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Fiftysomething Diet: Foods to Fuel Your Boomer Body

A fitness food plan to get the most out of your exercise routine

By Maureen Callahan

Tempting as it is to slurp down a protein smoothie after a kick-butt weight-training session, that’s not a wise strategy for fiftysomething fitness buffs. The same goes for those high-calorie sports and hydration drinks.

As we age, we have different calorie and nutrition needs, the byproduct of older bodies and their usual wear and tear.

(More: The Fiftysomething Diet)

To net the most benefits from a 30- to 60-minute workout, tweak your eating and drinking with these five easy strategies.

1. Bump Up Protein Science shows that older adults need more protein to preserve muscle and promote bone health, says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Recommending a daily minimum of 60-70 grams of protein, she advises heavy-duty exercisers to take about 15 grams — one cup of Greek yogurt, or a cup of skim milk and a hard-boiled egg equal that amount — about 30 to 60 minutes before each session, followed by 12-20 grams post-workout. (Yoga and aerobics enthusiasts generally don't need the extra boost.) Lean fat sources are better for you, as they equal fewer calories, and are more heart healthy.

Seattle sports nutritionist Susan Kleiner, author of Power Eating, offers another approach to clients 50 and over: Eat five or six small meals a day, each with 25 grams of protein. That way, she says, your protein needs will be covered regardless of when or how you work out.

While meat, milk, eggs and fish are excellent sources of quality protein, Tufts researcher Robert Fielding suggests the best choice for stimulating muscle building in later years is whey protein. Rich in amino acids, whey is the liquid left over after milk is made into cheese. Typically sold in powder form (available in the nutritional section of most supermarkets), whey is the protein of choice for the popular after-workout smoothie — but beware. Commercial smoothies are often packed with calories and sugar. Smoothie King’s Hulk Vanilla, for example, contains 23 grams of protein and a whopping 801 calories. Its High Protein Almond Mocha has a generous 30 grams of protein, but a still-hefty 366 calories, including 37 grams (9 teaspoons!) of sugar. (Note: Like protein, sugar has 4 calories per gram; fat has a generous 9 calories per gram. The Hulk, for example, has 32 grams of fat).

For that reason Kleiner recommends fiftysomething clients make their own protein smoothies. Her simple recipe: Measure out a scoop of whey powder and blend it with a banana or fresh fruit, ice cubes and a little skim milk. Traveling? Kleiner suggests putting a scoop of whey protein in a baggie and slipping into a coffee shop for a plain latte. Ask the barista to stir in your whey powder, add a teaspoon or two of sugar, and in just minutes you have a skinny, high-protein drink perfect for that post-workout boost.

2. Dial Back the Carbs Carbohydrates are good fuel for any kind of activity, but the reality is that boomers probably don’t need as many carbs pre- and post-workout as younger exercisers. “When you’re young, the ratio of carb to protein for exercisers is about 4:1,” Kleiner says. “As you get older that ratio drops to 3:1 or 2:1 depending on exercise intensity.”

Kleiner tells clients to pair a 25-gram protein mini-meal with about 30 grams of carbs, roughly two servings of fruit. Bonci recommends equal amounts of proteins and carbs (or a slightly smaller serving of carbs, about 15 grams) before a bout of resistance training. Afterward? Go with a 2:1 ratio or 30 grams of carbs with every 15 grams of protein.

3. Push the Fluids Forget trusting thirst as a reliable tool for gauging how much fluid you need before, during and after a workout. The body’s fluid-balance mechanism grows a little faulty in later years, putting the over-50 crowd at greater risk for dehydration. Blame more sluggish kidneys and a limited ability to conserve water.

“Drink 20 ounces of fluid one hour before your workout,” Bonci says. After the workout keep sipping to replace fluids lost in sweat. What about sports beverages for replacing sodium and electrolytes? Not necessary, she says, particularly if you’re eating something pre-workout and drinking water.


And those energy drinks that are all the rage? Stay away, Kleiner says. “They’re full of sugar and empty calories.” Bottom line: Fiftysomethings need to make water their go-to fluid.

4. Boost Omega 3s The polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines are high on every cardiologist’s list of healthy foods. New research links them to muscle building, too. A Canadian report builds a strong case for omega-3 fatty acids as agents that help attenuate age-related muscle loss. It’s too early to make specific recommendations, but speculation is that omega-3 fats may augment muscle protein synthesis.

“It’s very exciting,” Kleiner says, “but it’s not just the oils in fish that are healthy — the proteins in fish are beneficial, too.” They enhance fat-burning, something clients who are struggling to maintain their weight are happy to hear.

Kleiner says she already advises older clients to eat plenty of fish. But she has also noted that her active older clients report less muscle soreness the day after a workout when they boost their fish intake with a daily 1-gram fish oil supplement containing EPA and DHA. Though this is strictly clinical, not scientific, data, Kleiner finds that plant-based omega-3 fats, as well as flaxseeds and chia seeds, don’t appear to confer these same benefits.

5. Consider Multivitamins  Back in 1992, a small study made a big splash when it announced that exercise increased the requirement among older women for riboflavin, a B vitamin. Fast-forward a couple of decades and little more is known about why this is true, but Kleiner remains an advocate for filling in the gaps with a good multivitamin.

"A lot of women start to limit bread or gluten products as they get older and B vitamins get edged out," she says. “They’re missing not just riboflavin, but the other nutrients these fortified bread products provide.”

Rather than worry about focusing on a single nutrient, however, Kleiner advises taking the multivitamin approach. “Even if you keep very active in later years, you still need fewer calories,” she says. And fewer calories means fewer nutrients, whose needs do not decline.

The bottom line: More protein, whey, fish oil and fluids; fewer carbs — and plenty of exercise.

Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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