As you’ve ventured into your 40s, you may have noticed that your energy crashes more quickly than it used to. Or maybe you’ve gained a few pounds around your middle—despite the fact that your diet has remained basically unchanged for as long as you can remember.
It’s not your imagination. As women near their 40s, basal metabolic rate decreases, estrogen levels dip, and blood vessels decrease in elasticity. These factors make it harder to stave off belly fat, and also increase the risk of heart disease, cognitive decline, and osteoporosis, says nutritionist Maggie Moon, author of The MIND Diet. “The good news is that what we eat—something we all do each day—can make a big and lasting impact.”
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Here, 10 simple tweaks you should make to your diet in your 40s that can help you stay lean and healthy—for life:
Up your calcium intake.
“As estrogen production decreases in aging women, it becomes harder to absorb calcium,” explains nutritionist Rebecca Scritchfield, author of Body Kindness. And since the risk for osteoporosis increases with age, this nutrient is vital for your health. “Women over the age of 50 should aim for roughly 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily, and women in their 40s should shoot for around 1,000 milligrams calcium per day.” That comes out to about three to four daily servings of calcium-rich foods—and this doesn’t only mean things like yogurt, cheese, and milk. Many cereals and plant-based milks (like almond or soy) are fortified with calcium, and dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collard greens are other great options. (Need some more creative recs? Check out these 10 dairy-free ways to get calcium.)
Eat more protein.
This is key for both meals and snacks; basically, you want to have protein on your plate whenever you eat—no excuses. You lose muscle mass as you get older, and protein (along with weight lifting) helps you preserve and enhance lean muscle, making it a particularly key nutrient. “Interestingly, research suggests your body can use protein more effectively for muscle-building when you include protein-rich foods throughout your day,” explains nutritionist Christy Brissette, president of 80 Twenty Nutrition. As a general rule of thumb, make a protein-rich food a component in every snack and strive for 30 grams of protein at every meal. That means you’ll need about four ounces of chicken, fish, lean meat, or plant-based protein like lentils, beans, or soy. “For snacks, include an ounce of nuts, two tablespoons hummus or nut or seed butter to meet your protein needs,” adds Brissette. (For even more healthy snack ideas don’t miss these 12 snacks nutritionists eat to curb cravings.)
Cut back on sodium—especially sneaky sources of it!
“Bloating is very common during menopause, and a high-sodium diet can not only exacerbate bloating but also be a major contributor in the first place. This is where label reading is key; don’t rely on how salty a food tastes,” advises Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based nutritionist and the strategic director of Dietitians For Professional Integrity. “Many people don’t realize, for example, that a serving of salted peanuts contains the same amount of sodium in a slice of bread or a cup of milk.” Unexpectedly, many salt-loaded offenders often lurk in the baked goods aisle. Sweet products like muffins, cookies, and breakfast cereals can be loaded with the stuff. In fact, most coffee shop muffins have as much sodium as four servings of potato chips, Bellatti cautions. Salad dressings, condiments, jarred sauces, and packaged frozen entrees are other salt-laden offenders.
MORE: 6 Symptoms That Seem Like Menopause But Might Be Something Scarier
Eat two weekly servings of oily fish.
Hormonal changes occur as you approach menopause that increases your risk of heart disease, while diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. So if you haven’t already, it’s time to befriend omega-3-rich fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and herring. “EPA and DHA are omega-3s found in fish and fish oils that you need to keep your brain, heart, and eyes healthy as you age,” Brissette says. Aim for two palm-sized servings per week. Another reason to eat more fatty fish: “As you get older, your skin produces less vitamin D in response to the sun. Oily fish is an excellent source of vitamin D, so it’s another win for nutrition in your 40s,” Brissette says.
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It’s officially time to try quinoa.
If you haven’t jumped aboard the quinoa (an edible starchy seed that’s considered to be a whole grain) bandwagon, now’s the time. “It’s more important than ever to choose the whole grains. Refined grains lead to energy crashes which, in turn, lead to sugar cravings and overeating that will quickly lead to weight gain,” say Tammy Lakatos Shames and Lyssie Lakatos, authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure. In fact, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that dieters who ate whole grains lost more belly fat than those who ate refined grains. Bonus: Quinoa also offers protein and fiber which work together to keep energy levels steady and ward off crashes.
Eat more leafy greens.
We know, we know, veggies = no-brainer. But leafy greens, in particular, are important to incorporate into your diet as you approach midlife. “Several studies have shown stronger resistance to cognitive decline with high veggie intake, with the best protection from leafy greens. One of my favorites is lacinato kale. Cut it into thin ribbons (called ‘chiffonade’) and massage it for at least five minutes with a good quality olive oil, and add it to a farro salad with diced plums and almonds,” Moon says. Yum! Another easy way to get your greens? Toss a handful into a morning smoothie or fold them into scrambled eggs or your go-to omelet.
Eat more soy.
Don’t let myths turn you off from nutrient-rich options like edamame, tofu, soy milk, and tempeh. “While many women may be concerned with the risk of breast cancer in eating too much soy, there is little evidence to support this is true,” Scritchfield explains. “These foods are rich in plant estrogens which can help reduce hot flashes.” And they’ve also been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. New to soy foods? “You want to seek out minimally-processed soy such as edamame and tempeh (made from soybeans and healthy bacteria) rather than soy protein bars or heavily processed soy hot dogs,” Brissette advises. (Get comfortable cooking tempeh with the help of this simple yet delicious spicy tempeh chili recipe.)
Eat your meals and snacks earlier in the day.
Night owls, listen up! According to a 2017 University of Pennsylvania study, even when two groups of people ate the same number of calories, those who ate later in the day (i.e., noon to 11 PM) were more likely to weigh more and have elevated cholesterol and insulin levels compared to those who ate most of their food earlier in the day, Amer says. These factors can increase your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and you may find that eating earlier helps boost your energy levels, as well. (These 6 simple food rules for all-day energy can also help.)
Make balsamic vinegar a go-to.
This common pantry staple can be a boon for your health. “Balsamic vinegar contains powerful flavonoids called anthocyanins (the same type found in blueberries), which can help reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease,” Bellatti explains. “[These compounds] protect arteries from damage caused by damaging free radicals.” And you don’t need to limit your balsamic intake to only salads, try adding a drizzle of balsamic over whole grain side dishes, roasted vegetables (like this tasty roasted Brussels sprouts & red onion recipe), or even fruit salad for a tangy punch.
Eat fat to lose fat.
To firm up and keep those excess pounds off for good, you may need to add more fat to your diet—but it has to be the right kind, Moon says.” A recent study of nearly 9,000 women over 40 found that the closer they stuck to the healthy-fat-packed, famously heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, the leaner they were.” A Mediterranean diet tends to center around omega-3 rich fish (see tip #4!) along with olive oil, nuts, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. (If you’re not huge on sea creatures, here are 4 Mediterranean recipes that burn fat and don’t involve anything with gills.)
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