Our nutritional needs change as we age but it’s easy to adapt and stay strong, writes Anita Bean

Eat as you age featured larger

Your body changes over time, and so do your nutritional needs. The major age-related changes that may affect nutritional requirements include a decline in aerobic capacity and muscle mass, both of which reduce your resting metabolic rate — the rate at which your body burns calories.

Add to this a drop in training volume and it becomes more challenging to stay lean. To maintain your current weight in your 50s, you may need about 200 fewer calories a day than you did during your 20s and 30s.

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However, you’ll need more protein than you did during your younger years. Starting in our mid-30s, we begin to lose around eight per cent of our muscle mass per decade.

“Muscles become less responsive to the anabolic effects of protein and exercise,” explains Oliver Witard, researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Stirling.


Essential points

  • You may require fewer calories as you get older
  • You’ll need more protein to offset age-related muscle loss and ‘anabolic resistance’
  • Consuming omega-3 fats and vitamin D becomes more important
  • Thirst becomes a less reliable indicator of your fluid needs

Researchers recommend, for active people, a daily protein intake of 1.2-1.5g per kilo of body weight per day to help preserve muscle mass and strength.

“Our research suggests this should be in the region of 0.4g per kilo of bodyweight per meal — that’s 30g for a 75kg cyclist — which is considerably higher than the recommendation for younger athletes [0.25g/kg BW/ day].”

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Increasing your intake of good fats is also a good idea, according to Witard: “There is convincing evidence that, in terms of preserving muscle mass, omega-3s become more important as we get older.”

It’s also important to take on enough fluids. Our perception of thirst decreases with age, as does our sweat rate and the ability of our kidneys to concentrate urine. As a rule of thumb, an intake of 400-800ml per hour prevents dehydration.

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Low vitamin D is a particular problem as we get older, as the skin’s capacity to produce vitamin D from UV light diminishes.

“Low levels may reduce muscle function and strength and impair performance,” warns Witard. Getting adequate levels through sun exposure, diet or supplements is crucial for optimal performance. The best dietary sources include oily fish, egg yolk and liver.


Foods for weight loss


Key points

Do: eat 30-40g protein at each meal. Get this from a medium-sized (125g) chicken or turkey breast, a (150g) fish fillet, one small tin (120g) tuna, four large eggs, or 400ml whey protein shake.

Do: fill up on low-calorie, high-volume foods like vegetables and fruits to maximise your diet’s nutritional density and water and fibre content.

Do: estimate how much fluid you need to drink during exercise by calculating your sweat rate — the difference between your pre- and post-workout weight. Divide your hourly sweat rate by four to give you a guideline for how much to drink every 15 minutes.

Do: refuel with protein and carbohydrate within 30-60 minutes of completing any long or hard ride. As you grow older, recovery from hard workouts takes longer.

Do: boost vitamin D and omega-3 — aim for one portion of salmon, mackerel or sardines a week, or one tablespoon of flaxseeds, chia seeds or walnuts daily.

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Don’t: eat less than 20 per cent of your calories in fat form, otherwise you risk deficient intakes of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids. Aim for mono and unsaturated fats from oily fish, avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Don’t: go to bed on empty. Studies at Maastrict University found that muscle protein synthesis was 22 per cent higher in athletes who consumed 40g of casein protein after a resistance workout and before sleep.

Don’t: go overboard with supplements. High doses of vitamins C and E may actually reduce beneficial adaptations to training.