Diet Nutrition

Nutrition in your 40s and 50s - what to eat and what not to eat

Once you hit middle age, you have to pay special attention to your lifestyle habits to protect your health during your older years. Professor Kerryn Phelps and her daughter, dietitian and nutritionist Jaime Rose Chambers, explain these shifts and offer expert dietary solutions.

For most women, "The Big Five-Oh" is a time of transition and there are several health challenges at this age – such as weight gain – that women should be aware of and take steps to manage.

The obvious transition is the hormonal change from pre-menopause to peri-menopause to menopause, where the most significant change is a drop in progesterone and oestrogen levels. At the same time there is a slowing metabolism as part of the ageing process.

It's the decline in these hormones that can be responsible for an increase in weight around the waist. There can also be a change in body composition where some women find they have increased fat mass and decreased muscle mass – without any change in body weight. An increase of body weight or abdominal girth increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.

Some women will develop chronic diseases or mobility problems such as arthritis as they get older, and this can cause you to stop or slow down your usual activities, which can also cause weight gain.

Fifty-something can also correspond with a number of life changes, which make it hard to get the balance of healthy eating and exercise right.

These can include elderly parents needing extra support, adult children leaving home and grandchildren coming along.

Reduced bone density with an increased incidence of bone fractures also becomes a risk after menopause, so a nutritional plan needs to consider adequate calcium and magnesium and other micronutrients to maintain your bone strength.

Problems with digestion are also relatively common with age. Constipation, heartburn, diverticular disease, and flatulence can all make food planning a challenge. Some older women cut out foods from their diet in an attempt to relieve these symptoms.

The food traps and how to avoid them

To keep your weight in check, be aware of these common food traps

"Mindless" eating:
Many people eat "mindlessly" – that is, eating without thinking about what they are doing. Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention, non-judgementally, to what is going on in your internal and external environment. It's a technique that's used to help you overcome all sorts of automatic, habitual patterns, like snacking.

Watch your portions:
As you get older, your kilojoule requirements are less. If your partner is younger, or a larger body size than you, your portion sizes need to be different.

Eating for one:
Eating is a very social event for many of us. If you find yourself single or widowed in your middle years, it can be hard to find the motivation to cook for yourself every night. One solution is to focus on nutrient quality for breakfast and lunch and arrange to eat with friends or family at least a few nights a week.

Not enough protein:
A common problem we see is not eating enough protein. Maintaining bone and muscle mass depends on adequate protein, so including eggs, lean meat, chicken, fish, or tofu twice a day is important. For the sake of your bones, don't avoid dairy products unless you have another source of calcium.

Empty fridge and pantry:
It is hard to plan meals unless you have the ingredients. Plan your meals for the week, and aim to shop for fresh food at least twice a week. Make sure the staple ingredients don't run out.

The things you need to eat more of and the things you need to eat less of

Eat more
• Skim or low-fat dairy products
Eat less
• Full-fat dairy products
Bone loss begins to accelerate at peri-menopause, putting women at risk of osteoporosis, however men are at greater risk later in life, too. Low-fat dairy products like skim milk and low-fat yoghurt provide the calcium our bones need (three serves to meet the required 1000-1300mg per day), but without the additional energy and saturated fats that you get from the full-fat varieties.

Eat more
• Legumes
Eat Less
• Processed meats
Eating too many processed meats like bacon, salami and frankfurts increases your risk of bowel cancer, whereas fibre-rich foods like legumes have been shown to have a protective effect. It's recommended to mostly avoid processed meats and swap some of them for a meal containing legumes such as chickpeas.

Eat more
• Wholegrains
Eat less
• White breads and grains
The risk of developing type 2 diabetes greatly increases after the age of 50. Consuming lower glycaemic-index grains, such as oats, rye, barley, wholegrain breads and cereals, can help to reduce blood sugar and insulin spikes and support weight management.

Eat more
• Oily fish
Eat less
• Red meat
As we age our muscle mass declines, which slows down our metabolic rate, so the weight you were once able to maintain becomes more difficult. Increasing protein intake can help with this, with a focus on omega-3-rich oily fish like salmon and sardines and less red meat like beef, lamb and pork.

Eat more
• Whole fruits
Eat less
• Fruit juice
As we age our gastrointestinal tract slows down. This, together with hormonal fluctuations and, often, lifestyle changes, can mean that constipation is more common. To keep bowels regular, it's important to get enough fibre in our diet. A whole piece of fruit, such as an apple with the skin, contains around 5g of fibre, whereas an apple juice contains virtually none.

Eat more
• Extra virgin olive oil
Eat less
• Vegetable oil
Brain health is important as we age and research has shown that extra virgin olive oil may be one of the best additions to your diet to protect against cognitive decline. Some vegetable oils used for cooking and found in packaged products may have the opposite effect.

Eat more
• Coloured vegetables
Eat less
• Potato
The bright colours of vegetables are due to the presence of plant antioxidants. These help combat oxidative stress, which damages cells and contributes to age-related disease. Aim for half your lunch and dinner to be a variety of different coloured veges.