Eating for our age may not have been something we took into consideration in our 20s or 30s, but as we reach our 40s, some not so obvious changes may be occurring which may prompt us to look a little closer at our diet.
We may take our health for granted at this age, but a balanced diet and routine exercise become even more important as our metabolic rate begins to slow, hormone levels fluctuate and our usual food choices may not provide the nutrients we need as we reach early midlife.
Our quick dinners, processed food choices and bad dietary habits may start to show their long-term effects, meaning we need to focus on aspects of our health including cholesterol, bone health and keeping an eye on that expanding waistline. There are no limitations, however, in how we can shift our attitudes to how we eat.
“With up to 80 per cent of all heart disease being preventable through lifestyle change and modifying the risk factors, diet can play an important role,” says Laurann O’Reilly, a nutritionist with a master’s in public-health nutrition. “As cholesterol or LDL levels have been found to increase with age, it’s important to be mindful. Research has found that even slightly high cholesterol levels in otherwise healthy adults between the ages of 35 and 55 can have long-term impacts on heart health. For women, menopause is associated with a progressive increase in LDL – damaging cholesterol – and a decrease in high-density-lipoprotein [HDL] protective cholesterol, so taking protective measures is key.”
Managing cholesterol levels includes adding unsaturated fats to our diet and increasing our fibre intake. “Unsaturated fats help to reduce cholesterol and promote heart health,” says O’Reilly, “Sources include oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring or fresh tuna, pumpkin, sunflower, flax and chia seeds.”
O’Reilly reminds us that high-fibre diets have great health benefits including weight maintenance, improved digestion, cholesterol reduction, protection against blood clots and heart disease. Include foods such as oats, wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, flax and chia seeds.
"And reduce the salt intake as salt can increase our blood pressure," says O'Reilly. "According to irishheart.ie, 60 per cent of over-45s in Ireland have high blood pressure, which is a major risk for stroke. It's therefore important to be proactive, with the Irish Heart Foundation recommending that everyone over the age of 30 in Ireland has their blood pressure checked at least once a year or more often if they have a known family history of heart disease.
“It’s best to avoid adding salt to foods where possible and season with herbs and spices instead. Remember the recommended daily allowance of salt per day is only 4g for adults [a teaspoon].”
Added to this, oxidative stress in our 40s is an imbalance of antioxidants in our body. This naturally-occurring process can lead to cell and tissue damage which plays a role in the aging process including memory loss, vision problems, heart disease and other age-related diseases. O’Reilly suggests protecting your body from these processes with a diet high in antioxidant foods which may help to counteract this. “These include colourful fruits and vegetables,” she says, “such as carrots, tomatoes, kale, peppers and blueberries, to name a few.”
Known as a silent disease, osteoporosis is a consideration for everyone as we move through our 40s and beyond. The Irish Osteoporosis Society defines osteoporosis as "a disease that affects the inside of your bones, making them fragile". It causes large holes to develop inside bones, causing them to break easily. "Whilst it is often more associated with women," says O'Reilly, "men are not immune to it, with one in four men over the age of 50 breaking bones due to osteoporosis. Prevention is key, with diet playing a huge role."
O’Reilly suggests increasing our calcium and vitamin D intake to protect our bones. “Starting in your late 30s and early 40s women slowly start to lose calcium from their bones. This, combined with the reduction of oestrogen that starts with perimenopause, increases risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis as oestrogen plays an important role in regulating the absorption of calcium.
“As vitamin D is required for the absorption of calcium, it’s important to ensure that we meet our minimum requirements. We make vitamin D through exposure of our skin to sunlight which can be particularly difficult during the winter months. Therefore diet and supplementation is recommended. Dietary sources of vitamin D include oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel – lean red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods such as fortified milks or spreads and breakfast cereals.”
The best foods to eat in our 40s
Aveen Bannon, registered dietitian with the Dublin Nutrition Centre, advises that we should add more colour to our diet in our 40s. "A diet rich in fruits and vegetables will provide plenty of heart-healthy vitamins A, C and E. These vitamins are antioxidants, which are substances that are known to help protect against heart disease and certain cancers. Make sure every meal contains some colourful vegetable, salad or fruit. It is a good idea to include some green vegetables in the diet daily which provide the heart-healthy vitamin folate."
Top tips for nutrition and health in your 40s
1: A healthy weight, diet, not smoking and weight-bearing exercise are all part of maintaining healthy bones in your 40s.
2: Calcium and vitamin D play a vital role in maintaining bone health. Men and women should aim for 800mg of calcium per day with dietary sources including low-fat dairy products (such as milk, yogurt and cheese), salmon, broccoli, almonds, Brazil nuts and chia seeds. And 10-20µ/400-800 IU per day of vitamin D.
3: From the early to mid-40s, many may notice a natural deterioration of their eyesight, particularly short vision, which may continue to progress over time. O'Reilly advises that it's important to continue to get your eye health monitored, with diet also being able to play a role in optimising your eye health. "Vitamins A, C, D, and E are important for your eye's light receptors, preventing dry eye, reducing inflammation, antioxidants and maintaining healthy blood vessels. Omega 3 fatty acids have numerous roles and benefits such as preventing dry eyes by increasing tear production, helping to improve the blood supply to the eyes, protecting cell membranes, improving retina function and protecting our eyes from damaging light and inflammation."
4: Recovery and progress in exercise may be slower now. Be realistic about training and recovery and remember to stretch.
5: Think about reducing your alcohol intake. As we get older, how we metabolise alcohol changes meaning it stays in our system longer. It affects our weight, heart, liver and fertility.