8 diet tweaks to thrive in midlife

February 28, 2024
8 diet tweaks to thrive in midlife

8 diet tweaks to thrive in midlife

Feeling discouraged by your sluggishness, brain fog and expanding waistline? These simple science-based dietary tweaks will help you feel like yourself again. 

Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

You eat salad for lunch almost every day, you try to keep sweet treats to a minimum and you make sure to get your 10,000 daily steps in. So, can someone please explain why you feel like a trainwreck and your jeans won’t zip up?

Not only can hormonal changes during perimenopause and menopause cause you to gain weight - especially in the belly area - but they can also bring on a range of disturbing symptoms. 

Mood swings, trouble sleeping, hot flushes and low sex drive, anyone? While some women are lucky enough to avoid these midlife downers, they’re just the tip of the symptom iceberg for others.

It’s a good idea to talk to your GP if you’re experiencing perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms that are affecting your quality of life. They may recommend lifestyle changes or menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) to ease your symptoms.

There are also a few simple tweaks you can make to your diet that could provide some relief and protect your health in the process.

Try these 10 science-backed nutrition tips to help you thrive in midlife and beyond.

1. Pack on the protein

You don’t have to be a gym rat to prioritise protein. Research shows that midlife women who eat 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day have more lean muscle mass, less body fat and better physical function. Some studies have even found that eating more protein could safeguard your brain against cognitive decline.

If you weigh 70kg, you should aim for between 84 and 112 grams of protein per day. Try adding the following foods to your meals: 3 medium eggs (20g of protein), one small tin of tuna (18g), 4 tablespoons of cottage cheese (20g), 1 small chicken breast (20g), 5 tablespoons of kidney beans or lentils (10g), ½ packet of tofu (10g) and 3 tablespoons of hummus (10g).

2. Eat a rainbow

Backed by the Australian Government, the CSIRO’s Women’s Health & Nutrition Guide recommends eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.

Packed with antioxidants and flavonoids that can protect your brain and keep a range of illnesses at bay, fruits and veggies have also been shown to reduce hot flushes in some women.

Each colour has different health benefits, so add purple/blue (beetroot and blueberries), red (tomatoes and strawberries), orange/yellow (carrots and mangoes), green (leafy greens and kiwifruit), and brown/white (potatoes and mushrooms) to your plate.

3. Go mega on omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are known to protect against heart disease and they’ve also been found to reduce menopausal night sweats.

Try to eat 2 to 3 serves of fish (especially oily fish) per week. Salmon, blue mackerel, herring and canned sardines are all rich in omega-3s, and plant sources of omega-3s include linseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.

4. Give fasting a go

Intermittent fasting (IF) is so hot right now, but does it live up to the hype? A review of 130 studies found that intermittent fasting can lead to weight loss and improved blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and other health markers.

The most popular way to fast is the daily method, which involves fasting for a certain number of hours (such as 16 or 12) and eating for the remaining hours (8 or 12). With the 5:2 method, you eat normally for five days and restrict calories to between 500 and 600 the two other days. The alternate day method sees you eating normally one day and restricting calories the next.

While there doesn’t seem to be an IF method that works better than others, choosing one that will easily fit into your lifestyle - such as eating for 12 hours and fasting for 12 - can set you up for success. If you have any medical conditions or a history of eating disorders, talk to your GP before jumping in.

You should also be aware of the calories you consume without even thinking about them, such as those in juice and coffee.

“People often tell me that they skip breakfast, but they can’t live without their latte,” says Professor Katherine Samaras, endocrinologist and clinical scientist at Garvan Institute of Medical Research. “The fact is that a takeaway coffee can be a whole meal. In our Australian coffee culture, we don’t consider the calories in a latte, a cappuccino, a flat white or an iced coffee. It’s important to take that into account.”

5. Crank up your calcium intake

Lower oestrogen levels during perimenopause and menopause increase the risk of osteoporosis (low bone density) and fractures. To keep your bones healthy, aim for 1300mg of calcium per day.

Three to four daily serves of dairy (including cheese, milk and yoghurt) will cover your calcium needs. But you can also get calcium from firm tofu, almonds, dark leafy greens, and canned sardines or salmon. 

6. Cut back on booze

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, women in their 50s are now more likely to drink at risky levels (more than 10 standard drinks per week) than all other age groups. 

“For a lot of food literate people who have excellent quality in their diet, the big factor in their energy intake is alcohol,” says Professor Samaras. “People think it's fine to drink two glasses of wine, but with the size of most wine glasses, that ends up being half a bottle. The energy content of that is almost equivalent to a takeaway burger from a chain.”

Beyond weight gain, excessive alcohol consumption can exacerbate hot flushes and increase the risk of several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Pass the soda water!

7. See how low (GI) you can go

Low-GI foods not only help you feel fuller longer and keep type 2 diabetes at bay by regulating your blood sugar levels, but they may also fix those annoying heat waves that take over your body during menopause. 

Swap white bread, pasta and rice for the wholemeal variety. You can check the GI of various foods on the University of Sydney GI database.

8. Revise your portion sizes

If you’re still eating the same portion sizes as you were in your 20s or 30s and you’re gaining weight, it might be time to reevaluate how much food you put on your plate. You’re probably less active than you were back then and hormonal changes could also be working against you.

Choose a 25cm plate and start by filling half of it with colourful veggies. Add low-GI carbohydrates to one-quarter of the plate (about 1 cup cooked wholemeal pasta or ⅔ cup cooked brown rice) and lean protein to the final quarter (about 120g cooked lean meat or chicken or 150g cooked fish or tofu).

Small tweaks to your diet can make a big difference to your health and wellbeing in midlife. You might have to give it some thought at the beginning, but your new eating habits will soon be second nature.