Women: Eating for Every Life Stage

Ladies, think back to what your diet was like as a teen. Did you live on fast food? Did you eat whatever you wanted without considering calories? Had you ever even heard of a lentil?

Your approach to eating has probably changed quite a bit since then. You now know, of course, that it’s wise to aim for a healthy, balanced diet no matter your age. You hopefully also know that a diet rich in vegetables and other whole-plant foods is the most important nutrition message throughout adult life. But your nutrition evolution shouldn’t stop there: There are certain nutrients that should be emphasized, foods that should be limited and habits that should be encouraged or discouraged more during certain life stages. Read on for our age-by-age guide to what’s most important for you now and in the years to come, and continue to make changes that can benefit your weight, disease risk and overall health.

In your 20s and 30s, pay attention to:

Protein
You start to lose muscle mass in your thirties, so now’s a great time to focus on getting stronger. Protein helps support your strength training efforts because it heals the muscle micro-tears that result from such exercise, allowing new, improved muscle to grow. Strong muscles help with an active lifestyle and make you look fit and toned. Plus, muscle burns more calories than fat, making it easier to maintain your weight. The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 46 grams per day, but protein needs vary from person to person; we believe a minimum of between 55 and 65 grams is more ideal for satiety and other considerations. (Vegetarians need a minimum of 65 grams daily.) Be sure to get your protein from both lean animal and plant sources including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, seeds and soy.

Calcium
You’re probably not too concerned about osteoporosis right now, but consider this: A woman is more likely to suffer a fractured hip caused by the bone-thinning disease than she is to develop breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined. Shoot to get 1,000 mg of calcium every day from whole foods and moderate supplementation if needed. A lot of young women do without dairy in an effort to cut calories, says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. But dairy is a good dietary source of calcium, a nutrient critical for bone health. Unless your diet includes a lot of saturated fat, you can opt for low-fat or even whole milk over skim—the fat in it will help you feel fuller longer. If you’re lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy or are simply not a fan of milk, yogurt or cheese, that’s OK. Try non-dairy sources of calcium, including beans, leafy greens (especially the stronger-tasting greens like collard and mustard greens), almonds, almond milk and hemp milk. Calcium-enriched foods, including some orange and grapefruit juices, cereals and soy milk, are other good options. (A daily 1,000 IU vitamin D supplement will help your body absorb calcium.)

Folate
This B vitamin is particularly essential for women in their childbearing years because it protects against birth defects—and experts say it’s vital whether or not you’re actually trying to get pregnant. Good food sources of folate include dark leafy greens, mushrooms and most fruits and veggies. We suggest taking a daily 400-mcg folic acid supplement if you’re not pregnant. Prenatal vitamins supply 1,000 mcg during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

More: Essential Pregnancy Nutrition

Refined Carbs
Your lifestyle is likely busier than ever now with work and maybe even a family. The refined carbs that you might have lived on in your college days (soda, pasta, candy) are quick and easy options for on-the-go living, but beware: These calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods are a big contributor to the pound a year that adults gain on average. If you’re predisposed to diabetes, they also up your risk by spiking your blood sugar and insulin levels. That may not sound like a menace at the moment, but a surprising 25 percent of new diabetes cases occur between the ages 18 and 44. Focus on opting for more whole-food carbs—think whole grains, beans, vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit. These foods will result in a slower rise in blood sugar and less weight gain.

In your 40s and 50s, pay attention to:

Calories
Of course, it’s important to be calorie conscious at any age, but the decline in testosterone during the menopause transition—which for many women starts in their early forties—brings with it a slow-down in metabolism and a further loss of lean muscle. Keeping better track of your calories can help prevent weight gain as you move toward menopause and enter the postmenopausal life-stage. If you cut roughly 100 calories per day, you may be able to mitigate most—if not all—of the weight gain associated with this change. Watch for the sneaky “extras” that add up over the course of the day: “Women don’t think about the candy jar on somebody’s desk as the reason they’re gaining weight,” Powell says.

Disease-Fighting Foods
As you’re likely aware, your risk for breast cancer and heart disease, among other chronic conditions, increases in middle age, and inflammation can trigger them. Limiting your intake of inflammatory foods, including trans fats, red meat and refined carbs, while eating more foods that fight inflammation, can help you stay healthy. A disease-fighting diet includes plenty of antioxidants (found in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains), omega-3 fats (see below) and spices.

Sodium and Potassium
Women are more likely to have high blood pressure after menopause, but you can work to prevent (or treat) that by cutting back on sodium and getting more potassium, which counteracts some of the negative effects of salt. Aim to limit your sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day through age 50, and then try to reduce it even further—only 1,500 mg of daily sodium are recommended in our fifties and beyond. Those are hard numbers to hit, we know, but reading food labels and cutting out as many packaged, processed foods from your diet as possible can help you make major strides. Aim for 4.7 g of potassium a day from foods like leafy greens, bananas and cantaloupe.

Calcium
The mineral is an even more important consideration now. We absorb less calcium and our bones thin faster after menopause, so our calcium needs increase to 1,200 mg per day by age 51. Some women can lose up to 20 percent of their bone density in the five to seven years following menopause, so it’s crucial to get enough during this time to ward off osteoporosis and fractures later. If your diet doesn’t include enough of the mineral, your doctor or nutritionist might recommend a supplement. And don’t forget: 1,000 IUs of vitamin D per day will help your body absorb the calcium it needs.

Alcohol
An occasional drink is fine for most people, and may even have some benefits, but overindulging can take its toll and increase your disease risk at this age. Alcohol appears to increase levels of estrogen, which may spike your risk for breast cancer, and it can have a toxic effect on the liver. Drinking too much is also a sneaky source of calories we don’t need. “Wine goes down awfully quickly, and there’s some evidence that liquid calories don’t seem to be as satiating as those from solid food,” Powell says. If you want to enjoy drinking, stick to a glass or less per day. (Women with a personal history of breast cancer might want to consider abstaining; talk to your doctor.)

In your 60s and beyond, pay attention to:

Omega-3 Fats
Getting a good dose of the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA can protect against heart disease, lower inflammation and help you stay sharp, all growing considerations as you age. Aim for 500 mg of these healthy fats every day—you can get that from about two six-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. The American Heart Association recommends upping that to 1 gram (1,000 mg) if you already have heart disease. If you don’t care for fish, walnuts, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and canola oil are the best sources of the omega-3 fat ALA, which our bodies convert (somewhat inefficiently) into DHA and EPA. Fish oil or vegetarian supplements with ALA may also be recommended, but you’ll need to skip the former if you’re on blood thinners.

Regular Meals
Eating regular meals keeps blood sugar stable—another boon for brain health. The brain burns glucose for fuel, so you need a steady supply to keep it functioning properly. In fact, some scientists suspect that some forms of dementia may be related to an inability to move glucose into brain cells, Powell says. Be sure to eat every three hours or so and include protein, fiber and some healthy fat to get a sustained supply of fuel to your noggin.

Organic Meat and Dairy
Animals are given estrogen-like hormones to increase their weight or milk production. All these extra hormones, which can get passed onto your plate through meat, dairy or other animal products, may increase your risk for female cancers. That’s why it becomes even more important to consider organic meat and dairy products, or at least, hormone-free versions, as you get older.

As you focus on making sure you’re nourishing your mind and body as the years pass, remember these words from Powell: “Good nutrition is important for health at any age!”

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