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Cereal for breakfast. A turkey sandwich for lunch. Chicken for dinner. If this sounds like your daily menu, it's time to shake things up. "Just as your lifestyle changes in each decade, so do your nutritional needs," says Melina B. Jampolis, MD, an internist and author of The Busy Person's Guide to Permanent Weight Loss. "For example, a twentysomething needs to take calcium and vitamin D for strong bones, while a woman in her 40s should eat plenty of lean protein to help maintain muscle mass." Dig into the tips, tools, and meal plans you need to stay slim, strong, and healthy at every age.What to Eat in Your 20s
The challenge: You're pressed for time.
"Women in their 20s are notoriously unhealthy eaters because they frequently consume the majority of their meals on the run," says FITNESS advisory board member Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Weight Management Center. Trouble is, the more you grab food on the go, the more fat you take in, research shows. Plus, a diet that's low in vitamins and nutrients now may eventually lead to serious health problems, like heart disease and osteoporosis.Your Diet To-Do List
Bone up on calcium and vitamin D. "This is the last decade in which you can build bone mass without bone loss, a process that begins in your 30s," Fernstrom says. Aim for 1,000 milligrams of calcium (one serving of dairy, such as a cup of yogurt or 1 1/2 ounces of cheese, provides roughly 300 to 400 milligrams) and up to 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily. Since it can be tough to get enough D from food alone, your best bet is a combination of foods, such as salmon and canned tuna in oil, and supplements. Look for a dual supplement made from easy-to-absorb calcium citrate and vitamin D3.
Fish for happiness. Long hours at the office and a fully booked social calendar can result in chronic stress, which "can raise blood pressure, promote weight gain, and cause mood swings," says FITNESS advisory board member Mark A. Moyad, MD, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. "Research shows that eating 500 to 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids daily can lessen the damage." These good-for-you fats, found in fish, nuts, and seeds, reduce inflammation and improve the health of your brain cells, helping to elevate your mood and protect against depression. In fact, people with the highest levels of omega-3s were significantly happier than those with lower levels, according to a study at the University of Pittsburgh.
Go for the right grains. "Eating too many refined carbohydrates causes drastic swings in blood sugar, which can sap your energy and leave you feeling cranky," Dr. Jampolis says. Instead, choose whole-grain breads, pasta, cereal, and rice. Aim for three to six servings daily for a steady supply of fuel as well as the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber you need each day (most Americans get only about half that amount). Bonus: The fiber will help keep you full and satisfied longer, so you'll be less likely to munch on empty calories.Your Recipes for Success
Veggie frittata: Cook 1 omega-3 egg scrambled with 2 egg whites, 1/4 cup thawed frozen broccoli, 1/4 cup sliced mushrooms, and 1 sliced scallion in 1 tablespoon canola oil until set (8 to 10 minutes). Top with 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese.
2 slices whole-grain toast
8 ounces calcium- and vitamin D-fortified OJ
Salmon burger on a whole wheat bun with chive mayo (mix 1 tablespoon canola mayo with 1 teaspoon chives) and cucumber and tomato slices
1 cup grapes
Whole-grain energy bar and a nonfat latte
Spicy pasta: Saute 1 chopped garlic clove, 1 chopped tomato, 1 teaspoon capers, and a pinch red pepper in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Serve over 1 1/2 cups cooked whole wheat pasta with 2 tablespoons feta cheese.
1/2 cup vanilla pudding topped with
2 tablespoons mini chocolate chips
Nutrition facts (for the day): 1,938 calories, 91g protein, 252g carbohydrate, 72g fat (19g saturated), 28g fiber
The challenge: You're low on energy.
Feel like you're being pulled in a zillion different directions? No wonder. Between a demanding career, a husband or significant other -- maybe kids too -- and trying to fit in a workout whenever you can, it's tough to balance all the things on your to-do list and still muster the motivation to eat right. Consider this your health wake-up call: "A less-than-stellar diet starts to catch up with you in this decade, putting you at increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and weight gain," Fernstrom says.Your Diet To-Do List
Bolster your immunity. Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E, found in foods such as sweet potatoes, red peppers, and almonds, may slow the effects of aging and help ward off heart disease and cancer. The secret to their success? They reduce inflammation and repair damage to cells. You can't get the same benefits from supplements, however. "Studies show that the antioxidants in food are much more effective than those you get from popping a pill, because they work in tandem with other compounds to fight disease," explains James Joseph, PhD, director of the neuroscience laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston.
Aim for three squares. Too busy for breakfast? Likely to choose your "lunch" from the office vending machine? If this is you, your habits need help, pronto. Dinner shouldn't be your first real meal of the day. "Not eating enough of the right foods for breakfast and lunch can make you feel exhausted and irritable by midafternoon," says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. Build time in your schedule for three meals daily of 400 to 500 calories each, with a 150-calorie snack anytime you go more than three to four hours without eating. Keep healthy foods -- nuts, fruits, whole-grain cereal -- in your desk for those days when you can't get away from the office.
Power up your plate. Filling up on fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains may reduce your risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. In one study, women who ate the most vegetables lowered their odds of developing type 2 diabetes by 28 percent, and in another report, vegetarians slashed their risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 percent. To reap the benefits, load three-quarters of your plate with the foods mentioned above, and the remaining one-quarter with lean meat, poultry, or fish.Your Recipes for Success
1 package instant oatmeal topped with 1 sliced banana and 1 teaspoon brown sugar
6-ounces low-fat vanilla yogurt
Coffee with low-fat milk
Spinach salad: Toss together 1 1/2 cups baby spinach, 1/2 sliced red bell pepper, 5 halved grape tomatoes, 5 chopped baby carrots, 1/2 cup chickpeas, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette, 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
1 ounce (about 13) baked pita chips
1 apple, sliced, and 1 tablespoon peanut butter
4-ounce grilled chicken breast with 1 cup cooked brown rice and black bean-tomato salad (1/2 cup black beans, 1 small diced tomato, 1/4 diced avocado, 1 tablespoon lime juice and 1 pinch chili powder)
8 ounces 1% milk and 2 Oreos
Nutrition facts (for the day): 1,783 calories, 80g protein, 258g carbohydrate, 54g fat (9g saturated), 41g fiber
The challenge: You're fighting belly flab.
Toning this trouble zone is harder now. "When you're younger and producing more estrogen, fat travels to your hips and thighs," explains Pamela Peeke, MD, a FITNESS advisory board member and author of Body for Life for Women. "Once you reach your 40s, you produce less estrogen and fat goes straight to your belly instead."Your Diet To-Do List
Ignite your metabolism. "The more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn on a daily basis," Dr. Peeke says. The key is protein: It fuels muscle growth and helps keep you full between meals, so you'll eat less. Aim for 60 to 80 grams a day from a mix of lean meats, beans, peanut butter, and dairy. People who ate three servings of dairy a day for six months lost two more pounds of belly fat than those who consumed a low-dairy diet, according to a study. Researchers say calcium may increase the activity of enzymes that break down fat cells in your body.
Blast fat with... fat. As your estrogen levels decline, your risk of cardiovascular disease increases. A diet low in saturated fat -- no more than 14 grams for a woman eating 1,800 calories daily -- and high in protective monounsaturated fat, like that found in avocados, walnuts, and olive oil, can help keep you healthy.
Water down your appetite. In your 40s and beyond, you burn about 100 fewer calories a day. To help keep the weight off, eat plenty of low energy-dense foods, like salads, vegetables, broth-based soups, and nonfat yogurt. "These foods are filling because they have a high water content, which means you can eat larger portion sizes but still keep calories in check," Sandon explains. Women on a low-fat diet containing H20-rich foods lost about one-quarter more weight and felt much less hungry than those who followed a traditional low-fat diet, according to a study from Pennsylvania State University.Your Recipes for Success
Whole wheat English muffin with 1 tablespoon soy nut butter
8 ounces 1% milk
Chicken pita: Whole wheat pita stuffed with 3 ounces grilled chicken, shredded romaine lettuce, 5 chopped black olives, 1 slice each red onion and tomato, and curried yogurt (1/2 small container nonfat Greek yogurt with 1/4 teaspoon curry powder)
1/4 cup walnuts and 8 ounces calcium-fortified tomato juice
Turkey chili: Saute 3 ounces lean ground turkey breast and 1/4 cup chopped onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add 1/2 cup diced tomatoes and 1/2 cup thawed frozen corn. Heat until warm. Season with chili powder and cumin to taste.
1 whole-grain tortilla
1/2 cup low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt topped with 1/2 cup fresh or frozen (and thawed) raspberries
Nutrition facts (for the day): 1,694 calories, 100g protein, 211g carbohydrate, 56g fat (10g saturated), 30g fiber
The challenge: Your body seems to be working against you.
Call this the Me Decade. For the first time in years you have more time for yourself. Freed from the demands of raising small children, you're cooking less and eating out more.
On the inside you're experiencing major shifts too. Sure, there's menopause. But you may also start to notice a slower metabolism and digestive system. "Part of this is normal aging," Dr. Peeke says. "But how radically these things affect your body depends on how well you eat the right foods and get lots of physical activity."Your Diet To-Do List
Eat your calories earlier. Can't figure out why the pounds are creeping on even though you've reduced your portions? "Eating less is only part of the equation. The other part is eating smarter," Dr. Peeke says. "Right now, every calorie has to be the highest quality you can find." And when you're burning only 1,400 to 1,600 calories a day (thanks to that slower metabolism), squeezing in all the nutrition you need can be tricky.
It gets even harder if you frequently skimp on breakfast and lunch so you can save room for dinner out. No matter how balanced that evening meal is, it can't possibly deliver a day's worth of nutrition. But it can pack a ton of fat and calories. And because you waited all day to eat it, you'll be starving and likely to consume more than you planned.
A smarter strategy: Rearrange your meals, feasting by day and nibbling by night. That means a 300- to 400-calorie breakfast and a 400- to 500-calorie lunch, with a 200- to 250-calorie afternoon snack. Eating those calories earlier will make it easier to enjoy a small dinner out -- an appetizer and a side salad, say -- without going overboard.
Get savvy about supplements."Starting in your 50s, your body doesn't use many nutrients as well as it used to," Sandon says. "Calcium and vitamin B12 become an issue because your stomach produces less of the acid needed to absorb them. At the same time, your skin becomes less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D." Without enough B12 you may end up feeling run down and lethargic, while insufficient calcium and vitamin D weaken your bones and make your body less effective when it comes to burning fat.
In a perfect world, you'd get all of your nutrients from food. But if you're scaling back portion sizes, that won't work. Ditto if you've recently ditched dairy -- a key source of B12, D, and calcium -- because you've suddenly become lactose intolerant, a condition that commonly happens to women in their 50s, according to Dr. Peeke. That's why a vitamin makes good sense. Instead of a standard multi, look specifically for one designed for women over 50. Not only will it supply extra B12 and D, but it's also low in iron, which is much less of a concern post-menopause. If your multi doesn't provide the full 1,200 milligrams of calcium you need, take a daily calcium citrate supplement.
Outsmart diabetes. Your hormones aren't the only things that are going haywire right now. Insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas, may be out of whack as well. Normally insulin shuttles glucose (aka sugar) from your bloodstream to your cells, where it's used for energy. But as you age, your body often can't use the insulin it makes as effectively as it once did. When this happens, a condition known as insulin resistance can develop, causing glucose to hang out in your bloodstream instead of traveling to your cells, where it's needed. Trouble is, once insulin resistance starts, full-blown diabetes isn't far behind.
The right diet can help. First, steer clear of refined sugars. Eat plenty of whole foods like fruits and vegetables (aim for four and a half cups daily). Choose whole grains over processed ones; they slow the rate at which your body digests and absorbs carbohydrates. That means lower blood sugar and less demand on your pancreas to pump out insulin. People who regularly feast on whole grains are 20 to 40 percent less likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular diseases than those who rarely eat them, according to a 2004 University of Minnesota School of Public Health review.Your Recipes for Success
1 cup high-fiber whole-grain cereal (such as Bran Flakes) with 2 tablespoons flaxseed, 1 cup mixed berries, and 8 ounces 1% milk (or 1% lactose-reduced milk)
White bean hummus pita pocket: In a food processor, blend 1/2 cup rinsed and drained cannellini beans, 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Stuff one 6-inch whole wheat pita with 1/2 cup arugula, 1/4 cup chopped yellow pepper, and 2 slices tomato. Top with hummus.
1 small oatmeal-raisin cookie
8-ounce container 2% plain Greek yogurt topped with 1 small diced pear and 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
4 ounces grilled tuna drizzled with soy-wasabi glaze (1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce whisked with 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon prepared wasabi)
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup baby bok choy sauteed in 1 teaspoon canola oil
Nutrition facts (for the day): 1,502 calories, 87g protein, 199g carbohydrate, 46g fat (9g saturated), 39g fiber
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2009.