By the time you read this, I will have turned 50. It’s a good time to reflect on my life thus far and make plans for the rest of it. This includes planning for my health.

Although I’m grateful to be a generally healthy person, I will admit to having recently begun to lament my failing eyesight, minor morning aches and pains and, of course, the humbling challenge of fastening the button on my most flattering pair of jeans.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but from here on out, there’s no denying that the effects of aging and lifestyle choices become increasingly evident on our bodies. On the plus side, this is also the decade when changes – like improved diets and regular exercise – can make real differences in our health and future quality of life.

One of the most important dietary tweaks the average newly minted 50-year-old should consider making is cutting his (and her) daily caloric intake. Thanks to a slowing metabolism and a host of other bodily changes, we just don’t need as many calories to run our bodies. The National Institute on Aging suggests both men and women at age 50 eat 200 fewer calories than they did as younger adults. If you keep eating the same way you did when you were 30 or 40, you’ll likely gain weight over time.

Do Americans in the older age brackets actually take in fewer calories? According to data from the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average person aged 40 to 59 was getting just shy of 2,200 calories per day – a figure that includes men and women.

That’s right on the money for moderately active men, but about 400 calories too high for moderately active women, according to calorie target suggestions from the National Institutes of Health. Keep in mind it was self-reported data, and self-reported data is rarely accurate.

A combination of decreased calories and regular exercise does the trick for most people, but if cutting around 200 calories from your diet seems daunting, let me suggest some strategies. Also, remember to consult your doctor before changing your diet.

“We can still have the foods we like,” explained Linda Dillon, a dietetic technician who recently turned 50. “But we’ll have to eat smaller portions of them than we used to in order to avoid weight gain.” The FDA’s recent updates to the Nutrition Facts food label should help; the calories and portion size information will be more prominent – even if you’re not wearing your progressive lenses.

Another option is to burn an extra 200 calories a day through exercise, more exercise than you are already doing, that is.

Or eliminate one “empty calorie” snack from your day – such as that 3 p.m. candy bar, the chips that call your name as soon as your body hits the couch, or even that second evening libation.

“There may not be room for alcohol calories in your diet as you get older,” said Audrey Morgan, a dietetic technician at Southridge Rehabilitation and Living Center in Biddeford.

I’m not one to say you have to give up chocolate or wine completely now that you’re 50 – I certainly don’t plan to – but do realize that when you eat less food, what you eat becomes even more important. It’s a concept called nutrient density. You still need nutrients, just fewer calories, so make sure the foods you do eat give you the most nutritional bang for the buck. If you’re going to skip the candy bar (good idea), replace it with something that contributes actual nutrients to your diet, say a fruit or vegetable snack.

Add protein to that snack and it’s even better, since gradual loss of muscle mass and functionality can start to kick in around the half-century mark. Research indicates that we can lose up to 15 percent of our strength each decade from age 50 on, but the problems associated with less body muscle mass are more serious than not being able to hoist your suitcase into the plane’s overhead compartment.

Less body muscle mass may stop you from doing physical activity, and the less you do, the less body muscle mass you’ll build. Also, less muscle mass increases your chance of falls and fractures. Research shows that keeping protein intake up – even higher than the currently recommended amounts for adults – can help maintain and even build muscle mass.

So bulk up that snack with nut butter or a handful of nuts, Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, a boiled egg, a little cheese, a handful of roasted chickpeas or just a glass of milk.

“Spending” my calories on food instead of beverages is a strategy I use, partly because I prefer eating to drinking, and also because research shows that in general, people tend to feel more satiated from food than from beverages. However, being aware of how much liquid you get each day is important – and not just in the summertime when heat exhaustion is a concern.

Dehydration can cause problems for the brain, the kidneys and nervous system functioning. “As we get older, our thirst signal gets weaker. Some older people claim to never feel thirsty at all,” explained Jenny Babino, a registered dietitian at The Cedars in Portland. If, like me, you don’t have a strong thirst signal, you’ll have to make a conscious effort to drink water. Join the many who tote around their daily water allotment to help keep better track.

After you’ve had your cake and finished reflecting on the first five decades of your life, put some thought into how you’ll treat your body in the coming decades. I like how Morgan sums it up: “Our bodies are not as forgiving as when we were younger, and you only get one, so be nutritionally kind to yourself, and stay activity-friendly.”

Kitty Broihier has been a registered, licensed dietitian for over 25 years. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition communications from Boston University and runs her consulting company, NutriComm Inc., from South Portland.


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