“I’m in my mid-40s and am increasingly concerned about menopause, aging, and weight gain. How does it all tie into diet, and what should I be eating or not eating? And how can I avoid the ‘middle-aged spread’ we all hear about?”
The “aging train” takes women into uncharted territory. But with some basic knowledge and the right foods on your plate, you can make it a healthful ride — not to mention prevent excess weight gain and mitigate the effects of aging.
For many women, menopause signals an unavoidable shift in metabolism. But actually that shift starts as much as 20 years earlier. Let’s back up a decade or two to look at the “age-perfect” foods and nutrients women should focus on from age 30 onward.
This is a milestone decade for many women, who hit their stride during their 30s — career, family, children, even sex. It’s also an era when metabolism starts to decline. Having turned 30 myself earlier this year, I admit that it’s time to rethink some things.
The facts: Around the age of 30, our metabolism begins to downshift. Thankfully, it drops only 1 to 2 percent each decade. A drop in metabolism can equate to a drop in lean muscle mass and an increase in body fat, which is why your favorite “feel-good” jeans may no longer fit as well as they used to.
Exercise is important: A University of Pennsylvania study found that for women in their mid-20s to mid-40s, weight training helped decrease abdominal fat by 7 percent and decreased overall body-fat percentage by an additional 4 percent.
In addition, our capacity to build bone density also drops once our 30s are in full swing. According to the USDA, 90 percent of women over the age of 20 don’t consume enough calcium on a daily basis. If you’re not there already, get on the calcium bandwagon — fast! — in order to prevent osteoporosis and keep your blood pressure in check.
The fix: Boosting physical activity and weight-bearing exercise will help keep your metabolism going at full speed and maintain healthy bone density. Make sure to incorporate calcium-rich foods into your regimen: ideally, two or three servings a day of low-fat dairy, calcium-fortified orange juice, soy milk/products, almonds, sardines, or broccoli.
If you’re not able to get adequate levels of calcium from food, consider a supplement that has vitamin D in it; calcium citrate and calcium carbonate are absorbed best. Aim for 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day.
Try out some simple, smart switches to watch calories and manage weight gain. Swap juices, refined flours, and sugary items for higher-fiber foods such as whole grains and fresh produce. Fiber improves digestion and increases satiety, which means you’ll fill up on less and not feel bloated and sluggish.
And as odd as it sounds, think about eating more — more often, that is. Make time for a well-balanced, protein-rich snack or two between meals to keep your metabolism running strong and maximize your calorie-burning potential. Try eating an apple with natural peanut or almond butter, low-fat plain yogurt with a handful of granola, or an ounce of cheese with a few whole-grain crackers.
Keep an eye on portion sizes. The days of blowout meals and indulgent desserts aren’t necessarily over, but women in their 30s need to be a little more watchful of how frequently they’re occurring. Getting portion sizes down pat is key to managing weight gain while still eating for pleasure and enjoyment.
Finally, for many women, the 30s are prime child-bearing years. If you’re considering pregnancy, you’ll want to work in healthy sources of iron (lean red meats, oysters, prune juice, walnuts) and folic acid (whole grains, dark leafy greens) whenever you can to promote a healthy pregnancy.
When the 40s hit, the phrases “middle-aged spread” and “peri-menopause” start creeping into our vocabulary.
The facts: Cardiovascular-disease prevention should be on your radar, as it’s the top cause of death among women, according to the CDC. The initial signs and symptoms of menopause may be developing, and your body is experiencing a shift in hormones. Exercise is vital to keep lean muscle mass from disappearing. And those darn miniscule lines — i.e., wrinkles — start to appear.
The fix: Women in their 40s should eat plenty of heart-healthy sources of omega-3 fats, such as avocadoes, canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Unless you’re vegetarian, try to eat cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, two or three times a week. These types of fats also boost memory and cognitive function.
Drink plenty of water, and eat lots of colorful antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables (berries, red grapes, cherries, broccoli, artichokes, prunes, tomatoes, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, and more) to retain your skin’s moisture, reduce signs of aging, lower cholesterol, and prevent disease.
Zero in on lean sources of protein. We don’t need massive quantities of protein, particularly as we age and our calorie needs decrease (between the ages of 40 and 50, our daily caloric needs drop by about 200 calories). But having small portions of protein throughout the day will help maintain muscle mass. Reach for a protein-rich snack or meal after a workout — low-fat cottage cheese and fruit, lentil soup or salad, a grilled chicken sandwich on multigrain bread, or a hard-boiled egg.
And if you’re a wine lover and are looking to kick those few pounds that have crept on somehow, you might want to think about pouring a little less or aiming to have just a few glasses on the weekends only. Calories rack up quickly, and alcohol calories in particular go straight to our middles. Trust me, I love wine, but I see it again and again with women I work with: Knocking out those extra glasses really makes an impact over time.
The years of menopause and postmenopause are officially here.
The facts: You’re doing everything you’re supposed to do — eating healthfully, watching alcohol consumption, guzzling water, exercising and strength training — and yet you’re still suffering from the whole hot-flash menopause thing.
The fix: Keep a list of potential foods and beverages that might trigger a hot flash, such as caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods. Black cohosh is an herbal supplement that has been used to reduce menopause symptoms, but it shouldn’t be taken for more than six months and may interfere with certain medications. Consult your physician before taking.
Stock up on foods that may lessen hot flashes and night sweats. To date, the research on whether soy reduces the symptoms of menopause remains inconclusive. Soy contains estrogen-like compounds called isoflavones (plant estrogens), which some think may mimic the role of estrogen in our bodies. Isoflavones are also found in beans and whole grains.
Definitely make sure you’re consuming sufficient calcium. Hormonal losses during and after menopause can significantly impact bone loss. Your daily calcium requirement bumps up to 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams per day after menopause.
Ensure that you’re also getting your daily of dose of vitamin D. Women between ages 50 and 70 should try to consume 400 international units of vitamin D a day (a glass of milk provides 100 international units). Your calcium supplement should have vitamin D in it.
Vitamin B12 is also important, as the absorption process is less efficient in older women. B12 is found in animal protein. Most multivitamins also contain about 2 micrograms of B12 (2.4 micrograms is the daily recommended amount).
In addition, be mindful of the types of fat you’re consuming, both to prevent heart disease and high cholesterol and to prevent an increase on the weight scale. Aim for healthy sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as nuts, olive oil, and flaxseed oil.
A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that postmenopausal women who consumed a low-fat diet and increased their fiber intake over a period of eight months achieved a nine-to-thirteen pound weight loss (eight percent of their total body weight).
You may have begun to watch portion sizes in your 30s and 40s, but now it’s really time to monitor these closely in order to keep your weight where you want it. Put fresh fruits and vegetables at the center of your plate, and scale down slightly on the lean protein (a portion should be roughly the size of your fist) and complex carbohydrates (try to limit carbs to a half-cup or about the size of a baseball).
Keep your metabolism up by eating a small snack or meal every three or four hours. And don’t deny yourself occasional indulgences; they’re worth it.
Marissa Lippert is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in New York City.
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