What we put on our plates has an impact on our health and well-being, throughout life. But at 10, 20, 40 or 60 years old, our body does not have the same nutritional needs. It is therefore important to adopt good habits and to change your diet as you get older.
Do we eat to live or do we live to eat? We have a complicated relationship with food, influenced by its cost, its accessibility, and even by the pressure of those around us. But we all have one thing in common: the appetite, that is to say our desire to eat.
Increased appetite can have a physical or psychological cause, and hunger (the way our body tells us it needs food) is not the only cause. After all, we often eat without being hungry and sometimes skip meals despite being hungry. Recent research shows that the abundance of food-related stimuli in our environment (smells, sounds, advertisements) is one of the main causes of overconsumption.
Our food choices are important to our health and well-being throughout our lives, so it’s important to build good habits. However, our appetite is not only influenced, but moreover, it is not immutable. It changes as we age, and there are seven “ages of appetite.”
Better understanding these phases could help us develop new ways to combat undernutrition and overconsumption, and their health effects, such as obesity.
First decade, 0-10 years
In early childhood, the body grows very quickly. The eating behavior adopted at the start of life can have long-term consequences: an overweight child is likely to remain so into adulthood. When children are reluctant to eat, meals are sometimes a real ordeal for them and for their parents. But by making them taste everything regularly, in a positive spirit, we can get the little ones used to essential foods, such as vegetables.
Another important point: children must keep control over the size of the portions they swallow. If they are forced to “finish their plate,” they risk losing their ability to listen to their appetite and the hunger signals their body sends them, which can lead them to overeat later.
In addition, more and more countries are calling to avoid exposing young children to advertisements for products that are too fatty or too sweet, not only on television but also in smartphone applications and on the internet. Indeed, these spots encourage overconsumption and contribute to the increase in the number of overweight children.
Second decade, 10-20 years
In adolescence, increased appetite and hormone-induced growth spurts herald the onset of puberty and the transition to adulthood. The way a teenager eats will influence his future lifestyle.
This means that the food choices of these young people will have a direct impact on the health of their own children. Unfortunately, if they are not well advised, teenagers sometimes adopt harmful behaviors and food preferences.
Further studies are needed to determine the most effective means of solving the problem of overnutrition and undernutrition, linked in particular to poverty and social inequalities. In general, young women are more prone to deficiencies than men because of the functioning of their reproductive system. Pregnant teens are at even greater risk, as their bodies must support both their own growth and that of their fetus.
Third decade, 20-30 years old
In young adults, lifestyle changes like pursuing higher education, getting married or living as a couple, and parenthood can lead to weight gain.
Those extra pounds are often hard to shed: the body sends powerful hunger signals when we don’t eat enough, but the signals that warn us that we’re eating too much are much weaker. Many physiological and psychological factors make it difficult to force yourself to eat less in the long term.
Recent research focuses on ways to develop the feeling of satiety, that is to say the impression of having eaten enough. This is useful when trying to lose weight, since hunger is one of the main difficulties to overcome when you want to eat less than what the body needs, and thus create a calorie deficit.
Foods do not all send the same messages to the brain. It’s easy to gobble down a whole tub of ice cream, for example, because fat doesn’t send signals to get us to stop eating. On the other hand, foods rich in protein, water or fiber give us a greater and lasting feeling of satiety. By working with the food industry, we can imagine developing new foods or snacks capable of acting on satiety.
Fourth decade, 30-40 years
Active life also brings its share of complications: a rumbling stomach, of course, but also the effects of stress, which would alter the appetite and eating behavior of 80% of people. Some people stuff themselves, others lose their appetite.
These contrasting reactions are intriguing: the phenomenon of “food addiction”, this irrepressible desire to eat specific foods, often high in calories, is still poorly understood. Many researchers even question its existence. Character traits such as perfectionism and rigor could also play a role in stress management and eating behavior.
Redesigning the workplace in such a way as to avoid the development of problematic eating habits such as snacking and the use of dispensers is a real challenge. Employers should fund healthy eating and stress management campaigns to ensure the well-being and productivity of their employees.
Fifth decade, 40-50 years
We are creatures of habit. We tend to give in to them, even when we know they are bad. We are thus reluctant to change our diet, even if it is not dietary. However, the word diet comes from the Greek diita which means “way of life”. But despite everything, we want to continue eating what we like without having to change our way of life. While keeping a healthy mind in a healthy body…
Diet can be a major contributor to poor health. According to the World Health Organization, smoking, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and alcoholism are the lifestyle factors that have the greatest impact on health and mortality.
It is during this decade that adults should change their behavior in the direction most favorable to their health. But the symptoms of poor health (high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) are often invisible, not prompting action.
Sixth decade, 50-60 years
The gradual loss of muscle mass (from 0.5 to 1% per year from the age of fifty) continues throughout our old age. This phenomenon, called sarcopenia, is accelerated by reduced physical activity, insufficient protein intake and menopause in women.
A varied and balanced diet and regular physical activity are essential to mitigate the effects of aging. However, the current supply does not meet the demand of an aging population looking for tasty, inexpensive and protein-rich foods.
High-protein snacks could be the ideal solution, but there are currently only a few suitable products.
Seventh decade, 60-70 years and beyond
In view of the increase in life expectancy, one of the main current challenges is to manage to maintain the quality of life of the elderly, at the risk of creating a society of invalids.
Eating correctly is all the more important as old age causes a loss of appetite and even a decrease in the feeling of hunger, leading to weight loss and therefore to greater fragility. Appetite can also be affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Eating is also a form of social interaction, which can be affected by factors such as precariousness, widowhood or the loss of loved ones. The fact of eating meals alone affects the pleasure one feels in eating… To which are added certain physical effects of aging, such as difficulty in swallowing, dental problems, partial loss of taste and smell. “Without teeth, without eyes, without taste, without anything”, or the old age described by the melancholic Jacques in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It…
Throughout our lives, the food we eat doesn’t just serve us as fuel. Eating is also a social act and a daily cultural experience. We should therefore view every meal as a chance to savor what we eat, and appreciate the positive effects of healthy food on our health.
The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.