The Healthiest Foods You Can Eat in Every Decade of Your Life
Here's what to eat in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond to stay healthy and fit—plus, which foods to avoid if you want to age well.
What to eat
Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important no matter how old you are, however, experts say these foods are extra important during certain times of your life. Here’s what to eat and what to avoid.
Food to eat in your 20s
Think that just because you’re young and your metabolism is in high gear that you don’t need to worry about nutrition? Think again, says Keith Kantor, PhD, nutritional scientist and CEO of NAMED, a program designed to help people conquer food addictions. “This is the critical decade for young adults; what you eat now sets the foundation and habits for a life of health or health problems,” he says.
What’s on the menu: Lots and lots of fresh fruits and veggies as these provide the nutrients your still-developing body and brain need. Aim to eat at least nine servings of produce a day, with a 3:1 ratio of vegetables to fruit, he advises. It’s also important to drink plenty of water as it moves nutrients through the body, controls appetite and cravings, and boosts athletic and brain performance, he adds. (Bonus: Both of these tips are on the list of 50 science-backed ways to lose weight without exercise.)
Food to avoid in your 20s
Bad news for college students everywhere: Dorm-room favorites like ramen, take-out, doughnuts, and soda are setting you up for a lifetime of health problems, Kantor says. It’s OK to have a treat once in a while but try to avoid deep-fried foods, pastries, and candy as part of your daily diet. It’s especially important to cut out sugary beverages like coffee specialty drinks, sodas, sports drinks, and even fruit juice (just eat the fruit instead), he adds.
There’s one more beverage that’s super popular in your 20s that you should avoid: Booze. This may be the decade of late-night cocktails and weekend-long parties but drinking too much alcohol can lead to disrupted sleep and unwanted weight gain, not to mention the damage you’re doing to your liver will haunt you for decades to come, says Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian, nutritionist and Arivale coach.
Food to eat in your 30s
The 30s are when most people start to feel their metabolism putting on the brakes and—thanks to this slowdown plus the increased stresses of a career and a young family—they begin to gain weight, Kantor says. To counteract this, make fiber your new best friend, loading up on dark leafy greens like spinach or kale, and avocados. Healthy fats from olive oil, nuts, and seeds, along with fiber, will help control your weight by keeping you full and reducing sweet or junk food cravings, he says.
Starting to see some wrinkles? Keep your skin and bones youthful by focusing on foods that support collagen, which naturally starts declining in the body around age 35. (Try adding these collagen-rich foods to your diet.) It’s not enough to eat collagen-rich foods, like bone broths, your body also needs vitamin C in order to make collagen so eat plenty of citrus, strawberries, broccoli, and bell peppers, Hultin says.
Food to avoid in your 30s
After a long, stressful day it can be tempting to grab a frozen pizza and unwind with a bottle of wine but excessive alcohol and processed foods are your main enemies in your 30s, Kantor says. These foods may save a little time and provide temporary stress relief but in the long run, they’ll hurt your health, mentally and physically. Caffeine is another common crutch during this busy decade but it’s hurting more than helping, Hultin says. “Caffeine in excess can be dehydrating and disrupt sleep which is critical during busy and stressful periods of life,” she explains.
Food to eat in your 40s
Welcome to hormone hell, folks. The 40s are a gateway between the fertile years and middle age, and as your body prepares for this transition, expect your hormones to fluctuate wildly—especially estrogen and testosterone, Kantor says. Help stabilize your hormone levels by consuming cruciferous vegetables including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale as these have been shown to naturally help get rid of excess hormones and can help prevent cancer, he explains.
In addition, omega 3 fatty acids will help calm inflammation from stress, build up your immune system, and improve your skin, Hultin says. Get these from fatty fish like salmon, halibut, trout, anchovies, and sardines or from walnuts, flax, and chia seeds.
Food to avoid in your 40s
While you might have been able to indulge in junk food regularly in your 20s and 30s and not see too many ill effects, by the time you hit your 40s, you’ll notice feeling the effects a lot sooner. If you haven’t yet, this is the decade to wean yourself off of fast food, processed snacks, and especially sugar-filled soda, Kantor says.
Another thing to watch out for during this decade is your salt intake. Too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, bloating, and weight gain. “Pay attention to nutrition labels,” Hultin says. “Most salt intake comes from processed foods like soup, pizza, breads, sauces, and frozen meals. Better yet, just eat whole, unprocessed foods.”
Food to eat in your 50s
The 50s are all about bone health—you’re not adding bone mass anymore and so you need to eat food to help maintain and preserve the bones you’ve got. How? Load up on calcium-rich foods including milk, white beans, salmon, sardines, dried figs, bok choy, kale, black-eyed peas, almonds, oranges, or turnip greens, Kantor says. Aim for two or more servings per day, he advises. (Don’t miss these calcium-rich foods.)
Fiber is also essential at this age, Hultin adds. Fiber makes you feel full which can help regulate your appetite and it also plays an important role in lowering cholesterol levels to support heart health, decreasing your risk for cardiovascular disease—an important consideration in your 50s, she says. Fiber recommendations for women over 50 are 21 grams per day and 30 grams per day for men.
Food to avoid in your 50s
Most people know by now that sugar in excess is really bad for your health. Most of us also know it’s really delicious too and therein lies the problem. Instead of giving up every sweet thing in your life, Hultin recommends eliminating added sugars, like the kind found in candy, soda, juice, cookies, pastries, and other desserts. “Eating these kinds of foods also causes a surge of blood sugar and the insulin hormone which can lead to diabetes and metabolic syndrome,” she says. Avoid the “sugar crash” by limiting sweets to naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruit and dairy. (Add these so-called superfoods that can make you gain weight to your “do not eat” list.)
Food to eat in your 60s
Brain health should be the focus of your nutrition in your 60s, Kantor says. Because some research found that the human brain is 60 percent fat, start by adding a daily serving of coconut oil as research has shown that it may help prevent and manage dementia, he says, adding that all healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds help nourish the brain. Berries are full of antioxidants, another nutrient that helps your brain and also boosts your immune system while reducing your risk of the chronic diseases that can arise during this decade, he says.
Protein is another important nutrient, especially as you get older. Eating a serving of protein at every meal can help guard against muscle loss and maintain a healthy weight, Hultin says. “Think beyond meat and poultry to include fish and shellfish, beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds which also include healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” she says. (Think about the foods your grandmother ate, as they can be a great guide for healthy meals.)
Food to avoid in your 60s
Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guard against heart disease by cutting excess saturated fats out of your diet, Hultin advises. These are found mainly in animal products, dairy, palm oils, and processed foods and shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of your daily calories, according to the American Heart Association. For more tips, follow these 45 heart-health tips that heart doctors do themselves.
- Keith Kantor, PhD, nutritional scientist and CEO of NAMED, a program designed to help people conquer food addictions
- Ginger Hultin, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian, nutritionist and Arivale coach
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heart Disease Facts"
- American Heart Association: "The Skinny on Fats"
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Osteoporosis: Peak Bone Mass in Women"
- Official Journal of the Taiwan Neurological Society: "Essential Fatty Acids and Human Brain"