Disclaimer: This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Healthy eating is one of the most effective ways we can bolster wellness and prevent health problems. Women have particular nutritional needs, which can change depending on specific stages in their lives such as during pregnancy or after menopause. We are also more likely to have certain health problems that are associated with nutrition, such as celiac disease, iron-deficiency anemia, and lactose intolerance, according to the Office on Women’s Health. In other words, food isn’t just fuel and nourishment; it can also be a power ally. (1)
Why Healthy Eating is So Important During Midlife
While eating a nutritious, balanced diet is an integral part of good health and well-being at any age, healthy eating is something you’ll definitely want to pay particular attention to if you’re in your 30s or older.
That’s because as we approach middle age, our bodies undergo changes that affect what we should—and should not—be eating. For example, we typically lose muscle mass and gain more fat as we age, and this muscle loss decreases the rate at which the body uses calories, thus making it harder to stay at a healthy weight. We also experience a change in a brain chemical called leptin, which is what tells our brain to stop eating; this signal doesn’t work as well as we age, which means we may continue to feel like we’re hungry, even though we’ve eaten enough. (2, 3, 7)
Menopause is another reason to watch what we eat as we get older: Hormonal changes associated with menopause (which begins with a stage called perimenopause that typically starts in your 40s) can increase your risk of gaining weight around your belly. And because our bodies naturally produce less estrogen, a hormone that protects against heart disease and stroke, after menopause, healthy diet becomes important for cardiovascular health at this stage of life. And midlife is also when we are at risk for increased cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. In other words, a heart-healthy diet is essential for staying healthy before, during, and after menopause. (2, 3)
But while there are increased health risks with age, the fact is that you are by no means powerless to impact how much these natural physiological changes affect your body. By making adjustments to your diet and exercising regularly, you can set the stage for how well you are prepared to fight age-related health problems. Making other lifestyle changes like reducing stress and getting more quality sleep can also play an important role in your health and wellness for years to come. (3)
What Does a Healthy Diet Look Like?
Generally speaking, a healthy diet is one that includes whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products. As you consider what a healthy diet looks like for you and your needs, keep in mind the following guidelines:
Load up on vegetables. A good rule of thumb is to fill about half your plate with healthy veggies and balance is out with the other food groups: lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and lean dairy.
Eat less meat and opt for lean protein. Limit red meat and keep it lean. Incorporate more poultry and seafood, and opt for plant proteins like nuts, legumes, seeds, and soy products whenever possible. And remember: You don’t need to eat animal protein at every meal—being a part-time vegan is not only super-healthy for you, but it’s good for the planet, too. (1, 4)
Choose your oils carefully. Steer clear of saturated fats like butter and margarine and trans fats like hydrogenated oils, which can raise cholesterol and increase risk for cardiovascular disease; opt instead for oils like olive or canola, which can lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. As for coconut oil, which has been touted as beneficial for your heart (among other uses, like moisturizing skin and hair), doctors advise using it sparingly as it’s still high in saturated fat, even though studies have shown that it may increase HDL (or “good”) cholesterol. And don’t forget about the fats you consume when you eat packaged foods like chips or salad dressing, as they can add up quickly. (1, 9, 10)
Healthy Eating Tips for Midlife
Find your power. First and foremost, don’t beat yourself up if you start to see the beginnings of the dreaded “middle-age spread.” But also don’t throw your hands up in defeat; use this as motivation to challenge yourself to plan a healthy diet to keep weight gain at bay.
Rethink portion size. Most women need fewer calories as they get older and lose muscle mass and are less physically active. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a handy tool that allows you to plug in your age, activity level, and other data to calculate how many calories you should be eating. (1)
Give your pantry and fridge a makeover. Take a good look in your fridge and pantry. If you see lots of packaged foods with a long list of preservatives and other chemicals on the nutrition label, switch these out for fresh foods whenever possible.
Remember to pack healthy snacks. Instead of taking a sugar- and preservative-loaded energy bar to work or hitting the vending machine, bring some baby carrots and celery sticks with hummus or an apple with almond butter to put in your office fridge. Think of your snacks as an opportunity to eat any food groups you might not have gotten enough of at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. So, for instance, you might wanna grab a green smoothie to boost your veggie intake or have a cup of overnight oats to get more whole grains into your day.
Jazz up your meal routine with spices and flavors. We are a long way from the days when a vegetarian dish meant mac ‘n cheese or soggy tofu and overcooked mushy broccoli. Today, in our increasingly multicultural world where recipes for healthy and delicious veggie-centric cuisine are at our fingertips with a few keystrokes, the possibilities for adding healthy vegetables and grains into your diet are endless. (Think Japanese udon noodles, Indian curried cauliflower or lentils, Mediterranean platters of grilled vegetables, and Korean veggie bibimbop, to name a few yummy options.) So go online and get cooking. One thing to keep in mind, though: seasonings are great, but watch out for anything too spicy since it may worsen hot flashes and don’t add too much salt since your blood pressure can become more sensitive to sodium as you get older. (5, 8)
Eat foods high in calcium and vitamin D. These two nutrients are important for bone health, which is something you’ll want to keep an eye on starting now. It’s natural for both men and women to experience a small amount of bone loss starting around age 35; but for women, decreased levels of estrogen, particularly in the first four to eight years after menopause, can cause bone loss to happen more quickly, increasing their risk of osteoporosis and hip, wrist, and spine fractures. Some foods rich in calcium include lowfat milk, yogurt and cheese; calcium-fortified juices and cereals; kale; broccoli; and sardines. Foods high in vitamin D are fatty fish, such as salmon, and eggs. (1, 2, 6)
Be mindful of what NOT to eat. And last but not least, be mindful of foods you should try to avoid or at least keep to a once-in-a-while indulgence, like foods that high in saturated or trans fat and loaded with sugar (Yep, sadly, those are the main ingredients in so many delicious treats like donuts and cake.). Switch out sugary sodas for unsweetened iced fruit tea, and limit alcoholic beverages to one drink a day or less. (1, 6)
1. Healthy Eating and Women. Office on Women’s Health. Updated October 18, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019. View resource.
2. Frequently Asked Questions: Women’s Health – The Menopause Years. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Updated December, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019. View resource.
3. Menopause Weight Gain: Stop the Middle Age Spread. Mayo Clinic. Updated April 21, 2016. Accessed March 12, 2019. View resource.
4. Rosi A, Mena P, et al. Scientific Reports. Environmental Impact of Omnivorous, Ovo-Lacto-Vegetarian, and Vegan Diet. 2017; 7: 6105. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-06466-8.
5. Menopause: Non-Hormonal Treatment & Relief for Hot Flashes. Cleveland Clinic. Updated January 16, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2019. View resource.
6. Healthy Eating for Women. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Updated April, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019. View resource.
7. Minding Your Metabolism: Can You Avoid Middle-Age Spread? NIH News in Health. Updated July, 2015. Accessed March 14, 2019. View resource.
8. High Blood Pressure. National Institute on Aging. Updated May 2, 2018. Accessed March 14, 2019. View resource.
9. Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Accessed March 14, 2019. View resource.
10. The Facts on Fats Infographic. American Heart Association. Updated May, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2019. View resource.