Eat for your age

Have you noticed how your interests and priorities change as time goes on? It is the same with nutrition. Whether you’re 25 or 85-years old, it is important to eat well, but your nutritional needs change according to your life-stage.

Have you noticed how your interests and priorities change as time goes on? It is the same with nutrition. Whether you're 25 or 85-years old, it is important to eat well, but your nutritional needs change according to your life-stage. At certain times of your life, certain nutrients become more important.

ToddlersAdolescentsAdult womenAdult menSeniorsSummary tips


Photo: Nizar Dhanji Nizar Dhanji

This is an age when children are active and going through rapid growth spurts. As a result, they need plenty of protein and calories. Although they have the same basic nutrient needs as adults, they sometimes struggle to get through the amount of food that they need for growth in one sitting. So it's important to note that low fat, high fibre foods recommended for adults are not always suitable for toddlers. Make sure they have regular meals, and snacks in between each meal.

Make sure you include the following foods:

  1. Milk and dairy foods: These provide protein, vitamins and minerals. Do not give your baby cow's milk until the age of one year. Breast milk and formula milk have the right range and amounts of nutrients (especially iron) needed for babies until they are a year old. Also, your baby's digestive system is not developed enough to cope with cow's milk until the age of one. Make sure you choose full fat varieties like whole milk until the age of two years old. If the rest of their diet is balanced, you can start to introduce semi-skimmed (low-fat) milk at two-years and skimmed milk (fat free) at five-years.
    Photo: Vanessa Courtier Vanessa Courtier
  2. Meat, fish, eggs, beans, peas and lentils: These are rich in nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. Make sure you provide one source from this protein-rich category at every meal. There's no need to add salt to your toddler's food. Let them enjoy your traditional meals like dhal and roti, but serve their portion before adding salt to your cooking. (You'll be doing the whole family a favour if you start to use less salt generally).
  3. Bread, roti, rice, pasta, low-sugar breakfast cereals, potatoes, cassava and sweet potatoes: These starchy foods are a good source of energy. If you choose wholemeal varieties like whole-grain breads and cereals, they will also get some fibre. However, don't overdo this, as high-fibre foods tend to be more filling and this may mean they eat less food overall. It is more important to get your toddler to eat enough for energy.
  4. Fruit and vegetables: These contain a range of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C. Expose your toddler to different colours and varieties of fruit and vegetables. Don't be tempted to add sugar or honey to a toddler's food – they simply don't need it and you are encouraging a taste for sweet foods. You may get a favourable response from your toddler if you hand them a bottle of sweet blackcurrant cordial – and it may well keep them quiet for a while! But this can encourage tooth decay, especially if they are walking around with their bottle throughout the day. It is better to try diluted fruit juice, squash, water or milk and keep sugary drinks to mealtimes only.

You may have been brought up on sweet tea at a young age, but there's no benefit to encouraging tea early in life, especially if it is sugared. In fact, tea can reduce the absorption of iron from vegetarian foods.

One of the best ways to teach young children to eat well is to show them how it is done! Mothers, in particular, are a great influence in guiding children's eating habits. If they see their parents drinking milk, eating yoghurt or enjoying a range of vegetables, children are more likely to copy.

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Photo: Nizar Dhanji Nizar Dhanji

Children undergo a growth spurt during their adolescence. Teenage boys and girls need more calories and nutrients than at any other time in their lives. At puberty (around age 10 – 12 years for girls and around 12 – 14 years for boys) there is an intense growth period that brings dramatic changes in height and weight. This is a time when they require lots of calories and protein.

However, the rise in childhood obesity is a an increasing health problem, so it is important for teenagers to choose foods that are lower in fat and provide calories containing nutrients that contribute to their health, rather than the “empty calories” that come from sugar-rich carbonated drinks, crisps (potato chips) and sweets.

Encourage a healthy relationship with food by including a wide variety of nutritious foods. Young adults can be particularly conscious of body shape, and this is a good time to emphasise the importance of balanced eating habits over their desire for a perfect body.

Adolescence is also the age when half of the strength of the adult skeleton is laid down. Bone is constantly being broken down and rebuilt – this process peaks during puberty, when bone is being replaced very quickly. Therefore, teenagers require plenty of calcium and vitamin D.

Make sure you include the following foods:

  1. Milk and dairy foods: Although one of the richest sources of calcium, many adolescents stop drinking milk and switch to soft drinks, as they begin to make more of their own food choices. This further reduces their calcium stores. The phosphoric acid in soft drinks can further reduce their calcium stores. Encourage your teenager to have at least three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or other dairy products a day to maintain bone health.
    Photo: Vanessa Courtier Vanessa Courtier
  2. Fruits and vegetables: Young adults generally do not achieve the recommended intake of five fruits and vegetables per day. It is important to encourage healthier eating habits at a young age. Encourage them to experiment with different fruits and vegetables. Make side salads, lots of vegetables and fruit after a meal a regular habit.
  3. Iron: This is often overlooked and under-eaten, yet it is particularly important for teenage girls to eat iron-rich foods as they hit puberty. Iron comes mainly from animal foods such as red meat. Vegetarian sources include beans & lentils, nuts, dried fruit, and fortified breakfast cereals. For some adolescents, the teenage years bring on a desire to become vegetarian. In that case, it is a good idea to serve unsweetened fruit juice or fruit and vegetables at meal times. The vitamin C from the fruit helps with the absorption of iron from vegetarian foods. Also, avoid serving tea at meal times since this reduces the absorption of iron. Wait for an hour after a vegetarian meal before drinking a cup of tea.

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Adult women

Photo: Zubeda Suleman Zubeda Suleman

Bones continue to grow until your mid to late 20s, and a lack of calcium at this age can increase the risk of osteoporosis (porous bones) later in life.

You may have a hectic lifestyle and be trying to watch your weight at the same time, but be careful not to miss meals. Breakfast is particularly important – it is a chance for you to get fibre from whole grain cereals or breads, and calcium from low-fat milk or yoghurt. Evidence suggests that people who eat breakfast are better able to manage their weight.

Eating well may be low on your list of priorities, especially if you're looking after a family. But your habits will influence the habits of your family members and you will only have energy to get through the day if you eat a good range of nutritious foods.

Make sure you include the following foods:

  1. Lower-fat dairy foods: These include skimmed (fat-free) or semi-skimmed (low-fat) milk, lower-fat cheeses and yoghurt. Aim for three servings a day. One serving is equivalent to a third of a pint (200 ml, 8 oz) of milk, an ounce (25 – 30 g) of cheese or a pot (150 ml, 6 oz) of yoghurt (try low-sugar, low-fat varieties).
  2. Whole grain breads and cereals: Many breakfast cereals are enriched with vitamins and minerals such as folic acid and iron. It is especially important to make sure that you have enough folic acid if you're planning a pregnancy because it helps prevent the birth defect spina bifida. You also get folic acid from dark green leafy vegetables, peas, beans and broccoli.
    Photo: Vanessa Courtier Vanessa Courtier
  3. Iron: Make sure you get enough iron from foods such as lean red meat, dark green vegetables and lentils. Many breakfast cereals have iron added to them. When you serve a vegetarian meal, accompany it with something containing vitamin C. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron from vegetarian foods like mung dhal and dark green leafy vegetables. So have a glass of unsweetened fruit juice or a salad with your meal to help your body extract more of the iron goodness from your food. Also, avoid drinking tea with your veggie meal as this reduces the absorption of iron.
  4. Avoid fatty foods: Try to cut down on fatty foods, especially those rich in saturated fats, as these foods can increase your blood cholesterol level. Saturated fats are found in foods such as fatty meats, butter, cheese, paneer, ghee, and sweets like burfi, halva, gulab jaman and kheer. Choose lower-fat varieties and use less fat in cooking. Many recipes in the Nutrition Centre contain less fat.
  5. Reduce your salt intake: Most adults eat too much salt, increasing their risk of developing high blood pressure and strokes. A lot of the salt (as well as fat) comes from manufactured food products like ready meals, fast foods and snacks such as chevda, ganthia, samosas and bhajias.

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Adult men

Photo: Courtesy of Azmina Govindji Courtesy of Azmina Govindji

Diabetes and heart disease are more common in South Asians than in the wider population, and Asian men are particularly at risk. South Asians are more likely than the general population to carry excess weight around the waist – a leading risk factor for heart disease and type-2 diabetes.

If you are “apple-shaped” you could be more at risk than people who are “pear-shaped.” Ideally, try to achieve a body shape where your waist is smaller than your hips. If you are an Asian man with a waist measurement of 90 centimetres (36 inches) or more, you are at increased risk of heart disease. A healthy and active lifestyle can reduce your risk.

Make sure you include the following foods:

Photo: Vanessa Courtier Vanessa Courtier
  1. Fruits and vegetables: Eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables each day. These can be fresh, frozen, canned or dried. A glass of fruit juice and a portion of dhal each count once towards your five a day. Consuming more fruits and vegetables has been shown to help in preventing some cancers.
  2. Choose low-salt foods: Be aware of salty processed foods (like ready meals, fast foods, snacks such as chevda, ganthia, samosas and bhajias) and salt added at the table and in cooking. Too much salt can put you at greater risk of high blood pressure.
  3. Avoid saturated fats: Replace foods which are high in saturated fat (such as fatty meat, full-fat dairy products, ghee) with foods that contain unsaturated fats (like oily fish, spreads made from olive or sunflower oils, and avocado). Saturated fat is one of the causes of high blood cholesterol levels. Having too much harmful cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. When you buy meat, go for lean varieties and cut down on the amount of mutton and lamb in a portion, as this will help you reduce saturated fat. Choose lower fat milks like 1% milk – you can even make home-made yoghurt with this. And remember that fat is often hidden in foods, so you could be eating it without realising. (Where do you think that creamy texture in burfi comes from?)
  4. Whole grain foods: Choose whole grain foods such as granary bread, porridge (oatmeal), muesli and chapatis made from wholemeal flour. Whole grains have been shown to be heart-protective.
  5. Reduce sugar intake: Eat lower-sugar foods and drinks. Too much sugar can increase your blood triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood. People with high triglyceride levels are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  6. Potassium may help lower blood pressure: Fruit and vegetables are good sources of potassium.

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Photo: Zubeda Suleman Zubeda Suleman

As you get older, you may find yourself eating less as you become less physically active. Or you may have the opposite problem: although you are less active, you're eating just as much, and therefore tend to put on weight. Whatever the case, eating regular meals and a wide variety of foods is especially important at this time.

You may find it difficult to prepare food, perhaps because of arthritis. It is therefore important to have easy-to-prepare foods around the kitchen so that you eat well.

Difficulties in chewing can restrict your choice of food. However, it is still possible to eat a balanced diet. Canned or stewed fruits and steamed vegetables are softer than fresh varieties and still count towards your “five a day” fruit and vegetable intake.

Milk based foods, such as porridge (oatmeal), will give you important calcium and fibre. Daily fibre helps to prevent constipation. Make sure you drink enough fluids (water, fruit juice, tea, coffee) so your body makes the best use of the fibre.

At menopause, women tend to lose calcium in their urine, placing them at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, which can increase the likelihood of fracturing a bone. A daily supply of calcium and vitamin D are essential. Sunshine is the best source of vitamin D – your body creates it through the action of sunlight on your skin. Aim to be in the sunshine for 15 – 20 minutes every day during the summer months. (Remember to practise “safe sun” by using a sun block if you are out for long periods.)

Photo: Vanessa Courtier Vanessa Courtier

However, at an older age you may be more housebound and therefore unable to get out into the sunshine as much. Eating foods that contain vitamin D becomes particularly important. You may also be prescribed a calcium and vitamin D supplement.

Female hormones help to protect women against heart disease. When you reach menopause and your hormone levels decline, you are at greater risk of developing heart problems. Women with a pear-shaped body appear to be less at risk than those with an apple shape, where the waist is larger than the hips.

Women are more at risk of heart disease if their waist measures greater than 80 centimetres (31.5 inches). Maintaining an active healthy lifestyle can make a big difference.

Make sure you include the following foods:

  1. Dhal, beans, peas, fruits and vegetables: Eat plenty of these, as they contain fibre that can help keep your digestive system in good working order.
  2. Fluids: When you eat more fibre, you also need to drink more fluid. That's because the fibre acts like a sponge and soaks up fluid to smooth your bowel movements. Drink at least six to eight glasses of fluid (such as water and sugar-free drinks) per day.
  3. Iron: Choose foods that are rich in iron to help your body maintain its store. These include foods such as lean red meat, dhal, peas, beans, eggs, dark green vegetables and breakfast cereals with added minerals and vitamins.
    Photo: Vanessa Courtier Vanessa Courtier
  4. Calcium: Enjoy calcium-rich foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Choose lower-fat varieties when you can, or eat higher-fat varieties in smaller amounts. You also get calcium from small fish that are eaten with the bones, such as sardines. Broccoli and cabbage also provide calcium.
  5. Vitamin D: Choose foods that have been enriched with vitamin D. Margarines, some yoghurts, eggs and oily fish contain vitamin D.

Summary tips

  1. Whatever your age, eat regular meals with lots of variety.
  2. Start eating less saturated fat from the age of five.
  3. Teenagers need calcium-rich foods to build a strong skeleton.
  4. No matter what your age, you need fibre and fluid (to keep your gut working well).
  5. Even looking out of an open window when the sun is shining helps your body to produce vitamin D. This is especially important if you are older and housebound.
  6. Drinking tea with a vegetarian meal can reduce iron absorption. Instead, include a vitamin C-rich food or drink with your meal; if you like tea, wait for an hour after the meal.

Finally, remember that being physically active is one of the best insurance policies for a healthy, happy life!