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Eating right for your age

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Eating right for your age

By Susan McQuillan, R.D.

Just as you traded in your pigtails and Mary Janes for a sleek do and slides, your diet should also be transforming as you mature. Women at different stages of life have different nutritional needs based on their activity level, metabolism and risk for disease.

11 to 13 years old
Top priority: Dairy
Teenyboppers are notorious for swapping milk for sugary soft drinks. Big mistake! High calcium intake during early adolescence is essential for healthy bones later in life — and low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are a teen's best sources. If dairy doesn't do it for your daughter, include plenty of calcium-fortified juices, tofu products, and leafy greens such as kale and broccoli in your household's diet. And talk to your doctor about calcium-rich supplements for teens.

13 to 18 years old
Top priority: Iron
As you catapult into puberty, your need for iron increases. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that teenage girls get 15 milligrams of iron daily to offset the amount of the mineral the lost during menstruation. This requirement is not hard to meet if you include lean red meat and shellfish, such as oysters, clams and shrimp, in your family's diet. Vegetarian young women can find their iron in tofu, legumes (black beans, kidney beans and split peas), grains such as wheat germ and oatmeal, and fortified cereals.

18 to 25 years old
Top priority: Vitamin C
Those not-so-healthy collegiate rites of passage — cigarette smoking, alcohol overload, fast-food addiction, and burning the candle at both ends — often carry over into early adulthood, as do their harmful health effects. No matter how stellar your diet, it can't make up for the harm done by having too much fun — but you can try to minimize the damage. Since smoking and drinking alcohol deplete vitamin C, eat plenty of foods high in this essential nutrient, including strawberries, oranges and tomatoes. Bonus: Vitamin C helps with the absorption of plant-based iron-rich eats, which can keep you energized through those cram sessions and parties.

25 to 30 years old
Top priority: Folate If you're thinking about getting pregnant (or if you already are), upping your folic acid intake is a must. Women who don't get enough folic acid before and during pregnancy run a higher risk of having a child born with birth defects. Folate is found in fruits and veggies (especially the leafy green variety), legumes and orange juice.

30 to 35 years old
Top priority: Antioxidants
Healthy eating during your 20s is about to pay off, not only in helping you maintain your youthful good looks, but also in preventing disease. Don't stop now: Continue snacking on fresh fruits and vegetables to up the number of disease-fighting antioxidants circulating in your body. (Blueberries and carrots are especially great choices.) The more fruits and veggies you eat, the more likely you are to prevent nutrition-related maladies such as heart disease, adult diabetes and certain cancers.

35 to 40 years old
Top priority: Vitamin B and protein
To help yourself age gracefully and keep your skin in tip-top shape, load up on the B vitamins riboflavin and niacin, most abundant in milk, yogurt and other dairy products, as well as whole-grain and enriched breads and cereals. Protein from poultry, seafood and lean meats is also essential for keeping your skin, nails and hair — not to mention the rest of your cells — healthy. Although there are no dietary magic bullets to keep you looking like a twentysomething, your skin will really benefit from a diet that provides all the nutrients necessary for optimum health.

40 to 45 years old
Top priority: Low fat, high fiber
You don't need as many calories in your 40s as you did in your younger days, because your metabolism decreases 4% to 5% with each decade. Diligent exercise and a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, fish and lean meats will keep you on the right track and help you sidestep love handles. Bonus: A high soluble-fiber intake (25 to 35 grams a day) of oats, barley, rice and fruits can help lower your cholesterol.

45 to 50 years old
Top priority: Omega-3 essential fatty acids
Stay heart-healthy by keeping your cholesterol down. Make sure your diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in omega-3 fatty acids — beneficial fats found in seafood, soy products, nuts and wheat germ. Best bet: Shoot for one or two servings per week of fatty fish such as sardines, albacore tuna, bluefish, salmon, swordfish, trout, mackerel and anchovies, which are all top sources of omega-3s.

50 years old
Top priority: Calcium and phytoestrogens
Just as it did in your teen years, your body's calcium requirement goes up upon entering menopause. (Unlike adolescents, however, your need for iron goes down.) Many women experience weight gain for the first time in their lives because menopause-related hormonal changes affect their metabolism. This is a great time to cut back on calories and fat and make other diet and lifestyle changes to optimize your health. It's a good idea to limit or eliminate alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods from your diet, since they can all trigger hot flashes. Some women find that certain foods containing estrogen-like substances, called phytoestrogens, help reduce hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. Flaxseeds, whole grains, berries and soy foods such as tofu, miso soup and soy milk might help stabilize hormone levels as you move into menopause