While 50 might be “the new 35” from a physical standpoint, most members of this segment of the Gen-X/younger Boomer set are stretched—and stressed—to the max. 

Loaded down with longer work hours and extended working years, fewer vacation days, and less disposable income, this generation is changing the way the aging process is viewed.

Comparatively, the men and women of the 45-65 age group are healthier and more active than when their parents were the same age. While this is good news, they also are beset in record numbers by unfortunate health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and heart disease. To help resolve this dichotomy, nutrition experts recommend eating more nutrient-rich food and beverage products to help fill the gap. Enjoying better foods and beverages can allow many Boomers and X-ers to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

One of the key changes that happens as people age occurs in the microbiome, made up of the trillions of bacteria that populate the body inside and out. The microbiome has stimulated much scientific interest for the role its components play in human health.

Research supports that, in addition to aiding in the absorption of nutrients, these bacteria colonies and the healthy digestion they promote are fundamental to immune function. Simply put, a healthy microbiome can provide multiple health benefits and even improve mood.

Middle-aged consumers face many difficulties, including changes in metabolism and other aspects of the body’s day-to-day functioning. The microbiome is equally susceptible to change. Katherine Hall, PhD, et alia, reporting on the decline of the microbiome in later life in a 2016 article “Physical Performance Across the Adult Life Span,” Journal of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Science, referenced an earlier study by Woodmansey, et alia, on the decline of one of the main strains of beneficial probiotics, Bifidobacteria. That previous study demonstrated that “the decline in bifidobacteria population with aging was accompanied by a decrease in species diversity.”


Going Pro

Yogurt was once the primary entry point of beneficial probiotic bacteria into the diet. And, with trend surges in the category through offerings like Greek yogurt, yogurt will continue to be a staple item in American refrigerators.

However, the past decade has seen yogurt share space with an increasing number of food and beverage products laced with live probiotic cultures, such as other dairy products, bars, chocolate, coffee, breakfast foods, dips, and snacks. One of the easiest ways to enhance healthy gut microbiota is to drink probiotic beverages, such as kefir or probiotic juices.

According to a preponderance of research, probiotic beverages have the potential to protect against gastrointestinal problems as people age. A 2015 animal study published in the Journal of Immunology Research reported that kefir helps reduce inflammation in the digestive system. Also in 2015, the Iranian Journal of Public Health published results of a study indicating that kefir—specifically, its probiotic properties—can help reduce blood-sugar levels in people with diabetes.

As awareness of the need to feed these helpful bacteria has increased, probiotic product makers have taken to including prebiotics in their formulations. Prebiotics are carbohydrate structures, such as fibers, certain starches, and oligo- or polysaccharides, which serve as food for the probiotics.

Prebiotic compounds include fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), and certain starches, such as resistant starch. While these are available in many fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, too many American adults are still not eating enough of these foods. This is why it’s so beneficial to incorporate prebiotics into the prepared foods consumers enjoy, such as baked formulations and cereals, as well as soups, sauces, and snacks.

While prebiotic fibers and starches have been trending up in foods, incorporating prebiotics into beverages also is going strong. Including inulin in a kefir beverage or resistant starch in a probiotic smoothie drink gives these products a new symbiotic characteristic—at once boosting their healthfulness and marketability.


Immune Boost

Aging not only diminishes the body’s ability to produce immune cells, it slows down signaling between cells. The body’s ability to rapidly and effectively respond to insults is thus compromised. With a lowered immune capacity, fighting off diseases, physiological insults, and everyday stresses is also reduced.

In addition to immune-boosting phytochemicals (including antioxidants); vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin D and selenium); and probiotics/prebiotics, another important ingredient for immune function is the class of polysaccharides called beta-glucans.

Beta-glucans are typically derived from certain cereals, mushrooms, and yeast. In a recent clinical study of subjects 50-70 years old, the bakers’ yeast-derived beta-1,3/1,6-glucan was found to help strengthen the immune response against upper respiratory tract infections (URIs), an affliction to which seniors are especially susceptible.

Subjects receiving this form of beta-glucan were shown to experience a 16% decrease in the number of days per year they suffered from total URIs. This shows promise for product developers able to include the ingredient in food and beverage products designed to help maintain general immune health as well as guard against this common problem.


Muscle Hustle

Sarcopenia, which begins in middle age (onset can begin as early as the mid-30s), is the atrophy of muscle, including the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle. It also is one of the more serious health issues affecting persons over 40 years of age. Estimates are that from age 50, loss can reach or even exceed 1% per year. With increased inactivity, this loss can accelerate even more dramatically.

Sarcopenia is characterized by a reduction in and degeneration of muscle tissue, increased oxidative stress, and aberrant metabolism of muscle cells. The result is a replacement of muscle with fat or fibrous tissues, loss of strength, degeneration of the neuromuscular junction, and increasing loss of function—leaving the person progressively weaker and frailer.

Twice as many women as men are affected by sarcopenia, and the process often begins earlier in women than in men. Obesity, especially morbid obesity, not only increases muscle loss, but also hastens onset, with persons as young as 18 demonstrating signs of the condition. Sarcopenia also affects more than a third of the population aged 70 and up.

In “Sarcopenia in older adults,” published in 2012 in Current Opinion in Rheumatology, Jeremy Walston, MD, clarified: “Although no consensus diagnosis has been reached, sarcopenia is increasingly defined by both loss of muscle mass and loss of muscle function or strength. Its cause is widely regarded as multifactorial, with neurological decline, hormonal changes, inflammatory pathway activation, declines in activity, chronic illness, fatty infiltration, and poor nutrition all shown to be contributing factors.”

Walston also noted that molecular findings related to cell death; a decline in the cells’ “battery,” the mitochondria; and changes in the angiotensin system as it relates to the skeletal muscle have “highlighted biological mechanisms that may be contributory.” He added, “Interventions, in general, continue to target nutrition and exercise.”

“Building and maintaining muscle is important throughout the lifespan,” stresses Marie Spano, MS, RD, “and when a person reaches their early 40s, they should start taking steps to delay the progression of sarcopenia.”

Spano, a sports dietitian and nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, is co-editor of The National Strength and Conditioning Assn.’s Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition. She asserts that not only is resistance training critical for building and maintaining muscle, so too is diet. “Proper nutrition can support training by helping ensure a person is getting the most from their workouts, and the right nutrients are going in to maintain muscle mass.”

Protein is definitely the primary ingredient necessary to build and maintain muscle tissue. Spano recommends consuming “at least 30g of high-quality protein per meal and eating fairly evenly spaced meals throughout the day” to help minimize muscle loss.

“In addition,” adds Spano, “research suggests the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA can help decrease inflammation in muscle, thereby improving muscle function, while also improving strength and muscle mass in older adults.”


Build It Up

While highly bioavailable protein sources, such as those from dairy, eggs, fish, poultry, and meat, are excellent ingredients for preventing or mitigating muscle loss from sarcopenia, according to Spano, “vegetarian sources of protein can support muscle building and repair.”

However, she also cautions that, in many cases, “A person may need more vegetarian protein per meal to maximally stimulate muscle growth and repair.” Soy, pea, and other leguminous proteins are among the best vegetarian proteins, Spano notes, as they are high in leucine, the amino acid that turns on the processes underlying muscle growth and repair.

In view of this, adults may want to bring milk back into their diets. Research suggests that full-fat dairy could help lower the risk of obesity, because it increases satiety and can, therefore, reduce one’s tendency to overeat. Researchers also have determined people who eat full-fat dairy products are no more likely to develop heart disease or type 2 diabetes than those who eat reduced- or non-fat versions.

“Whole milk was largely dismissed as a healthy eating option for many years, but now the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the full-fat direction,” says Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky.

Food manufacturers that previously turned their focus to reduced-fat products should reconsider their strategies, particularly for the gap generation that might be suffering from “low-fat fatigue.” Downing an entire pint of full-fat ice cream isn’t the answer (well, maybe once or twice a year), but neither is eliminating whole-fat products entirely from one’s diet. Companies can find success by offering varieties of milk-based products that can serve as a healthy snack or even part of a small meal.


Botanical Helpers

A daily dose of green tea is another easy for way for 50-somethings to improve their health. Green tea is packed with antioxidants and nutrients that improve brain function, help with fat loss, and reduce risk of cancer. Green tea contains antioxidant polyphenols, including flavonoids and catechins.

Flavonoids and catechins have the potential to reduce the formation of free radicals, thereby protecting the cells and molecules from damage. Antioxidant compounds also are known to fight the ravages of aging and a range of diseases caused by free radicals and environmental insults.

Two ingredients derived from green tea that merit special attention for the middle-aged consumer are epigallocatechingallate (EGCG) and the amino acid L-theanine. Green tea also has a moderate amount of caffeine, which is great for focus. The potential for green tea as an added ingredient continues to grow. Green tea powder, known as matcha, for example, has been added to smoothies, shakes, desserts, baked goods, dips, and dressings.

Mark David, PhD, a professor of exercise physiology and nutrition in the Department of Exercise Science, Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, conducted research on the effects of exercise and nutrition on mental and physical fatigue. He specifically has studied how dietary components such as quercetin appear to work in the brain, immune system, and muscle tissue to increase mitochondria; reduce inflammation and fatigue; and increase resistance to infection and cancer.

Quercetin is found naturally in foods like apples, berries, parsley, capers, buckwheat, onions, and peppers. It’s also known to alleviate bruising and reduce varicosity in veins, as well as inhibit the growth of malignant cells.

Recently, product developers have been including it in beverages, pasta, energy drinks, fruit juices, and even soft candies. One challenge is that quercetin also has bitter and astringent characteristics, requiring masking ingredients and careful flavor chemistry.


Cherry Picking

Some of the little aches, pains, and bothers that affect middle-aged people are more annoying than debilitating: mild osteoarthritis, the first twinges of aching joints, urinary tract irritations, and trouble sleeping. While it’s true there are pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter meds to counter those nuisances, dietary interventions can be effective, tasty, and convenient solutions.

Cherries, cranberries, and other fruits can handle several of the above conditions. Cherries are packed with essential nutrients, such as potassium and vitamins A and C, but a person has to consume a lot of fruit to get the benefits that come more easily by drinking cherry juice. Cherries also contain high amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.

Cherry juice, as with other high-antioxidant fruit juices, also is known to help prevent cancer and enhance heart health, boost immunity, and help reduce serum cholesterol, and can help regulate metabolism. The juice’s versatility and flavor are key benefits. Processors can also take advantage of cherry juice concentrates and powders for convenience.

“Fifty-somethings are facing more pressures than ever and, as so many Americans are, they’re looking for natural solutions to either prevent potential health concerns or alleviate existing health conditions,” says Jeff Manning, CMO of the Cherry Marketing Institute. “Montmorency tart cherries offer a package of functional benefits this age group should pay attention to.”

According to Manning, Montmorency tart cherries provide 50-somethings a variety of functional benefits. These benefits include promoting sleep (as one of the few food sources of melatonin, the “sleep” hormone that helps regulate the body’s internal clock), muscle recovery after exercise, fighting inflammation, and reducing risk of heart disease.

Potassium in cherries and other fruits is vital for conduction of electrical impulses through the nerves in the body. It’s also important in muscle recovery, maintaining blood pressure, keeping the body hydrated, regulating heart rate, aiding digestion, and maintaining pH balance. Manning recommends consuming two glasses of Montmorency tart cherry juice daily.

A study published in the December 2012 issue of the European Journal of Nutrition reported that taking seven days of supplemental tart cherry juice helped participants fall asleep and remain asleep for longer periods of time.

With sleep deficit a chronic—and pandemic—condition among working adults, having an affordable, non-addictive, and natural aid to enhance sleep can help reduce stress, and help taxed bodies and minds benefit from the restorative powers of sleep. 

Several studies have indicated cherry juice could be beneficial for ailments such as osteoarthritis. A 2012 study in the Journal of Food Studies showed that compounds in the ingredient helped reduce pain. An earlier study in Behavioural Brain Research revealed that anthocyanins in tart cherry juice reduce joint pain and inflammation, comparing it to the prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug indomethacin and pointing to it as a safer alternative.

Another earlier study comparing cherry juice to pharmaceuticals, published in the journal Cancer Letters, found that cherry juice contrasted favorably against a prescription nonstereroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and reduced the growth of cancer cells.


Cranberry Tart

Cranberry juice has long been promoted for urinary tract health, but a recently published supplement to the journal Advances in Nutrition noted additional benefits extend to the digestive, cardiovascular, and immune systems, as well as to brain health.

While animal studies have demonstrated that cranberry bioactives could help to strengthen the digestive defense system and protect against infection, researchers also found promising links between cranberry products and blood pressure, blood flow, and blood lipids. 

One study identified a potential benefit for glucose management with low-calorie cranberry juice and unsweetened dried cranberries in people living with type 2 diabetes. Heart health and diabetes management also have been attributed to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of the polyphenolic compounds in cranberries.

“It has been established that cranberries rank high among the berry fruits that are rich in health-promoting polyphenols,” notes lead author Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. “But recent investigations have shown that the cranberry polyphenols could interact with other bioactive compounds in cranberries that protect the gut microbiota and provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions that benefit the cardiovascular system, metabolism, and immune function.”

“The bioactives in cranberry juice, dried cranberries, and a variety of other cranberry sources have been shown to promote an array of beneficial health effects,” continues Blumberg. “Given the complex nature and diversity of compounds found in berry fruits and how they interact with each other,
I believe we have only scratched the surface when it comes to identifying the potential power of the cranberry.”


Ageless Beauty from Within

Beauty is said to be skin-deep, but with the right foods and ingredients, consumers can decrease wrinkles and increase elasticity. Vitamins C, E, A (and other carotenoids), as well as compounds such as hyaluronic acid, are joining soy, green tea, and omega-3 fatty acids as some of the nutrients known to improve skin health.

Vitamin E, especially in its tocotrienol form, has gained attention for abilities that promote cutaneous health. Likewise, the carotenoids astaxanthin, lutein, and lycopene also are examples of ingredients that support skin health. Omega-3 oils, too, can be a boon to overall outside health.

Soooooo Tired

As a group, 50-somethings are an active bunch. But at the end of the day—or afternoon—this hardworking group is getting tired. Optimizing energy production becomes front and center. Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, director of the Practitioners Alliance Network, says that while the human energy crisis affects all ages, those in their 50s typically are hardest hit. “This generation often carries an extra burden, needing food and nutrients that optimize energy, while decreasing inflammation, and optimizing bone density and digestion,” he says.

According to Teitelbaum, fatigue, muscle pain, and insomnia—all symptoms well-known to those in middle age—are reflections of low energy, and enhancing energy can help all three. “Low energy equals tight muscles and dysfunction of the hypothalamic sleep center,” Teitelbaum adds.

As one of the leading experts in the treatment of fibromyalgia, and author of From Fatigued to Fantastic (Avery, 2007), Teitelbaum recommends the following key nutrients (in order of priority):  magnesium, ribose, and the B vitamins. “Magnesium is critical in more than 300 reactions in our body,” he says. “Mainstream food processing has dropped the average amount in the diet from the needed 600 or more mg/day to under 275mg.”

While the mineral does appear in many premixes in small amounts, it certainly is time manufacturers took a closer look at the mineral and consider fortifying more foods, such as RTE cereals, with magnesium.

“Arguably, the single most powerful nutrient for increasing healthy energy might be d-ribose,” says Teitelbaum. He points to studies indicating this natural sugar (almost as sweet as table sugar but metabolized differently) can increase energy a dramatic 61% after just three weeks of daily consumption. D-ribose provides key building blocks for adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s “energy currency.” 

A five-carbon monosaccharide, ribose does not raise blood sugar, making it a viable carbohydrate for use in food and beverage formulation. Not surprisingly, over the last several years, ribose, with its sweet taste, has become a popular additive to a number of foods, including dark chocolate truffles, granola bars, and oatmeal. It’s easily soluble, dissolves in most food systems, and has no aftertaste.

Ribose also is highly compatible with other ingredients and systems, including other nutritive sweeteners, carbohydrates, fibers, and non-nutritive sweeteners in formulations. It can be readily used in most protein-based systems, fats, and oils, as well as chocolates and coatings.

Teitelbaum also recommends healthy doses of B vitamins to enhance energy. He says 50-somethings should aim for 50mg of each of thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, plus 400-800µg of folate and 500µg of B12 daily. Fortified foods, such as cereals, provide excellent vehicles for manufacturers targeting energy in easy and convenient formats.


Mood Food

Moods certainly trigger food cravings, but the reverse also is true. Digestive health is an important component of maintaining one’s mental health. Mood foods enjoying the limelight include dark chocolate, known for its rich lode of antioxidants. These compounds help reduce blood pressure and counter the free radicals associated with heart disease and other illnesses.

A natural chemical called anandamide plays a role in dark chocolate and health as well. This compound has been studied for an ability to temporarily block feelings of pain and depression. 

Nutrition bars containing high amounts of protein and dark chocolate offer an appealing choice for adult consumers who need a quick pick-me-up. Add some almonds, walnuts, or even pistachios, and the result is an even healthier and more attractive product. Almonds and other nuts are good sources of vitamin E, the powerful lipid-soluble antioxidant, as well as mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

Foods such as eggs and cheese, and tree nuts such as almonds, provide high protein along with healthful fats that have high satiety values and help maintain steady blood sugar levels. This factor can increase energy and enhance mood. Other great sources of protein are whole grains and seeds, such as chia, hemp, and quinoa.

Curcumin, the primary bioactive ingredient in the ginger relative turmeric, is another bad-mood buster. In addition to centuries of Ayurvedic knowledge attesting to curcumin’s benefits, scores of research studies reveal that the spice has powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and even anticancer properties. Other studies suggest it can ease symptoms associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Curcumin also has exhibited positive effects for persons suffering from diseases such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, diabetes, and other inflammatory diseases. Other studies suggest curcumin might protect against some skin diseases. Memory and cognition fit into the curcumin toolbox as well, with preliminary data showing mitigation of some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.


Health on the Brain

“Research suggests Alzheimer’s disease starts in your brain decades before you experience any symptoms,” says Daniel Amen, MD, a clinical neuroscientist and brain-imaging expert. “The good news is that anyone can take steps to keep their brains healthy before this devastating disease becomes a concern.”

Amen advises people to nourish the brain with superfoods, including fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts. This gives food manufacturers myriad opportunities, such as including omega-3 fatty acids in more food and beverage options, and formulating more products with brain health combos that include nuts—especially walnuts and almonds—dried fruits, and dark chocolate.

Other cognitive health ingredients include phosphatidyl serine (PS), as well as the stress-reduction complex of phosphatidyl serine with phosphatidic acid (PS+PA). Non-caffeine stimulants also have shown promise in improving memory and cognition.


Not For Men Only

Some ingredients and foods are particularly beneficial to men. Saw palmetto, for example, is associated as a traditional or folk remedy for urinary symptoms connected with an enlarged prostate gland, also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).

While research findings have been mixed as to its efficacy, saw palmetto is one of the few botanical ingredients for which the wealth of anecdotal evidence has led many health practitioners to recommend it.

Although commonly taken in capsule form, saw palmetto can be used in ground or dried fruit form, liquid extracts, infusions, or teas. It remains under study, and its efficacy has not been proven in studies conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and National Institutes of Health to reduce the size of an enlarged prostate. However, an NCCIH-funded study is examining the effects of this fruit’s extract on prostate cancer cells.

Lycopene, a powerful carotenoid and natural pigment that contributes to the deep red color in tomatoes, is known as a possible protector against certain types of cancer as well as cardiovascular diseases.

Many studies have indicated that men who have diets high in lycopene from such sources as tomato pastes and other tomato concentrates demonstrate reduced risk of prostate cancer. A 2002 study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by Edward Giovannucci, MD, ScD, at Harvard Medical School, revealed that twice-weekly consumption of tomatoes or tomato sauce, including on pizza, lowered the risk of prostate cancer by 21-34%.

Overworked, overstressed, under-slept, falling apart—that’s how many in the generation bridging youth and old age feel from day to day. Food manufacturers and ingredient companies have ample opportunities to become partners with this massive demographic (more than 120 million Americans). They can create products that contribute to a diet that leads this group toward improved health and well-being.  

Leslie Levine is a regular contributor and author of Will This Place Ever Feel Like Home? Simple Advice for Settling in After You Move; Ice Cream for Breakfast: If You Follow All the Rules, You Miss Half the Fun; and Wish It, Dream It, Do It: Turn the Life You’re Living into the Life You Want. She has contributed to multiple food and beverage publications, as well as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Woman’s Day, and others. Look for other articles by Levine on PF’s website, www.preparedfoods.com. She can be reached at leslie@leslielevine.com.

Originally appeared in the January, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Young Seniors.