Women's dietary needs change later on in life, whether as a result of menopause-related hormonal changes or a slower metabolism, and many older women require fewer calories, but additional nutrients to support health and wellbeing.
And while there's no need for a major overhaul of your diet, a few nutrition-savvy tweaks could boost your general health, as well as potentially lowering your risk of age-related conditions, such as heart disease, breast cancer and osteoporosis. Make a start by putting the following foods on the menu.
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Fond of soya milk, tofu and edamame beans? You're in luck. Soy isoflavones, plant chemicals that interact with oestrogen receptors - structures on the surface of cells that let oestrogen into the cell rather like a key fitting into a lock -, may help regulate oestrogen, reduce hot flushes, help prevent loss of bone mineral density (BMD), benefit systolic blood pressure during early menopause, and improve control of blood glucose, according to research. A soy-rich diet is also held to be partly responsible for low rates of death from breast cancer in Japan.
A soy-rich diet can also help lower your cholesterol according to Heart UK and reduce your risk of heart disease, the second leading cause of death for women in the UK. On top of that, soy also contains folate (vitamin B9), which many older women lack in their diets.
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Milk is a great source of calcium needed for strong, healthy bones, with a single glass of milk supplying around a third of our daily recommended intake. Women are more at risk of developing osteoporosis than men. The National Osteoporosis Society recommends 700mg of calcium a day for adults, including 50-plus women, to be obtained from diet if at all possible. If you take medication for osteoporosis you may benefit from increasing this to around 1,000mg.
Learn more about how calcium benefits health
Studies suggest that eating turmeric, the spice that gives curries their yellow colour, may help stave off dementia. The reason? Curcumin, the active ingredient in the yellow-hued spice is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective. However experts and the UK's Alzheimer's Society cautions that more research is needed in humans and people with Alzheimer's rather than just in cells or mice.
Having said that, turmeric - whether fresh in root form or powdered - adds a characteristic flavour to curries. It can't do you any harm and it may do you some good. Try it in curries, marinades, rice dishes and soups, or add some of the root or powder to a virtuous fruit or veggie smoothie.
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Pumpkin seeds are a source of iron, as are liver, shellfish, nuts, red meat, pulses and beans. Although pre-menopausal women who experience heavy periods are at a significant risk of developing anaemia, around one in ten people aged 65+ including 12% of women also suffer from it. And, although this is usually only mild, it can affect your physical abilities, raise the risk of falls and is linked with greater frailty, poorer cognition, an increased risk of dementia and an increased likelihood of being admitted to hospital.
If you suspect you may be anaemic it's important to check it out with your GP as in older people iron deficiency can be a sign of other underlying illnesses. Once any sinister cause has been ruled out it can help to consume a diet rich in iron. Try sprinkling pumpkin seeds over cereals, salads and dips such as hummus, or having a handful as a snack.
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Older women, especially women over 65 are at an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. “It's recommended that over-65s take a supplement of vitamin D of 10 micrograms per day,” says British Dietetic Association spokesperson Priya Tew. “Try to get out in the sun for 10-30 minutes a day without sunscreen, too.”
Upping your intake of dietary vitamin D should help as well. Vitamin D enhanced mushrooms are a source of the vegetable form of vitamin D, vitamin D2. Oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals meanwhile contain D3.
Try our delicious mushroom recipes
A diet rich in plant chemicals called flavonoids has been linked with a reduced risk of several types of cancer, such as gastric, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers.
Flavonoids are found in many fruits and vegetables, but both black and green tea are some of the richest beverage sources. Black tea consumption may also help lower the risk of high blood pressure and help regulate cholesterol levels. Time for a cuppa?
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Carrots are rich in powerful antioxidants called carotenoids, which have potential cancer-protective properties. A research paper published in 2015 in the American Journal of Nutrition concluded that women with high blood levels of carotenoids had a lower breast cancer risk, especially for more aggressive forms of the disease.
A 2019 meta-analysis (a study which pools and evaluates the results of other studies) meanwhile suggested that carrot consumption may decrease the risk of lung cancer. On another note, the beta-carotene in carrots converts to vitamin A in the body, which may help protect the eyes from degenerative damage.
Is veg healthier cooked or raw?
There's a good reason we're constantly being told to increase our dietary intake of oily fish such as mackerel to at least two portions a week – they are bursting with health-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids, which help to make our cell membranes more flexible and fluid as well as helping preserve their structure, improving the ability for cells to send signals to each other and cell-to-cell interaction. They also provide vitamin D, heart-healthy fats and high quality protein.
Research suggests older people increase their protein intake and eat several portions throughout the day to mitigate age-related muscle loss, aka sarcopenia.
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Protein alternatives to meat
Chowing down on nuts is a great way to reduce cholesterol in the body. Walnuts in particular may be especially beneficial according to a study published in the journal Nutrients in 2017, which found that 45 grams (1.5oz) of walnuts a day improved the fat profiles of 134 women aged around 63 years.
In other research published in 2019 walnut consumption was found to change gene expression (which genes are 'switched on') in women with breast tumours, supporting other research that walnuts may help contribute to the suppress growth and survival of breast tumours. Try them sprinkled over your breakfast cereal, in salads, smoothies or rice pilafs.
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Try this walnut and black bean wrap recipe
The world's most popular berry is packed with myriad key nutrients that may help support older women's health. Strawberries are, for example, an excellent source of vitamin C – deficiency of which we may be susceptible as we get older, as well as folate (vitamin B9), which we may also be lacking as we get older.
The sweet red-coloured berries also contain those plant chemicals flavonoids and are also high in fibre, which we need 30 grams of a day for health.
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