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6 Foods to Skip After 50

They may look tempting, but they are packed with unhealthy levels of sugars, fats and salt. Try these alternatives instead

spinner image six plates of food there are three that have red ex marks on top of them those are french fries breaded fried fish and fried chicken drumsticks
Danielle Del Plato

We’re not going to lie. Eating healthily after 50 requires effort on two fronts: boosting your intake of good-for-you foods, such as berries, leafy greens, whole grains and lean proteins, while cutting out the foods that clog your arteries and oh-so-easily expand your waistline.​

​When it comes to the latter, focus less on making certain foods verboten (who doesn’t suddenly want chocolate when told never to eat it?) and more on how your health is more important than the sugar spike or instant gratification they offer. When possible, just say no — or at least “Whoa!” — to the following.​

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​1. Fried foods that triple the calories

​If it helps, pause to imagine the vat of oil that basket of fries or onion rings has been submerged in, and consider how its saturated fat “may have a negative impact on blood cholesterol,” says Amy Gorin, CEO of Plant Based With Amy in Stamford, Connecticut. ​

​The American Heart Association recommends a diet in which only 5 to 6 percent of calories come from saturated fat, meaning that if your daily calorie intake is 2,000 calories, no more than 120 of those calories should come from saturated fat.

Bottom line: Get the side salad instead of restaurant fries. When you look at labels, consider that “a 200-calorie serving of food should have no more than 2 grams of saturated fat,” says Nancy Farrell Allen, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Do this instead: “Break out the air fryer!” advises Christine Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, coauthor of Food & Fitness After 50 and author of the blog A to Z ... Simple, Practical, Science-Based Tips for a Long Healthy Life. She swears by her fryer: “Air-fried fish (cod, tilapia, even salmon) is great in the air fryer, as are ‘fried’ veggies, like new potatoes, green beans, broccoli and brussels sprouts. Spritz with olive oil and add some herbs.” Kate Zeratsky, registered dietitian and nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, recommends playing around with other cooking methods. Look at roasting vegetables in the oven with a tablespoon of oil, “playing with the temperature to get the texture — soft or crispy — that’s appealing to you.”​

2. Sugary drinks, including most bottled teas

​Soft drinks aren’t your only enemy. Bottled teas, fancy coffee drinks and “fresh” lemonades can all be loaded with the sweet stuff. “For example, the 16-ounce chai latte at Starbucks, one of its most popular drinks, has 42 grams of sugar,” Rosenbloom says.​

​Beware of misleading labels on bottled drinks. “Just because a drink says ‘pure’ or ‘green tea’ or ‘honey’ doesn’t mean it has less sugar,” Rosenbloom says. What about products touting their organic cane sugar, coconut sugar or raw sugar? “Sugar is sugar,” she says.

A 2022 study led by the University of South Carolina of more than 90,000 women found that those who drank at least one sugary beverage a day had a 78 percent higher risk of developing liver cancer than those who consumed less than three servings per month.

​Bottom line: “Aim to keep added sugar intake to 10 percent or less of total daily calories,” Gorin says. “For a 2,000-calorie daily diet, that would be no more than 200 calories, or 50 grams, of added sugar per day.”

Do this instead: Sip a cup of prune juice — yes, prune juice. “I love to recommend Amaz!n Prune Juice 7.5-ounce cans, which are perfectly portioned,” Gorin says. Each serving offers 4 grams of fiber — a good amount — which aids your digestive health and helps you feel good. And it contains no added sugar.” Or infuse water with fresh fruit in flavors such as orange, blueberry lemon, and kiwi watermelon, suggests Jordan Hill, lead dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching (topnutritioncoaching.com). “It will add both flavor and some micronutrients from the fruit.” Allen’s recommendation: Try herbal teas or reduced-sodium bouillon or bone broths if you crave a savory beverage. Zeratsky suggests either flavored carbonated water or one of the new prebiotic or probiotic, low-sugar sodas.

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3. Packaged foods with sneaky sugars

“Hidden sugars can be found in pasta sauces, yogurt, granola bars, instant oatmeal packets and breakfast cereals,” Allen says. Why’s that so harmful for older adults? “Excess sugar can put stress on organs such as the pancreas and liver,” Allen says, “which can increase blood sugar and blood triglyceride levels and raise the risk of fatty liver disease.”​​“Sugars increase one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, the incidence and prevalence of which increase as we age,” says Thomas Loepfe, a geriatrician at the Mayo Clinic. At a time in life when every calorie should be nutrient-dense, “added sugar really contributes to calories we don’t need.” ​

Added sugars are inflammatory to the body and can lead to unfavorable health problems, Hill says. “The American Heart Association recommends women limit added sugar to 25 grams a day and men to 36 grams a day.”

Studies back up the harmful effects of sugar. A 2023 study out of the University of Missouri found a link between Western diets high in fat and sugar and the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to chronic liver disease. Another 2023 study, this one out of the University of Pittsburgh, found that excess sugar can exacerbate the symptoms of inflammatory disease.

Bottom line: Check labels for added sugars — but don’t fret over natural sugars in fruits or milk.

Do this instead: “If you’re looking for something sweet, I recommend upping your fruit intake. Fruit is naturally sweet, offers a great source of fiber and will keep you more satiated than the sugary packaged items,” Hill says. Allen suggests making your own quick bread mini-muffins — blueberry, zucchini, banana, pumpkin or cranberry orange — using whole-wheat flour. Gorin advises using frozen fruit to make a healthy smoothie. “One of my favorite things in the freezer section: frozen wild blueberries. Not only do they offer two times the health-helping antioxidants of conventional berries, they’re proven to benefit your memory and brain health. Blend them with unsweetened almond milk, peanut butter, Greek yogurt and banana for a delicious, fueling smoothie.”

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4. Foods loaded with stealth salt

"Seventy-five percent of people over age 60 have high blood pressure. And even if you're on medication, you want to lower your sodium intake,” Rosenbloom says. If you think you're eating a low-salt diet because you don't salt your grilled corn or soup, think about that frozen pizza or canned soup you just heated up.

Those items are loaded with stealth salt, too. And the largest randomized clinical trial ever to look at the effects of reducing salt intake, published this year in The Lancet, found that lowering sodium led to improved symptoms like swelling, fatigue and coughing—and an overall better quality of life.

"Seventy-five percent of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods, not the salt shaker,” Rosenbloom says. So what can you do? An easy way to spot low-sodium foods, she notes, is to look for those in which sodium is 5 percent or less of the daily value; anything in the 20 percent range is high-sodium.

Bottom line: Aim for 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.

Do this instead: Get back into the kitchen and cook, Allen advises, keeping the recipes simple, using whole ingredients and using seasonings that have no added sodium. “For example, have the fixin’s for a make-your-own-pizza using whole-wheat naan bread, pizza sauce, reduced-fat cheese, an assortment of veggies and lean meats,” she says. Rosenbloom recommends checking out the frozen “healthy” product lines that keep sodium down. “I’ve tried some of the newer product lines from Lean Cuisine,” she says, “and they are flavorful without as much sodium.”​​

5. Ultra-processed snacks

Unless you’re picking an apple from a tree or getting your milk straight out of a cow, most of the food you eat is processed. It’s the ultra-processed foods that make the list to strike from your diet. “Minimally processed foods like bagged greens, diced vegetables and nuts offer convenience,” Allen says. “And canned tomatoes and frozen fruit and vegetables are an excellent way to enjoy produce processed at peak quality and freshness.”​​But many ready-to-eat, processed foods, including cake mixes, snack chips, ketchup, sweetened yogurt and “meat lovers” frozen pizzas, add food coloring, sodium, preservatives and other hard-to-pronounce additives to make consumers happy. And that’s not good for you.​​Many processed foods are void of fiber and nutrients such as potassium or magnesium, and they tend to be calorically dense, with a lot of fat and salt, says Joseph Gonzales, a registered dietitian at the Mayo Clinic.​​“And some of the preservatives, like nitrates, may be harmful in high amounts, perhaps leading to premature aging of cells in the body,” Loepfe says.​

Bottom line: Make label-reading a habit. 

Do this instead: “You can’t go wrong with whole nuts, like pistachios in the shell or shelled almonds or peanuts,” Rosenbloom says. “And healthy cereal is a good snack for older adults because 93 percent of those over age 60 eat cereal with milk and fruit, so it’s a good way to boost nutrients.” Just watch for added sugars in cereals, even the “healthy” ones. Or reach for a hard-boiled egg. “When it comes to wholesome snacks, they are a naturally nutrient-rich choice,” Gorin says. “And the American Heart Association says healthy older adults can have up to two eggs per day as part of a heart-healthy diet.” Zeratsky suggests “the most wonderfully packaged to-go food: an apple, banana or orange.” Finally, Allen recommends making a charcuterie board with sliced lean turkey or chicken, whole wheat crackers, reduced-fat cheese, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried apricots and cherries.

6. Alcohol

The days of triple-margarita Mexican dinners should be behind you. Why? “Alcohol metabolism changes when we age, and we become more susceptible to its negative aspects,” Loepfe says. “Alcohol can impact fall risk, interact with the medications we take as we age and lead to an increased risk of dehydration. Alcohol contributes to many health problems, including liver disease, heart disease, kidney disease, our immune system function and neurological diseases like dementia.” A recent University of Pennsylvania study of 36,000 adults found that even moderate levels of alcohol consumption — a few beers or a glass of wine per week — are linked to harm to the brain, no matter what your age. And if you think alcohol helps you get more or better sleep, think again. “While it may make it easier for us to fall asleep, it doesn’t usually help us stay asleep,” Allen says. “Frequently, it wakes us up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.”

Bottom line: Government guidelines recommend no more than two drinks a day for males and no more than one drink a day for females.

Do this instead: “There are so many low- or no-calorie alcohol options, and bartenders are creative with mocktails!” Rosenbloom says. “If you do consume alcohol, think about diluting it with sparkling water, club soda or low-calorie cranberry juice.” Hill’s suggestion: Try low- to no-sugar kombucha. “Kombucha has live bacteria to help support gut health, and it’s a healthier carbonated beverage than your typical soda.” For Zeratsky, one of the best alternatives is a flavored carbonated water or spritzer with a splash of fruit juice or muddled fruits such as raspberries, limes or oranges.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Jan. 12, 2024, with additional information.​

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