Midlife nutrition rules to live by
Are carbs really the devil if you’re over 40? Is middle-aged spread inevitable? We asked nutritionist James Collins for the key steps to keep you at your best in midlife and beyond
1 DON’T ACCEPT MIDDLE-AGED SPREAD
This takes the form of visceral fat, a gel-like substance that wraps around your organs and increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Collins says embracing this expanding belly indicates a misconception about health: “I work with people in their 70s who are in great shape, and that’s how it should be. Your 40s and 50s aren’t the natural ‘end of the line’.”
2 FOCUS ON YOUR BODY FAT
Previously, you might have popped yourself on the bathroom scales once a week to monitor your weight. That’s no longer enough, and the reason goes back to that visceral fat around your waist.
Collins instead advises focusing on your body fat percentage, which indicates the amount of your overall weight that’s comprised of fat. This can be measured using bioelectrical impedance (a function built into some new scales), a skinfold test ( measured by a personal trainer or GP) or a DEXA scan (ask your GP). Middle-aged men should aim to be under 20 per cent fat, women slightly higher.
3 DON’T BOTHER WITH DIETS
“There are lots of fashionable diets out there, but ultimately a lot of them are based on a calorie deficit
– eating less than you expend in energy,” says Collins. “Yes, that works in the short term, but if you have no energy and can’t get through eight hours of work or go to a function in the evening, what’s the point?”
He advocates a more considered approach that matches your input against your output in a way that’s sustainable: “It comes down to working out how much fuel your body needs, and giving it the right fuel at the right time.”
4 ALWAYS EAT BREAKFAST
Collins says that while skipping a meal as part of intermittent fasting can be good, you shouldn’t drop breakfast. “Having an appetite in the morning is no bad thing. Breakfast gives your body and brain energy for the day,” he says. “Overeating at night is a much bigger problem, especially among office workers.”
5 CHOOSE THE RIGHT CARBS
“‘Carbohydrate’ has become a dirty word,” says Collins. “But they’re really important physiologically to create a fuel for you to move your muscles, and for your brain to function.”
Once you reach your 40s, your metabolism starts to slow down, which means you need less – but still some – carbs than before. Collins says the midlifer can adopt two easy fixes here. Firstly, eat low-GI carbs – such as quinoa, wholegrains, oats, brown not white rice, rye not white bread – which release their energy slowly. And secondly, consider a low-carb dinner if you know you’re not going to exercise that evening.
6 ADD FRIENDLY FATS TO YOUR DIET
Fats are a useful fuel, but there’s an important distinction. “We want to steer people towards polyunsaturated fats, which are found in fish, avocados, olives and seeds,” Collins says. “These improve brain health and cardiovascular function, and there’s evidence they have an anti-inflammatory function, which is very important for midlifers.”
You should, however, limit your intake of saturated fat, which is found in products such as red meat and cheese, and trans fats, found in shop-bought cakes, biscuits, and pies. These can cause a rise in the type of cholesterol that contributes to a fatty build-up in your arteries and is linked to various health issues, says Collins.
7 EAT PROTEIN AT EVERY MEAL
“In my experience, midlifers don’t think about protein,” says Collins. “It wasn’t a talking point when they were growing up.” And yet protein is particularly important for this age group because of sarcopenia, where muscles lose mass and strength with age. Protein, along with resistance training, helps to maintain muscle strength, repair and growth.
Collins recommends having a serving of protein with every meal – and that includes breakfast. “So many people have toast and jam in the morning, but there’s no protein there,” he says. “Add a serving of low-fat Greek yoghurt alongside it.” Other good protein sources include fish, nuts, chicken and other dairy, but limit red meat to once or twice a week.
8 WATCH YOUR CAFFEINE INTAKE
Caffeine is a good thing, says Collins. “It helps cognitive processes, it helps reduce feelings of how stressful exercise or work feels. And contrary to the myth, it doesn’t dehydrate you.”
But he says to consider two things: “The first is timing. If you’re having problems with sleep, work backwards and find your cut-off point. The second is strength. Be wary that this varies dramatically across brands of coffee. One cup might contain 90mg, another 180mg.” The current daily safe limit for most people is 400mg.
9TIME YOUR TREATS
These are high in sugar and trans fats – and they’re also delicious. So what should you do?
“Midlifers tend to under-fuel during the day and overeat at night, so I’d say if you’re going to have a chocolate bar, have it early in the day,” says Collins.
However, this is a last resort, he adds. For a healthier daily treat, indulge in a protein ball instead.
10 DON’T FORGET TO EXERCISE
Once we hit our 30s, our bodies naturally tend towards atrophy – our aerobic capacity decreases, our organs get smaller and our muscles shrink and lose strength. Essentially, we get less efficient. “Regular exercise slows this decline,” says Collins. “By putting strain on your muscles and bones, it forces your body to make new, fresh, healthier, happier cells. And good nutrition helps with the process.”