How a runner's diet should change with age

We all know our taste buds change over time, but our body’s needs should be a factor too

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At some point in your teenage years, an understanding of your dietary requirements in relation to your age somehow disappears more or less forever. For a myriad of reasons – advertising, peer pressure, change in taste – we all settle into a dietary rhythm of family favourites and treats, conveniently forgetting what is good for us. 

Even those of us who don’t forget how great carbs are, or how to make sure the fat percentage in our diet is correct, almost never take into account age and how or why our training plate should change as our love for slippers and comfortable slacks grows. As trail runners, we need to understand that what worked as a 20-year-old won’t necessarily do the job when we get older. And perhaps what’s even more tricky to get a grip on is that what’s perceived bad for us as youngsters may actually be good for us as 50-plus athletes.

“The truth is that there’s no one optimal diet for life,” says research nutritionist Harriet Miles. “We all know that a well-balanced diet is strongly encouraged. However, emerging research suggests that our bodies require slightly different nutrients in different quantities as we age. Our bodies are constantly changing, so it makes sense that the food we eat should change with it.

“For a start, as we age our metabolism takes a hit and slows down. The brakes are applied as early as our late twenties and explain why we can put on weight quickly despite eating a similar diet. Therefore, portion control is vital as our bodies require less calories. At the same time, as we age our nutrient needs will stay the same or even increase. Some recommend smaller portions of more nutrient-dense foods, such as leafy greens, fish, or whole grains to combat this issue.”

Protein

Recent evidence suggests that higher dietary protein ingestion is beneficial in older adults, particularly over 65. Protein is essential to maintain bodily function and aid recovery in disease. Yet despite diseases commonly associated with ageing placing a greater demand on the body, older adults typically consume less protein than adults in their twenties and thirties. 

Not enough dietary protein will see the body compensate by losing muscle mass. Up to 50% of total body weight in young adults is lean muscle mass, but this declines with age to 25% by the age of 75 to 80. As a result, older people are at a higher risk of conditions such as sarcopenia (loss of skeletal muscle mass) and osteoporosis (weakened bones). In turn, this can increase a person’s risk of falls and fractures. Consumption of 1 to 1.3 grams per kilogram a day is recommended, with as much as 2 grams per kilogram a day in those living with chronic health conditions. 

Bone health

Throughout childhood and adolescence, good nutrition is vital to maximise our genetic bone health potential. During early to mid-adulthood our focus should shift to maintaining the bone mass that we do have, and prevent premature loss. A diet rich in calcium, vitamin D and protein with adequate amounts of other micronutrients will usually suffice in a fit, healthy adult. However, a range of factors such as decreased intestinal absorption and sun exposure in the elderly population can make this harder to achieve.  

Calcium can be found in dairy foods as well as non-dairy, such as tofu, lentils and green vegetables. Eating eggs and fatty fish such as tuna or salmon are relatively high in vitamin D, but additional supplementation may also be wise in the winter months. 

Hydration

How much water we drink can have a great impact on our underlying health. As a person grows older, hydration becomes even more important for several reasons. Our relative total body fluid levels decrease while at the same time our kidneys become less effective; losing more water to maintain normal function. Medications common to treating health conditions in older adults can also consequentially promote water loss. Younger adults have greater reserve; while as we age we can suffer the effects of even mild dehydration. Health authorities recommend eight 8oz glasses/2 litres of water per day. 

Female-specific

The menopause is a significant time for women. Usually between the ages of 45-55 years, oestrogen levels will drop. These hormonal changes not only decrease bone mass, as discussed, but they also increase a woman’s risk of heart disease. A Mediterranean diet, high in fish and plant-based foods and oils has been linked with good health, including a healthier heart. Although this doesn’t mean an excuse for a glass of wine!

This is a version of an article which appeared in a recent edition of Trail Running. Find much more nutrition and training advice in the current issue - in shops now.