What you need to eat to stay healthy

As we get older, we need to be aware that our bodies are changing and we can’t eat the same way we did when we were twenty — when you could get away with anything.

Generally speaking, we burn fewer calories and move less as we reach middle-age. This is not ideal, as putting on weight tends to happen at this time in our lives — figures show about 63 per cent of adult Australians are either overweight or obese.

Another not-so-fun reality is that health problems such as cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, dementia, and other conditions such as bowel cancer, occur more often as we get older.

A poor diet won’t help maintain wellbeing. The saying, “You are what you eat” has never been more true. Eating well does not need to be difficult, boring, or expensive — it just means you need to consider more if your diet is getting the right mix.

Simone Austin, a practicing accredited dietitian with the Dietitians’ Association of Australia says this could mean rethinking what we put on our plate. For example, as we get older, our bodies’ muscle mass reduces so boosting our consumption of protein is important.

“Make sure you spread your protein consumption over the day. If you weigh about 75 kilos, aim for 75 grams of protein — say 25 grams at breakfast, 20 grams at lunchtime, and 30 grams for dinner,” she says.

“It’s a good idea to have a fair bit of protein at breakfast because you’ve had an overnight fast where you haven’t eaten. Think about something like baked beans or even sardines on toast. Or, if you like, include a small handful of mixed, raw, unsalted nuts and seeds — around 30 grams at the most — to your rolled oats. Carbohydrates are important, but there tends to be too much emphasis on having them at breakfast,” Austin adds.

Bowel Cancer Australia says we consume an estimated average of 565 grams of red meat per week, whereas the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends men have 455 grams a week and women 195 grams a week. 

In practical terms, this means men ought to aim for about 65 grams of cooked lean red meat a day; women the same amount three times a week. And this is where it gets tricky: a piece of steak this size would fit in the palm of a small hand but you’re unlikely to find that small a size at the supermarket. Packaged steak starts at about 140 grams so you’ll probably need to cut up your red meat — or, if you can — find a friendly butcher willing to cut it for you.

The National Dietary Guidelines recommend we eat five serves of vegetables a day and two serves of fruit, but many of us don’t meet those quotas. One serve equals one cup of raw veggies, or half a cup cooked. Austin says it’s often easy, as we become empty-nesters or live alone, to not cook a meal because we can’t be bothered. 

“Surveys show about 93 per cent of Australians don’t eat five serves of vegetables a day,” she says. “It is easy and quick to prepare something tasty and nutritious, even using snap-frozen vegetables or canned legumes.” A quick meal could be poached eggs on wholegrain toast with mushrooms, chickpeas, and baby spinach leaves.

An area which can really confuse people is where to find good sources of fibre and how much to include. We ought to consume 30 grams a day, but what does that look like? This is what you need:

  • Three-quarters of a cup of cereal made up of whole grains like muesli (make sure it’s not too high in sugar and fat)
  • Two slices of wholemeal or wholegrain bread
  • One apple and one orange (leave the skin on the apple)
  • Two cups of mixed raw vegetables
  • A quarter of a cup of baked beans or other legumes.

Eating foods rich in calcium is needed to maintain bone health. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, we need extra serves of low-fat milk, yoghurt, and cheese as we get older. Men need to have two and a half serves of dairy a day, whereas women need four serves a day. A serve could be a cup of milk (250 ml), two slices of cheese (40 grams), or 200 grams of yoghurt.

Of course, most of us love foods like bacon and eggs, sausages, fish and chips, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, takeaway meals, and an alcoholic drink (or three). Think of these as treat foods rather than the norm, and limit them to one or two meals a week — if you are exercising daily and your weight is in the healthy range.

Unfortunately, if your normal diet consists of high-fat foods, you drink a lot of alcohol and soft drinks combined with little exercise, you’re a smoker, and you’re also overweight, you may not thrive as you age.

Is eating a well-balanced diet important to you as you get older? Why?

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