Somewhere in our mid-30s, our bodies begin to go through a big set of changes; your hormones change and our metabolism shifts. These changes are subtle at first; we begin to experience weight gain, loss of lean muscle mass, bone density can decrease, we might sleep less, and strange things begin happening in our menstrual cycles. The list goes on.
Then, around 40 our bodies start to enter perimenopause, and while this usually begins in your forties, it can begin as early as your mid-30s. Cellular level changes cause you to store more fat and the ability to burn fat diminishes in return. Your estrogen begins to decline as our bodies begin to transition to menopause, somewhat erratically, and it keeps decreasing (along with progesterone).
Colleen Keller, PhD, regents professor, and director of Arizona State University's Center for Healthy Outcomes in Aging points out that “fat is metabolized differently, due to a loss of estrogen, ” and that “it's actually laid down differently in the body subcutaneous(ly).”
So, is it over after 40? Has your body simply betrayed you? Are you doomed to hold unwanted body fat unless you continually diet, cleanse, and deprive yourself?
The answer is no. You can become, or continue to be healthy in a way that works for you. No diets, cleanses or deprivation needed.
By our mid-30’s, (and certainly after 40), we simply have to recognize that our nutritional requirements change. Our bodies require different macronutrient compositions –– our protein (meat, fish, dairy, beans, and legumes ), carbohydrate (whole grains), and fat (like olive oil) intake has to match our evolving needs; the same goes for our micronutrients –– that is, our vitamin and mineral intake.
While it may sound complex, it’s actually not. It comes down to:
- Get and eat enough protein;
- Balance fat in your caloric intake;
- Get adequate fiber;
- Eat the right carbohydrates;
- Take stock your vitamin and mineral requirements;
- Drinking enough water;
- Be willing to break up with certain foods;
- And make small, conscious decisions that help develop healthier, more appropriate eating habits.
I can’t stress this enough. Eating well is a critical component in preventing and/or treating obesity, many diseases, and other health related issues. It’s also important to understand that your approach to nutrition needs to be holistic.
I want to make it very clear that you shouldn’t focus on any single macro or micronutrient (I’m looking at you carbohydrates); remember, your body needs all of them, in a balanced fashion; that’s what holistic means.
It’s important to focus on eating foods that nourish your body, rather than harm it. So, put aside the ideas that you have to deprive yourself of certain marco and micronutrients because, in fact, doing so may actually be contributing to your health issues.
So, what are a woman’s nutritional requirements exactly?
Obviously, nutritional needs are unique to each individual. And there are several factors you need to take into account: There’s your age: your activity level; your current physical condition; and of course, any health issues you may have.
In general, by the age of 40, your daily caloric needs range between 1,800-2,200. While I’m not a fan of counting calories, depending on where you are in your food journey, you may or may not need to count your calories, it couldn't hurt at the outset of you developing better eating habits.
According to the USDA and World Health Organization, a woman age 40 needs a balanced intake of protein, carbs, fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals. For a full list of the suggested daily micro and macronutrients, grab my book.
For now, let’s dive into macronutrients: Proteins; Fats; Carbs; and Fiber.
First up: Protein.
Adequate protein intake is vital to building and maintaining muscle mass, which in turn helps regulate a healthy weight. You should aim to have a portion of your daily protein requirement with every meal, so that your body can process it most efficiently.
The amount of protein you need daily depends on your body composition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound.
In order to calculate your daily protein requirements, multiply your current weight by .36: So, at 140 pounds, you’re going to want to consume at least 50.4 grams of protein each day.
The caveat however, is that these are guidelines, not rules. The takeaway is this: While your daily protein needs can and will vary depending on activity level, age, muscle mass, physique goals, and any active health conditions you may have, no matter which formula you use, your daily recommended protein intake still falls between 45 and 55 grams per day.
I know this can all be a bit much. But like I said in Episode 2, this process is going to take time. You’re going to have to experiment with different formulas until you figure out what works for you. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, you’re not likely to get it right on the first try.
One last note on protein: It’s important to understand that dietary proteins are broken down into their component parts, called amino acids, during digestion. So, the easiest way to get all the protein your body needs is from meat, fish, or eggs, because they’re each composed of a complete protein, providing all 20 essential amino acids that our bodies need from a single source.
Plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, and tofu tend to be incomplete sources of protein, meaning they have to be combined with one another for you to acquire all 20 essential amino acids. For those of you that are vegan or vegetarian, it’s important to learn about and fully understand the individual food combinations that create whole proteins; beans and legumes, being the classic example. There are some plant based sources of complete proteins, such as hempseed, nutritional yeast, or ancient grains like quinoa that you can add to your diet as well.
Next up: Fats
Along with protein and carbs, fats are an essential macronutrient. Fats are an energy source that help regulate hormones; break down vitamins like A, D, E, and K; maintain brain health; and simply make the things we eat taste better.
Fats are broken down into two types: saturated and unsaturated, which are then broken down into four subtypes: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats, and trans fats.
The dietary reference intake (DRI) for fat in adults is 20 percent to 30 percent of total calories from fat (46-67 grams of fat per day depending on your calorie intake). The percentage of calories from the different types of fat breaks down as such:
- Monounsaturated fat: 15 percent to 20 percent
- Polyunsaturated fat: 5 percent to 10 percent
- Saturated fat: less than 10 percent
- Trans fat: 0 percent
Monounsaturated Fats:. Monounsaturated fats are present in both plants and animals, and have been found to have many positive health benefits, including significantly lowering blood sugar; helping to manage weight; and regulating blood pressure.
Polyunsaturated Fats: Polyunsaturated fats (which contain both Omega-6 and Omega-3s) are also present in both plants and animals. Among their health benefits, they help your body manage inflammation, and help your brain maintain its ability to develop and operate well. They can also be found in the foods I just mentioned, but when it comes to getting adequate Omega-3s, you’ll find them in: cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, mackerel, or anchovies), seeds (like chia or flax), or nuts (specifically walnuts). You can also find them in safflower, sunflower, or cottonseed oils.
Saturated Fats: Saturated fats have been viewed as extremely unhealthy since the 1950’s. In the last decade, however, that belief has begun to shift, as saturated fats have been shown to have a neutral effect on health, that doesn’t appear to cause or contribute to heart disease. Healthy foods that are high in saturated fat include coconut oil, palm oil, whole-milk dairy, full-fat yogurt, cheese, and lamb.
Trans Fats: Trans fats are problematic for our health because they increase the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood and lower the amount of HDL (good) cholesterol, in the blood, promote the formation of arterial plaque, which can contribute to and increase the risk of heart disease.
I want to be extremely clear: It’s unsafe to consume any level of trans fats, so try to avoid them completely. Trans fats are found in margarine, shortenings, powdered coffee creamer, liquid flavored coffee creamers, some commercially fried foods, and convenience foods like pre-packaged bakery goods.
Next up: Fiber
OK, let’s talk about fiber. Fiber helps your body maintain regular, healthy bowel movements, lowers cholesterol, controls blood sugar levels, and helps maintain a healthy weight.
There are two types of fiber: Soluble and insoluble.
- Soluble fiber is important for lowering cholesterol and can help keep blood sugar levels steady.
- Insoluble fiber helps maintain your digestive tract and keeps you from becoming constipated; it’s also the only way to move bile through your digestive tract.
If you’re not getting enough fiber, you’ll want to introduce it into your diet over the course of a few weeks to allow the natural bacteria in your digestive system to adjust to the change. Adding too much too quickly can give you gas, and lead to abdominal bloating and/or cramping.
Your Best Sources of Fiber Include:
- Whole and ancient grains such as oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, millet, and buckwheat;
- Beans including black beans;
- Vegetables such as greens, cabbage, and broccoli;
- Fruits like raspberries, blackberries, apples, and pears;
- Nuts including almonds, pecans, and walnuts.
In general, you should aim to get as much of your fiber from your food as you can, instead of relying on supplements, because supplements like psyllium don't provide the variety of fibers, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients that foods do.
And finally, we get to Carbs:
And finally, we come to carbohydrates. Carbs are another important macronutrient which can be found in many foods and beverages, with most occurring naturally in plant-based foods. Naturally occurring carbs give you energy, help protect against disease, and help stabilize your weight.
Carbohydrates are combinations of sugar units that come in two forms –– simple and complex. The difference between the two is how quickly they’re broken down in your body. Here’s how they compare:
Simple carbs are quickly and easily broken down and digested, and tend to quickly raise our blood sugar, and can be found in natural food sources like milk, fruits, and vegetables, as well as refined and processed sugars like cookies and white bread.
Complex carbs are slow to breakdown, and raise the blood sugar slowly over a period of time. They can be found in green and/or starchy vegetables, seeds, legumes, fruits, nuts, lentils, beans, and whole grains. Basically, unless you’re consuming meat, you’re consuming some form of carbohydrate. There’s a much more in-depth explanation in my book.
So, why are so many people anti-carb?
If you cut back on carbs, you’ll quickly begin to lose weight, but it’s mainly water weight at first. You then move into a stored fat burning state (after a period of time), but according to Carol Johnston, professor and associate director of the nutrition program in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University. “Carbs are important for our brain and muscle health. Our brains rely entirely on glucose for energy production— [which] they can't get from fat—making the consumption of some carbs necessary.”
So yes, you lose weight by restricting carbs, but you also begin to suffer cognitively. If you cut off the supply of glucose, the brain can't operate as effectively; and your memory and capacity quickly decline. So in the long run, low-carb diets do help you lose weight, but after six months they become ineffective.
A quick note for those with intolerance or sensitivity to grains: You can still meet your daily carbohydrate requirements by eating the right combinations of beans, legumes, cruciferous, or root vegetables. It’s really not hard. Who doesn’t love black beans, sweet potatoes, and brussel sprouts!? And don’t worry, we’ll dive into this subject in greater detail in a later episode.
Looking at Micronutrients
Before we go, let’s talk about micronutrients. Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that our bodies need daily, to facilitate proper function, and prevent disease.
- Vitamins: Vitamins are the organic compounds required by humans, and are generally acquired in small amounts through our diet. Vitamins are made by living organisms (think plants and animals). And we need them to stay alive. When we’re vitamin deficient, our bodies aren’t working properly.
- Minerals: Minerals are elements that originate in the Earth and cannot be made by living organisms. Plants obtain minerals from the soil, and most of the minerals in our diets come either directly from plants, or indirectly from animal sources, and may also be present in the water we drink.
Here’s the takeaway: Vitamins and minerals perform hundreds of roles in the body. They solidify bones, heal wounds, aid in brain function, bolster your immune system, help convert food into energy, and repair cellular damage.
To learn more about macro and micronutrients, check out my book, Love Food, Love Yourself. It takes a more in-depth look at each of these topics. If you want to follow our podcast on iTunes or Spotify, please subscribe.