There's no getting around it: As you age, your body changes. That's why the recommended nutrition for women over 40 looks different from the diet for younger women. But change doesn't have to be a bad thing.
In fact, if you develop an understanding of what's happening to your body and how your needs are changing, you can stay ahead of the game by making adjustments to your diet and lifestyle so your nutrition can work with you, instead of against you.
Why Your Diet Needs Change
The biggest reason a woman's dietary needs change as she reaches the age of 40 is hormones. When you start approaching perimenopause — the time your body starts beginning the transition to menopause — your estrogen levels start to fluctuate, according to the Mayo Clinic. The changes in your estrogen levels prompt your body to store extra fat around your midsection, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
At the age 40, women also start to lose muscle mass twice as fast as men. This is connected to a dropping metabolism, since, as the American Academy of Family Physicians points out, most of that muscle loss comes from your core muscles, which are located under your belly fat.
While your initial motivation may be to lose weight or to stay ahead of the hormonal changes by preventing weight gain, there are other important reasons to follow a more specific diet for a 40-year-old female. Excess weight around the stomach is linked to health problems like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and even premature death, according to Jaclyn Armstrong, MPH, RD, from the Health Matters Wellness Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
Heart disease and stroke cause one in three deaths in women, which is more than all of the cancers combined; but the American Heart Association notes that 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle changes — and a major component of that is your diet.
Nutrition for Women Over 40
While there's not one specific diet that every woman should follow, there are some nutrients that are essential components of proper nutrition for women over 40. These include:
- Protein: Making sure you get enough protein is essential for protecting your leaning body mass, according to Johnson Memorial Health. Protein acts as a building block and helps you build more muscle, especially following a workout. To figure out how much protein you need, multiply your current weight by 0.36. The result you get is equivalent to the amount of protein you need in grams.
- Iron: All women, up until the age of 50, have increased iron needs. That's because some iron, which is a major component of your red blood cells, is lost during menstruation. Proper nutrition for women over 40 includes getting 18 milligrams of iron per day. Sources of iron include red meat, poultry, fish, egg yolks, leafy greens and nuts and seeds. Keep in mind, however, that the iron from plant foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron from animal foods.
- Calcium and Vitamin D: Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is essential for maintaining bone density. As women age, their bones start to become thinner and a lack of these nutrients can increase the risk for developing diseases like osteoporosis. Good sources of calcium include canned fish (with bone), leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and high-quality dairy. You can get vitamin D from salmon, eggs, canned tuna, cod liver oil and fortified milk.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: While omega-3 fatty acids are important at any age, they're especially helpful as you get older. According to one study that was published in Aging Clinical and Experimental Research in June 2019, omega-3s play a role in the prevention of sarcopenia, which is age-related muscle loss. The report also notes that the fatty acids may actually help build muscle and lower insulin levels. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, trout and sardines and flaxseed and walnut (and their oils).
Read more: 5 Tips for Eating Protein the Right Way
Weight Loss for Women Over 40
In addition to dropping estrogen levels, the American Academy of Family Physicians points out that as you reach the age of 40, your thyroid hormone levels also drop and your insulin levels rise. This combination results in increased appetite and an increased ability to store fat. A good way to combat both of these things is by eating plenty of fiber.
Fiber helps fill you up quickly and keeps you full throughout the day, so you tend to snack and overeat less. A diet for a 40-year-old female should consist of about 25 grams of fiber. You can get fiber from berries, vegetables and nuts. Make sure to increase your water intake, as well. Aside from being good for you on its own, water helps fiber do its job.
But diet isn't the only thing that's important for staying healthy and at a comfortable weight when you're 40. The rest of your habits play a huge role, too. In addition to getting your nutrition in order, other things you can do are:
Read more: Your Guide to Strength Training for Women
- Exercise: While the advice to exercise may seem obvious, it's not just the amount of exercise you do, but the type that's important. Adding strength training (or weight lifting) to your workouts can help increase muscle mass and help keep your metabolism running efficiently, even as you age.
- Prioritize sleep: A poor night's sleep does more than make you tired. When you don't sleep well, it negatively affects two hormones called ghrelin and leptin. The levels of ghrelin, which increases your appetite, go up and the levels of leptin, which decreases your appetite go down. That combination ends with you feeling hungry all the time. When it comes to sleep, there are two factors that are important: quality and quantity. Make sure you're getting enough hours, but try to make those hours count too by limiting noise and light (and pets) in your bedroom at night.
- Manage stress levels: Stress can also mess with your hormones, causing increases in cortisol — a hormone that also contributes to weight gain around your belly. While you can't get rid of stress completely, try to find ways to manage it, like yoga, journaling, reducing your workload and taking some time off when you can.
- American Heart Association: "About Heart Disease"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day?"
- National Women's Health Resource Center: "Weight Gain: Dirty Menopausal Trick"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "After 40: Women’s Nutrition and Metabolism Needs"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Winning the Battle After Menopause"
- Johnson Memorial Health: "Nutrition Tips for Women Over 40"
- Aging Clinical and Experimental Research: "The Role of Omega-3 in the Prevention and Treatment of Sarcopenia"
- University of California, Berkeley: "Nutrition for Women in Middle-Age and Beyond"
- Mayo Clinic: "Perimenopause"