Eat this, not that

What athletes of all ages need to put in their bodies to perform

Is your body different now than when you were a teenager? Mine certainly is. A slowing metabolism, longer recovery time, and more aches and pains all come with being an active adult.

We know that nutrition plays a key role in staying healthy at any age. Some nutritional needs — such as eating fruits and veggies — are constants. Others change depending on our stage in life.

With the goal of staying active into our twilight years, here’s what should you put in your body by age:

Teens: Keep track of calcium and iron

Adolescent athletes are still growing, so they need energy — and lots of it! Unfortunately, teens often follow their taste buds, choosing pizza and soda over balanced meals like grilled chicken and broccoli.

With a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies, athletic teens need to focus on getting enough calcium and iron. Excellent sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, fortified nondairy milk, dark leafy greens, broccoli, beans and tofu.

Choose iron-rich foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, lentils, spinach, nuts, pumpkin seeds, tofu and enriched whole grains. To enhance the absorption of iron, pair these foods with vitamin C: think citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

In your 20s: Work on building and sustaining bone mass

Believe it or not, peak bone mass is reached by age 25. So in your 20s, maximize calcium and vitamin D intake. This is particularly important for college athletes and recent graduates who are often learning how to live on their own and make healthy food choices.

Focus on high-quality vitamin D-rich foods such as eggs, fatty fish, mushrooms and fortified foods. Since vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption, consume these nutrients together. Think spinach omelet, fruit smoothie with fortified nondairy milk, or stir-fry with broccoli and mushrooms.

30s and beyond: Know your energy needs and pack in the antioxidants

As you age, your metabolism begins working against you (boo!). Combined with spending less time moving and more time sitting, many adults start to notice less muscle and more fat developing. On top of that, the body is not as quick to recover as in our younger years.

Consequently, eating a balanced whole foods diet is paramount if you want to maintain a healthy body. Aim to include a variety of fruits and vegetables that pack in antioxidants, which help suppress inflammation and repair cellular damage after a hard workout. A good rule of thumb is to eat the rainbow: red strawberries, orange sweet potatoes, yellow squash, green kale, blueberries and purple eggplant — just to name a few.

Seniors: Increase calcium and vitamin D, and focus on hydration

Older athletes experience loss of strength and muscle mass more than any other group. The goal is to get to 1,500 mg of calcium daily. Eat calcium-rich foods (dairy, dark leafy greens, broccoli, beans and fortified foods) in small portions throughout the day.

Supplements are the next best option, but no more than 500 mg at a time. Vitamin B12 and E supplements can also help this age group improve brain function and ward off nervous system issues.

With decreases in body water and thirst sensation, senior athletes (whether recreational or competitive) also need to focus on hydration. Fluid may be the most important component for fueling. Choose water over high-sugar sports drinks. If you sweat a lot, try a low-calorie drink that contains electrolytes.

Whether young or old, eating right will give you the extra edge to meet your athletic and wellness goals.

– Katie Hynes
Licensed and registered dietitian
Norton Women’s Sports Health

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