What to eat, in your 40s
We now enter a territory that I cannot speak about from personal experience…yet. Given life’s breakneck pace of late, I am sure my forties will be here before I know it. What it will look – or feel – like for me, well…I promise to update this post in five years and do a check in!
What I do know is that in her forties, a woman is staring down a huge hormonal shift known as peri-menopause. This shift can begin in our mid-thirties but is most common after forty. Hormone fluctuations, which include erratic and declining estrogen levels, set off a host of charming symptoms such as mood and sleep disruptions, hot flashes, irregular periods and changes to how the body stores fat.
As hormones shift, the body begins to deposit excess energy as visceral fat. This is the fat tucked around the organs of the midsection…as opposed to the fat just under the skin, which women commonly have under the hips and thighs. This type of fat deposition is more strongly associated with chronic disease than subcutaneous fat. These shifts may also alter the body’s inflammatory status and sensitivity to insulin, which governs how well we cope with blood sugar fluctuations. Together, this is when a woman’s risk of diabetes and cardiovascular issues starts to really hit home.
With a loss of estrogen also comes a loss of estrogen’s bone protecting efforts. Hopefully, you started getting serious about calcium a while back but if you didn’t, you want to ensure that you get on board now.
While I know this doesn’t sound like a party, what I also know – from professional experience – is that peri-menopause looks different for every woman. Some sail through with few complaints, while for others, it is brutal. Genetics have a role to play for sure…but so do health behaviours. Your forties can be a rocking decade, where many women report finally feeling like they’ve hit their prime in achievement, confidence and happiness. Taking good care of yourself can ensure that you have the energy and vitality to feel every bit as good – if not better – than you did in your thirties.
Building a Healthy Relationship with Food… and Your Body
Put Self-care first
Now is the time for diligence and discipline. To release behaviours that you can no longer ‘get away with’, like weekend long margarita fests. This is not the same thing as going on a diet for the rest of your life, because yuck. What is the difference between disciplined self-care and dieting? Intention. Respect. And acceptance.
It’s not always easy to get there. I know that I can sometimes struggle with the idea of physical aging. How I look more tired…even after a good night’s sleep. Or how delicate and pliable my skin is now. Without a doubt, between my two pregnancies, the stress and lack of sleep that come with them, and the general passage of time, things have changed. However, one of the most beneficial changes that I have experienced is total and utter respect for this vessel. And an understanding that my value is not tied to the size of my waist. Now that I am here, it has changed why I engage in self care.
Now is the time to work out, consistently. Because it makes you feel strong and energized…not for the calories it burns. To make time for meditation because it calms you. And to eat well, not for weight loss…but to feel amazing. Schedule it, protect that time, get in this for the long haul.
If you skip breakfast…or consume nothing but pastry… time to cut that s%!t out now. Eating a decent breakfast, that favours slow burn, high fibre carbohydrates like sprouted grains, legumes and vegetables along with protein and healthy fats like avocado may help improve blood sugar responses during the day…although the research is inconsistent.
Whether a veggie-packed smoothie, protein-rich whole grain pancakes, a tofu scramble or curried lentils (because why not?), it’s time to commit to a different kind of day starter. One that puts nutrient-dense whole foods in the forefront. Why I am taking such a hard line on this, if the research isn’t iron clad? For starters, because the research probably never will be…it’s just to hard to do it well. And, I am practical. If you skip a meal, it is way more difficult to get all of the nutrition your body needs to run optimally. If you don’t eat first thing, you will likely end up starving and way more likely to reach for junk food mid-morning.
Eat Enough…of the right foods.
If you have found that your weight has started to creep up, it could be easy to think that you should skimp at meals. Maybe a single piece of toast for breakfast…or a little salad at lunch. This is the worst thing that you could do, for a couple of reasons. Attempting to lose weight with significant calorie restriction may only harm your metabolic rate further – and it will make it damn near impossible to get the nutrients your body needs to optimize metabolism and prevent chronic disease. So many clients I know eat very modestly during the day and unleash a snack tirade at night. Not the best solution for weight maintenance.
In addition, weight loss is never just fat loss. Low calorie dieting will harm your lean muscle mass, which is of critical importance to maintaining weight and bone health. Adequate protein intake – roughly 20 to 25 grams per meal – will help minimize this effect.
So, instead of calorie-restrictive dieting, focus on whole plant foods (you already make half your plate plants, right??). Ensure you sit down to a good meal with protein, healthy fat and tons of high fibre plants. Eating this way keeps your blood sugars stay balanced, minimizing diet-induced inflammation, weight gain and out of control appetite that leads to poor choices. If you need help in this, my Minimalist Guide to Eating Well launches in just days!
Get to Know Your Core Nutrient
In your forties, two significant changes make your carbohydrate choices critical: a general slowing down of metabolism along with a change in how your body responds to insulin. Unless you are very physically active, one of the smartest places to make changes is to the amount and type of carbohydrates you consume. No, you don’t have to ditch carbs forever. What you do want to ditch is all of the white stuff: refined flours and sugar.
You want to get your carbohydrates from foods that your body has to work to break down: fruits, vegetables, intact whole grains and legumes. The type that have plenty of fibre and water to fill you up…and produce a slow, steady rise in blood sugar.
Try and eat fewer store-bought baked goods, commercial breads and carbohydrate-based snacks. These are the foods that are easy to eat a lot of…that provide more energy than most of us office dwellers require. Swap wraps for blanched collard greens. Scoop up hummus with veggies, not crackers. And pile on even more veggies by eating more cauliflower rice or try those bean based pastas and see how you like them.
If weight loss or frank blood sugar issues are a concern, you may want to get even more diligent about your carbohydrate choices but you should do so once you talk to a dietitian, to ensure that your instincts around food choice are truly what will best serve you.
Eat These Super (Simple) Food Picks
Time to get reacquainted with the queen of greens….why? In addition to coming packed with anti-inflammatory nutrition, broccoli – like all of the cruciferous veggies – contains unique sulfur-based compounds like indole-3-carbinol that may help support better hormone balance and processing in the body. You need to eat a hefty dose of the crucifers daily…at least a cup…and it is better absorbed raw, with a bit of mustard for the absorption-boosting myrosinase it contains. Not ready to gnaw through raw broccoli spears daily? Try ricing it, like you do cauliflower, and add to salads and other dishes (mustard works really well in dressings, BTW!).
Plant-based milk alternatives
Digestion can change as you get older; you may find yourself more lactose intolerant than before. Or simply that eating dairy makes you feel more bloated than you used to. If that is the case, you need to bring in the substitutes so you don’t skimp on calcium. There are so many fantastic options out there: look for the one that suits your tastebuds most. Choose a brand with no added sugar, that is fortified with calcium. Consider a large plant-based morning latte (well, not too much espresso!) dietitian’s orders!
Soy beans contain isoflavones that – despite what the internet would have you believe – help moderate estrogen levels in the body. Research is mixed on their effectiveness for symptoms of peri-menopause but eating whole soy foods appears to be of benefit, particularly with hot flashes.
However, soy beans are a beneficial food beyond the isoflavones. They are mineral rich and a rock-solid option for plant-based protein that is easy to incorporate into your diet. Non-GMO tofu and edamame are perennial faves in my house. I especially like tempeh because it is a fermented food that uses whole soy (most of those burgers and ground subs are super-processed!). It has a rich flavour that stands up well to a heavy lashing of spices to create crumbles for tacos or chili and marinated fillings for wraps, sandwiches or stir fries.
Common Nutrition-Related Health Concerns To Seek Help For
As the hormone landscape shifts, this is the time to really start to listen to your body. Go for regular, prevention-focused check ups. You want to ensure you catch blood sugar or cholesterol fluctuations early, while it is still easy to fix them. Do your breast self-exams monthly. If something feels off, don’t muscle through it. Rest when you need to rest. Make dietary changes if foods are no longer agreeing with you.
If weight gain is troublesome, seek dietary advice. While changes to your body are inevitable, significant weight gain is not.