What to Eat When

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Nutrition Researchers Give Advice for Each Life Stage 

Even the most intentional eater sometimes asks: “What belongs on my plate?” At almost any life stage, it’s a good idea to “eat a rainbow” of colorful fruits and vegetables, while limiting processed foods and drinking enough water. 

But researchers in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin have found some foods matter more at key milestones. Here’s a tip sheet from the experts.

For the first years

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Learning to read signals from babies can be tricky. Assistant professor Beth Widen and other researchers are preparing to study how mothers and grandmothers influence nutrition in the first two years of a child’s life.

Learning to follow babies’ cues for when they are hungry or full can be important to making sure little ones get the right amount and types of food (namely, only breastmilk and/or formula for the first six months, supplemented with solid foods when baby shows signs of readiness). When babies do start showing signs of readiness for solid foods around six months of age, Widen recommends going straight to the rainbow of food options. 

“Try avocado or cooked sweet potato mash,” she says. Colorful, flavorful fruits and veggies prepared in an age-appropriate way are a great way to introduce good nutrition early. 

For older children

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Associate professor Jaimie Davis has found starting a garden and getting kids to help cultivate and cook what’s grown helps create the right eating habits. “It changes the way we think about food,” she says. “Kids get excited about their food when they see it growing and even the pickiest eaters will pick up vegetables when they see it growing.” 

About 40-50 percent of excess calories in children’s diets come from what’s in their cups, not on their plates. Davis recommends cutting unnecessary calories from a child’s diet and preventing obesity by replacing sugar-sweetened beverages—flavored milk, fruit juice, sports drinks and soda—with agua fresca, which is water with muddled fresh fruit, vegetables or herbs. Davis’ favorite combinations are lime and mint, or honeydew melon and cucumber.

For young adults

College students and young professionals often juggle hectic schedules, tight budgets and high-stress lives that can lead to unhealthy eating habits. 

“A college student eating a lot of ramen and drinking beer can wind up malnourished because of the lack of nutrients,” says department chair Molly Bray. She points out even mild malnourishment can affect mood, stress levels and mental health—all concerns at this age—so it’s best to identify and eat healthy foods that fit one’s budget and lifestyle. 

For women starting families at this age, not gaining too much or too little weight during pregnancy is a consideration. Moderating weight-gain can prevent complications during delivery, stave off health problems later on and may even reduce baby’s risk of obesity during childhood, Widen has found. 

“The important thing to remember is just do your best and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself gaining above the recommended weight targets,” Widen says. 

For older adults

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Assistant professor of instruction Diane Papillion points out that nutrient density becomes more important as people age. The body needs fewer calories, but just as many nutrients. To meet nutritional needs with less food, every snack or meal really counts, so Papillion recommends making smoothies with green vegetables and whey protein powder, or tossing quinoa with bite-sized, roasted seasonal vegetables and a protein, like meat or beans. 

Risk of Type 2 diabetes also increases as adulthood progresses, says Marissa Burgermaster, a new assistant professor in the department. 

“It’s important to be aware of our diet especially as we age,” Burgermaster says. Choosing Mediterranean-style diets that emphasize fruits and vegetables and lean proteins can help keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. “Try thinking about why you choose the foods you do—is it for crunch, sweet, salt?—then opt for healthier alternatives that satisfy a preference.” Carrots, nuts, strawberries, dark chocolate and homemade veggie chips count as good alternatives, she says.

As we age, it’s normal to lose some sense of taste. If you need more flavor, the experts say to try adding spices before you reach for the salt or indulge in treats. 

Experimenting with flavored spices like turmeric or enjoying a dessert of fresh fruit like grapes or apples may have the added benefit of reducing cancer-causing inflammation. Associate professor Stefano Tiziani has published work on how natural compounds in foods like these helped starve and prevent prostate cancer in mice.