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Slim for Life: What to Eat in Your 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s

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Your 20s

Fat trap: Drinking
Blame it on the alcohol. Happy hour, boozy brunches and girls' nights galore add up to lots of empty calories and late-night pizza.

Fat zap: "Most of us wouldn't drink several sodas in a row, but we'll order multiple cocktails — even though a mojito is more caloric than a cola," says Alice Domar, PhD, a coauthor of Live a Little! A shot of liquor has about 100 calories, a five-ounce glass of wine contains 120 and a 12-ounce beer has around 150.

Keep liquid calories low by alternating each drink with a glass of water or seltzer. Since many restaurants dole out double portions of wine, pour yourself five ounces at home (that's about two-thirds of a cup) so you'll know if you've been served extra, suggests Heather Mangieri, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And to prevent your willpower from drowning in pinot noir, "decide what you're going to eat before you sip," she says.

Fat trap: Eating out
Restaurant portions are huge (the average meal packs 1,495 calories), and you're more likely to polish them off. People who dine in a group consume 18 percent more calories than they do when they're alone, according to a study in Physiology & Behavior.

Fat zap: "I'm going out to dinner, so I'll have a light lunch." Sound familiar? "Though it seems logical to save up your calories, people often end up consuming more in the end," Domar says. Instead of showing up starving, eat a small serving of filling protein, such as a hard-boiled egg or a carton of Greek yogurt, to help tame your appetite before you head to the restaurant.

Once there, be the first at your table to order, because research shows that your dinner companions' food selection can influence yours. An easy way to order right: "Pick an upgraded version of something that you might make at home," Mangieri suggests. So instead of a boring grilled-chicken salad, try the baby greens with roast chicken, walnuts and pears, for example. "This naturally helps you gravitate toward healthier options without making you feel as if you're depriving yourself."

Fat trap: Coupling up
No one is safe from love chub: Women who are dating gain an average of 15 pounds over five years, those who live with their guy gain 18, and newly married women gain 24, according to research from the University of North Carolina. "People in relationships subconsciously mirror each other's food choices and eating pace," explains Susan Albers, a psychologist and the author of Eating Mindfully. That's dangerous, because men can generally get away with consuming more calories a day than women can.

Fat zap: If you keep picking grilled fish over burgers, chances are he'll start doing the same. "When one person makes healthy choices, the other is likely to follow," Albers says. Make healthy un-boring by buying exotic vegetables at the farmers' market, experimenting with a lower-calorie version of chili or mac and cheese, or browsing cooking blogs for recipes you can make together. Then dish out your portion onto a smaller plate and intentionally slow your pace.

On date night, don't default to dinner and a movie. Instead, try taking a new class at the gym, exploring a nearby city, or hiking in a local park together. Not only will you torch calories instead of taking them in, but you'll also feel friskier; couples who share new activities report having better chemistry than those who stick to a routine.

Your 30s

Fat trap: Baby weight
Princess Kate's bump may have disappeared seemingly days after delivery, but nearly 60 percent of moms of 1- to 2-year-olds still haven't lost the baby weight, according to a BabyCenter.com poll.

Fat zap: The sleep deprivation that comes with caring for a newborn increases levels of hunger hormones as well as cravings for fat and sugar, so new moms tend to reach for junk food. The work-around is to stock up on healthy, convenient options, like rotisserie chicken with steam-in-the-bag vegetables and microwavable brown rice.

Be sure to fit fish into your diet twice a week. New moms who struggle with the blues are more likely to retain the baby weight after one year, a Harvard study showed, and DHA — a type of omega-3 found in salmon and tuna — has been linked to having fewer symptoms of postpartum depression.

Fat trap: Stress
Gen Xers are more stressed-out than Boomers, according to a study from the American Psychological Association. "Stress spikes levels of the hormone cortisol, which is a triple threat for weight gain," says Scott Isaacs, MD, an endocrinologist and the author of Beat Overeating Now! "Cortisol not only increases your appetite, it also slows your metabolism and prompts your body to store fat."

Fat zap: Resist working lunches, because scarfing food at your desk instead of taking a break makes you more frazzled, German researchers say. And because the caffeine in coffee can signal the adrenal gland to pump out cortisol, limit yourself to two grande coffees a day instead of fueling up on it every few hours, Dr. Isaacs recommends. Or switch to Earl Grey: Tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower cortisol levels than coffee drinkers did after stressful situations, a British study found.

Eat oranges, red peppers, and sweet potatoes, which are all high in cortisol-lowering vitamin C. And dehydration increases levels of this hormone, so drink plenty of water and buy lower-sodium canned soups and bread, because the regular versions tend to be salty.

Fat trap: Crazy-busy everything
You're climbing the corporate ladder, caring for a family and still trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. It's no wonder healthy eating keeps dropping off your mile-long to-do list.

Fat zap: Most days you're so slammed that by the time you realize you need food, you're ravenous, and baby carrots or grilled chicken just won't cut it. "Eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day can help you resist fattening temptations," Domar says. The proof: Women who skipped meals lost almost eight pounds less than women who didn't, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

To make breakfast happen on hectic mornings, stash granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit in your car or office, Domar says. Then add a lunch reminder to your calendar. And instead of succumbing to greasy takeout dinners, prep a couple of meals over the weekend that you can eat throughout the week, like a big pot of soup or a huge stir-fry, Mangieri suggests.

Your 40s

Fat trap: Kid-friendly food
Macaroni and cheese is practically a food group in your household, and pizza and cake at parties is a given.

Fat zap: "A few bites of your child's leftovers can add up to hundreds of extra calories over the course of a week," Domar says. Make the kids responsible for putting their plates in the dishwasher to lessen the chances that you'll go to town on whatever they didn't eat.

If snacks are your downfall, stock up on ones that your kids love but you don't, Mangieri says, like fruit snacks or frozen waffles. And when you're at the umpteenth birthday party, eat only when you're sitting at a table, not standing by the bouncy castle. "It makes you more mindful of what's going into your mouth," Albers says.

Fat trap: Perimenopause
Estrogen helps insulin metabolize blood sugar. So when your levels of the hormone naturally begin to drop as you head toward menopause, this estrogen deficiency increases your insulin resistance, "a condition that causes your body to store the food you eat as fat instead of burning it as energy," Dr. Isaacs explains.

Fat zap: Cut refined carbohydrates from your diet. "White bread, white rice and sugar cause an insulin surge, which contributes to insulin resistance," Dr. Isaacs says. "The majority of your carbohydrates should come from vegetables, fruits and whole grains, which your body digests more slowly."

Hormonal changes can also throw your thyroid out of whack, resulting in weight gain, says Lyn-Genet Recitas, a nutritionist and the author of The Plan. And low levels of vitamin B12, which about 40 percent of people have, can make this worse. Get the recommended daily 2.4 micrograms of B12 by loading up on salmon, low-fat yogurt, and eggs.

Fat trap: A slower metabolism
You can begin to lose muscle mass at a rate of up to 5 percent a decade starting now, which means you're burning 100 fewer calories a day, Mangieri says.

Fat zap: "Strength-train twice a week to build new muscle and preserve what you have," Zied says. Eating protein also helps. "Just spread out your intake, because our bodies most efficiently use 20 to 30 grams at a time for muscle building," Mangieri says.

Turn the heat up in the kitchen and down on the thermostat. Eating spicy foods and living in cooler temperatures revs up your metabolism and helps you torch more fat, recent studies found. "Spending a couple of hours in a 63-degree home is enough to burn an extra 50 to 100 calories a day," Dr. Isaacs says.

Your 50s

Fat trap: Menopause
As your level of estrogen continues to decline, your body converts more calories into fat, which contains the hormone. The results: less muscle mass and an even slower metabolism. Studies have also linked lower estrogen levels with increased abdominal fat, aka middle-aged spread.

Fat zap: Eat more fiber. For every 10 extra grams people took in each day, they reduced their amount of visceral fat, the dangerous belly kind that can lead to heart disease and diabetes, by 3.7 percent over a five-year period, according to researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Dairy, which is a good source of calcium, protein and vitamin D, can also help reduce belly fat, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition.

Fat trap: Pulling double duty
The pressure of paying for your children's college tuition while caring for your aging parents can leave you feeling worried and worn-out.

Fat zap: Magnesium helps reduce stress by suppressing the release of cortisol, but most women don't get the recommended 310 to 320 milligrams a day. Up your intake by eating spinach, almonds and black beans, all of which contain 50 milligrams or more per serving.

Also, choose foods rich in vitamin B6, which gives you extra energy by carrying oxygen to your cells during the day and helping you sleep better at night, Dr. Isaacs says. Get it from chicken, turkey, and bananas; a serving of each contains about a quarter of your recommended daily amount.

Fat trap: Depression
Your risk of depression can increase during menopause, and women who are depressed have a higher BMI and waist circumference than those who aren't, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

Fat zap: Sadness can trigger cravings for refined carbs, which cause the brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, says Vandana Sheth, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "But it's a temporary rush," she explains. "Once your blood sugar crashes, it leads to an even lower low, setting you up for a constant cycle of cravings." To boost your mood, space meals and snacks no more than five hours apart and make sure they contain a filling mix of complex carbohydrates, like whole-grain crackers or fruit, plus lean protein.

Foods high in folate — beans and lentils are the best sources — may also help relieve depression, because the brain needs that vitamin to function. "And working up a sweat provides a rush of feel-good endorphins that can lift your spirits," Sheth says.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2014.

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