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When you think about aging well, wrinkle creams, exercise programs and even plastic surgery probably come to mind. But if you really want to make sure you're able to enjoy those later years, experts say you've also got to know something about fine-tuning your diet.

Even if you've mastered the art of maintaining a healthy weight and you're eating right, as you get older, your body has a more difficult time properly absorbing important nutrients, and its composition changes, which makes it easier to gain weight.

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It's therefore likely that you'll head for your golden years carrying some extra baggage. Compared to other age groups, adults ages 40 to 59 have the highest prevalence of obesity, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"People think of the elderly getting frail and losing weight," says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. "But people are going into older ages now heavier, and they seem to be maintaining it."

A Weighty Issue
One reason why it's easy to gain weight as we age is due to the fact that, as the years go by, we gradually lose muscle. Most of us are also less active as we grow older. If you're burning fewer calories and you haven't changed your diet, you're going to gain weight.

To make matters worse, when we hit middle age our hormone levels fall, which shifts our body fat distribution, noticeably, to the abdomen.

Aging also puts you at a higher risk for chronic diseases, like diabetes and arthritis, which may require medications that can cause you to put on pounds, points out Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, a Vancouver-based trade association that promotes wellness in aging.

You may think the few extra inches on your waistline are relatively harmless, but the amount of muscle and fat we have are good predictors of how mobile and independent we'll be down the road, says William J. Evans, professor of geriatrics, physiology and nutrition at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a research scientist at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

New Tricks
Cutting back on calories is a good first step in tackling your diet as you age. Your calorie requirement may drop as much as 20% between the ages of 20 and 60, Evans says, though this varies from person to person due to different lifestyle factors and body types. The best way to figure out if you're consuming too many calories is to step on the scale frequently to monitor your weight.

There are also a handful of nutrients you need to pay more attention to as your birthdays begin to add up. Aging can decrease the amount of stomach acid we secrete, making it harder for our bodies to absorb vitamin B12, for instance, Lichtenstein says. That can lead to anemia.

Watch your calcium and vitamin D intakes too. After age 30, we all start to lose bone mass, says Cheryl Forberg, author of Positively Ageless and a nutritionist for NBC's The Biggest Loser. Eating lots of fat-free and low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, will help prevent osteoporosis. If you don't want to spend a little bit of time in the sun to get more vitamin D, which is crucial to the absorption of calcium, try consuming more fortified milk and cereals before turning to supplements.

If cutting calories yet eating more of certain foods sounds tricky, focus on snacks and meals that have a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio, or are "nutrient dense." Whole-grain breads, beans, fruits and vegetables all are good examples.

Since our senses of taste and smell may diminish as we age, Forberg suggests kicking up food with herbs and spices, such as tarragon, cinnamon and turmeric, to keep your healthy diet from becoming bland. Another advantage is that all of these herbs naturally contain disease-fighting antioxidants.

While most of these dietary habits would benefit people of any age, they're particularly beneficial for older adults, who need all the help they can get to stay healthy and active. And experts say there's no need to feel discouraged if you're coming to the table a little late.

"It's never too late," Lichtenstein says, "to at least forestall a health problem."