help to protect the heart against the detrimental effects of mental stress.
To make it work: Eat two or three serves of oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel each week — because the oilier the fish you eat, the more omega-3s you’ll be consuming.
They’re full of fibre, which preliminary research suggests can limit the effect stress has on gut bacteria and behaviour.
To make it work: Choose brown rice rather than white rice, and opt for wholegrain or wholemeal breads, crackers, pastas and flour.
In one study, people who described themselves as ”stressed out” ate dark chocolate every day for two weeks. Their stress hormone levels fell, and their stress-related biochemical imbalances improved.
To make it work: You need only 40g dark choc a day, but choose one that’s at least 70 per cent cocoa — it’s where the healthy compounds live.
In your 30s
Focus on gut health
Your gut is home to over 1.5kg of bacteria. These bacteria influence your mood, how easy you find it to lose weight, and even your heart attack risk. Research also shows that sleep loss, stress and overdoing alcohol can take a toll on gut health. Luckily, you can counter this with a few diet tweaks.
It provides a dose of healthy, live bacteria — otherwise known as probiotics. These healthy bacteria help rejig your gut’s existing bacteria population, restoring the balance between healthy and less healthy bacteria.
To make it work: Eat yoghurt that contains at least 100 million colony-forming units (CFU).
It contains FOS , which acts as a prebiotic, travelling to the large intestine to stimulate the production of ‘good’ gut bacteria.
To make it work: Munch on the asparagus raw, rather than cooking it, to get a bigger FOS hit.
When they’re cooked, then cooled, potatoes produce another prebiotic called resistant starch. It’s food for your gut bacteria, which turn it into a short-chain fatty acid that’s proven to be beneficial for your bowel health.
To make it work: Put cooked potatoes in the fridge to cool as soon as they stop steaming. To avoid food poisoning, never leave cooked spuds on the bench for more than two hours before refrigerating.
In your 40s
Watch your weight
Even moderate weight gain during this life stage means you’ll be less likely to age healthily in years to come.
Plus, while too much weight is a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease at any age, if you’re overweight in your 40s, your odds of developing both conditions climb even higher.
Raw or dry-roasted nuts
A 2018 study confirmed they’re effective in helping to prevent weight gain, thanks to the way they increase feelings of fullness and help to keep a lid on hunger.
To make it work: Snack on a small handful (30g) each day.
When you eat fermented foods like sauerkraut, it improves gut bacteria, altering the expression of the genes that play a role in weight gain.
To make it work: Try to eat fresh sauerkraut. Shelf-stable varieties are made using vinegar rather than the fermentation process. Fermentation is essential to develop beneficial bacteria in sauerkraut.
New research hints at a possible link between larger waistlines and vitamin D deficiency, which affects one in three Australians. The sun’s UV is the best natural source of vitamin D, but vitamin D in mushrooms can top you up.
To make it work: Place 100gof mushrooms in the winter sun for an hour to generate your daily vitamin D needs.
In your 50s
Protect against cancer
Australia's most commonly diagnosed cancers are breast, prostate and bowel. They can occur at any age, but more than 75 per cent of breast cancers occur in women over 50. Sixty-three per cent of prostate cancers are diagnosed in men over 65. Bowel-cancer risk rises sharply once you turn 50.
It contains sulforaphane, a compound that’s shown promise against breast and prostate cancer, perhaps due to its ability to inhibit ‘risky’ cells.
To make it work: Eat broccoli raw or very lightly steamed. Heat destroys an enzyme sulforaphane relies on, so you’ll absorb significantly less from boiled or microwaved broccoli.
Research links eating plenty of tomatoes to a lower risk of the above cancers. One theory is that tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene. In lab-based experiments, lycopene stopped cancer cells attaching to blood supply.
To make it work: Enjoy eating canned or cooked tomatoes. You’ll absorb more lycopene from these than from raw tomatoes.
Studies show the risk of prostate, bowel and certain types of breast cancer falls as legume consumption rises. Legumes have a high fibre content, which dilutes cancer-causing carcinogens, particularly in the bowel.
To make it work: Aim to eat a variety of legumes, such as beans, chickpeas and lentils, at least three times a week. Try mixing them into soups.
In your 60s
Love your bones
Over the age of 60, one in two women and one in three men will break a bone because of osteoporosis. Building bone density during your life is important, but some foods can help you look after your bones at this age, too.
An American study of postmenopausal women, including many in their 60s, found that bone mineral density improved significantly after 12 months of daily prune eating. Prunes suppress ‘bone resorption’, the breakdown of bone that exceeds the rate of new bone growth as we age.
To make it work: Aim for 10 prunes a day, as a snack or on top of your breakfast cereal.
Tofu doesn't just contain bone-strengthening calcium, it’s also a premium source of isoflavones. These are chemicals that can help protect women against osteoporosis during later life.
To make it work: To bump up the calcium content even higher, choose a version of tofu that’s set with calcium chloride. It’s usually listed as 511 on the ingredients list.
It’s one of the best available sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, which also help to reduce bone resorption.
To make it work: Store it in the fridge, and use it cold in salad dressings. The nutritional makeup of flaxseed oil changes when it’s exposed to heat.
Flaxseed oil helps fight the breakdown of bone strength as we age
In your 70s
Boost your brain
The risk of dementia grows with age. Ten per cent of Australians over the age of 65 are living with it, but that rises to 30 per cent after 85. “Eating a brain-healthy diet is wise at any age, but it’s never too late to make a positive impact,” says dietitian, nutrition scientist and author of Brain Food, Dr Joanna McMillan.
When a group of adults aged over 68 with mild cognitive impairment ate a cup of blueberries every day for four months, their memory and word recall improved significantly. “Berries contain a group of antioxidants called polyphenols, which are really useful for brain function,” says Dr McMillan.
To make it work: Use frozen blueberries when fresh ones are scarce. Research shows freezing them improves their antioxidants’ availability.
Green leafy vegetables
Spinach and kale are rich in folate. Folate is a B vitamin which helps keep in check an amino acid that increases dementia risk. Research now shows that folate deficiency in later life triples the risk of developing dementia.
To make it work: Eat two serves of leafy greens every day. A five-year study found the cognitive ability of older adults who ate this was roughly 11 years younger than people who didn’t.
It’s a good source of protein. A 2018 Australian study found the brains of people who eat plenty of chicken are 12 times less likely to have high levels of amyloid beta, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
To make it work: Try our delicious crumbed chicken Meal for Two recipe.
Eating spuds that are cooled after cooking can benefit gut health.