(Health.com) -- When it comes to getting healthy -- and staying that way -- there's no better place to start than your plate. All of the foods here are great for you at any age, but eat the right ones at the right times, and you'll have a natural defense against any problems facing your body through the years.
Boost bones with calcium. This decade marks your last shot at building bone mass. (Later on, eating well and exercising will help you maintain what you've got.) Yet according to government research, more than half of women in their 20s get less than the 1,000mg of calcium they need daily to do that.
Most healthy eaters easily bank about 500mg, says Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of "Eat Your Way to Happiness." Make up the difference with a daily 500mg calcium supplement -- either a pill or chocolate chew, whichever you like best! (Try not to take it too close to meals packed with high-calcium foods, since the body can only absorb about 500mg at a time.)
Star Sources: 1 cup plain nonfat yogurt (452mg), 1 cup calcium-fortified soy milk (368mg) or orange juice (267mg--347mg), 1 cup fat-free milk (306mg), 1 ounce cheddar cheese (205mg).
Prep for pregnancy with folate. Up to 70 percent of neural tube birth defects (like spina bifida) could be prevented if moms-to-be consumed enough of this B vitamin.
Don't wait until you see those two pink lines: Folate (and folic acid, the synthetic form found in supplements and fortified foods) begins boosting babies' development in the days and weeks just after conception, when most women don't even know they've conceived.
The 400mcg you need daily (600mcg if you're pregnant) can come from food, but since it's better absorbed through a supplement, hedge your bets by taking a multivitamin, too. (Check the label to make sure it packs that 400mcg.)
Star Sources: 3/4 cup cereal with 100 percent DV for folic acid (400mcg), 4 spears asparagus (85mcg), 1 cup raw spinach (60mcg), 1 ounce peanuts (40mcg), 1 slice whole-wheat bread (25mcg).
Fight fatigue with iron. You're juggling work, relationships, and kids -- no wonder you're tired! But that fatigue may also stem from low iron stores, common among women in their 20s and 30s who don't eat much meat and, as a result, don't hit the 18mg recommended daily allowance. (Have heavy periods? You're at even higher risk.)
Though your body soaks up the most iron from animal protein, you'll absorb more from plant foods by pairing them with those rich in vitamin C, like red peppers or strawberries.
Consider swapping out your aluminum pots, too: A study in Food Chemistry found that leafy greens cooked in iron-clad pots packed more than twice the amount of iron as uncooked greens or greens prepared in other cookware.
Star Sources: 3/4 cup fortified cereal (18mg), 1/2 cup white beans (4mg), 1/2 cup cooked spinach (3mg), 3 ounces beef (3mg), 3 ounces chicken (1mg).
Help your heart with omega-3s. Eating these fats regularly can slash your risk for heart disease by lowering triglycerides. If you're pregnant, omega-3 fatty acids may improve your baby's brain and eye development and help stave off postpartum depression.
Meet your daily requirement of 0.5g to 1g a day by eating at least two servings a week of low-mercury fish, like the ones listed among our Star Sources. (Though walnuts and flaxseed contain heart-healthy omega-3s, too, seafood sources are better for brain health, says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D., Health's Senior Food and Nutrition Editor and author of "Feed the Belly.")
Star Sources: 3 ounces salmon (1g--2g), 3 ounces flounder (0.5g), 3 ounces halibut (0.5g--1 g), 3 ounces shrimp (0.30g), 3 ounces canned light tuna (0.20g--0.25g).
Feel full with fiber. Having trouble shedding extra pounds? Your metabolism is dipping along with your muscle mass, so your calorie needs now drop by about 100 a day. (Yup -- bummer.)
Your new best friend: fiber, which can make you feel full while you're eating less. Plus, fiber helps fend off constipation, which becomes more common with age; it can also help reduce cholesterol levels. Most women get only half of the 25 grams they need daily.
Star Sources: 1/2 cup 100 percent bran cereal (9g), 1/2 cup black beans (8g), 1 small pear with skin (4g), 1/2 cup raspberries (4g), 1 ounce almonds (3g), 1/2 cup whole-wheat pasta (3g).
Lower BP with potassium. It's common for blood pressure to start creeping up with age, but if you take action now, you may never need meds. Potassium doesn't just help lower elevated BP levels -- it also works like kryptonite against sodium's BP-raising effects.
An extra perk: It may help lessen bone loss. Just make sure to hit 4,700mg a day to reap the rewards.
Star Sources: 1 medium sweet potato (694mg), 1 medium potato (610mg), 1 medium banana (422mg), 3 ounces pork tenderloin (382mg), 1 cup fat-free milk (382mg), 1/2 cup cooked lentils (365mg).
Age gracefully with antioxidants. There's solid evidence that eating foods rich in antioxidants may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline -- even dementia and Alzheimer's disease, according to a review from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. And these natural plant compounds may actively make your mind sharper by blocking reactions that can damage the cells found in brain tissue.
Our Star Sources have some of the highest antioxidant capacity among foods. Try to get 5 servings of these or other fruits and vegetables a day.
Star Sources: 1 cup blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries; 1/2 cup dried plums; 1 Granny Smith apple; 1 cup red grapes; 1 medium russet potato; 1 cup artichoke hearts; 1/2 cup broccoli rabe; 1/2 cup raw red cabbage.
Fend off disease with vitamin D. Every cell in the body requires vitamin D to function, which may be why it's been linked to such a broad range of health benefits, from lowering cancer risk to warding off depression.
Getting the minimum daily 400IU is especially important now: By your 50s, you may be making as little as 30 percent of what you did when you were a kid from the same sun exposure, Somer says. Slathering on SPF a must for your skin cancer risk means you're getting even less D, since sunscreen blocks its production.
"I always recommend food first when it comes to nutrients," says Keri Gans, R.D., spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But in the case of D, it's simply too hard to get enough in your diet."
Star Sources: 3 ounces canned light tuna (154IU); 1 cup D-fortified milk or juice (100IU); 1 egg (25IU). (Most basic multivitamins contain 400IU -- or take a D supplement of 1,000IU a day, an amount Gans and other experts recommend.)
Stay sharp with B12. A full third of adults over 50 don't make enough stomach acid to break down and absorb the vitamin B12 in foods, says Carol Haggans, R.D., scientific and health communications consultant with the National Institutes of Health.
That's a problem, because not only is this key vitamin needed to produce red blood cells, it's also involved in brain function which is why you may feel weak and fuzzy-headed if you're deficient.
Low B12 levels can also trigger high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that's linked to cardiovascular disease. Ask your doctor for a blood test to check your status if you suspect you're deficient.
Note: At this age, you'll absorb the B12 in supplements and fortified foods more easily than the natural kind, so take a multivitamin or have a bowl of fortified cereal (one with 100 percent DV for B12) to get the necessary 2.5mcg a day if you're low in it.
Star Sources: 1 cup fortified cereal (6mcg), 3 ounces beef (2mcg), 1 cup yogurt (1.5mcg), 1 cup milk (1mcg).
Copyright Health Magazine 2011