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Healthy for Life: What to Eat in Your 20s, 30s, 40s, and Beyond


Nutrition in Your 20s

You're working your first real job, making new friends, dating, getting married, maybe even starting a family. Your life is a whirlwind, which means healthy eating is the first thing to go. To conquer your biggest diet dilemmas:

Make fast food healthy. Researchers at Brown University Medical School found that 20-somethings eat 25 percent more fast-food meals than they did in their teens. Grabbing dinner on the go means you may be missing out on crucial nutrients, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Slave over the stove? Nah. Choose healthy convenience foods — rotisserie chicken, shrimp cocktail, steamed dumplings, salads — and enjoy them with speedy additions from your kitchen — whole wheat pasta, instant brown rice, frozen veggies. For guilt-free fast-food choices, see "The Best Food to Eat on the Road."

The Best Food to Eat on the Road

Drink to your health. Margaritas, mojitos, and cosmos can pack on the pounds faster than you can say cheers. Enter light beer (110 calories in a 12-ounce bottle). It's filling, so you're less likely to want a second, and it takes a good long time to drink.

Low-Calorie Summer Drinks

Key Nutrients You Need Now

Protein: Thanks to chronic dieting, skipped meals, and girl foods like frozen yogurt and low-fat muffins, it's likely you're falling short in this department. Protein helps keep you full and provides the building blocks so you can make and keep calorie-burning muscle. "Recent studies suggest that, at a minimum, we need 60 to 70 grams of protein a day," says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Get your quota by eating skinless white-meat poultry, lean steak, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, and low-fat dairy.

Potassium: Your muscles and heart need it to function properly. But most women in their 20s get less than half the recommended amount, according to the USDA. Munching two cups of fruit (an apple, a banana, and a plain yogurt with fresh strawberries) and two and a half cups of veggies daily (a garden salad and a side of broccoli) provides all the potassium you need.

Omega-3 fats: They may boost the level of serotonin, a feel-good chemical in your brain — good news, since women are particularly susceptible to depression in their 20s. Salmon and tuna are the best source, but you can also get your fill from walnuts, ground flaxseed, and canola oil.

What to Eat in Your 20s

Snack Smart

Load up your desk drawer or office fridge with these tasty treats for fewer than 200 calories.

  • Light yogurt (6 ounces) with 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
  • Reduced-fat string cheese and 10 whole-grain crackers
  • Granola bar and a nonfat latte
  • 4 ounces nonfat cottage cheese and a mini box of raisins
  • 6 dried apricots and 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
  • 110-calorie energy bar (we like PowerBar Pria) and 12 almonds
  • 20 mini carrots dipped in 1/4 cup hummus
  • Single-serve vanilla soy milk and 1/2 cup whole-grain cereal

Your 20-Something Meal Plan


  • 24-ounce Jamba Juice Protein Berry Pizzazz Smoothie (lots of protein, very little fat)

Morning Snack

  • 1 packet instant oatmeal sprinkled with 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed


  • Asian grilled-chicken salad with mixed greens, edamame, mandarin oranges, tomatoes, and low-fat vinaigrette

Afternoon Snack

  • Medium orange
  • 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts


  • 7 pieces sushi
  • 1 cup edamame

Evening Treat

  • Gingerbread ice cream sandwich (fill 2 gingersnaps with one-half cup light vanilla ice cream)

Nutrition info for the day: 1,941 calories, 100g protein, 40g fat (5g sat), 293g carbs, 34g fiber

Nutrition in Your 30s

Remember when you had time at least occasionally to indulge in a manicure? Now, not so much. You're too swamped juggling the demands of kids and career — and most likely eating on the run. To conquer your biggest diet dilemmas:

Order a Happy Meal — for you. Yes, really. For 500 calories (compared to 790 for a Quarter Pounder and medium fries) you can get a cheeseburger, Apple Dippers, and 1 percent milk or apple juice in a jiffy and drive away hundreds of calories lighter.

Put your health first. "In your 30s you start to see signs of an unhealthy lifestyle, such as diabetes or hypertension," says James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. Dropping 10 percent of your weight can slash your risk of these diseases.

Key Nutrients You Need Now

Folate: It's critical for supporting a healthy pregnancy, preventing neural-tube defects and helping your body make new cells. Folate may also help reduce the risk of heart disease. Eat foods such as chickpeas, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, avocados, orange juice, and fortified whole grains to help meet your daily 400-microgram requirement.

Phytonutrients: "These compounds contain antioxidants, which slow the aging process, ward off heart disease, and prevent changes in DNA, potentially preventing the development of cancer," says Bonci. While phytonutrients come from plants, dark chocolate, red wine, and coffee are highest in them.

Iron: Not enough leaves you physically drained and messes with your mental muscle. Researchers at Penn State University found that young women who were deficient in the mineral took longer and performed worse on cognitive tasks than those who had normal levels of iron. Get your daily dose of 18 milligrams from foods such as clams, lean beef, fortified breakfast cereal, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and skinless poultry.

What to Eat in Your 30s

5 Ingredients, 5 Minutes, 5 Lunches

You do have time for lunch! Here, healthy meals for about 400 calories.

Mediterranean Tuna Salad
Toss 3 ounces light tuna with 1 chopped tomato, 1/2 diced cucumber, 1 cup white beans, and 2 tablespoons Italian dressing.

Almond Butter and Pear Sandwich
Spread 2 slices whole wheat bread with 1 tablespoon almond butter. Top with 1/2 small sliced pear and 1 teaspoon honey. Enjoy with a glass of nonfat milk.

Tex-Mex Turkey Wrap
In a medium whole wheat tortilla, fold 3 ounces sliced turkey breast, 1/4 sliced avocado, 1/4 cup low-fat shredded cheddar cheese, and 2 tablespoons salsa.

Ham and Brie Sandwich
Spread 1 tablespoon honey mustard on 2 pieces pumpernickel bread. Top with 2 ounces ham, 1 ounce Brie, lettuce, and tomato.

Smoked Salmon Bagel
Spread 1 tablespoon whipped cream cheese on a whole wheat bagel. Top with 2 ounces smoked salmon, sliced red onion, and 2 teaspoons capers.

More Healthy Recipes

Your 30-Something Healthy Meal Plan


  • Whole wheat English muffin topped with 2 tablespoons natural peanut butter and 1/2 small sliced banana
  • 1 cup calcium and vitamin D-fortified orange juice

Morning Snack

  • 1/2 cup Cheerios with 1/2 cup 1-percent or nonfat milk


  • Curried shrimp salad (boil 10 shrimp and mix with 1 tablespoon mayonnaise and 1 teaspoon curry powder) in a whole wheat pita
  • 1 cup watermelon chunks

Afternoon Snack

  • 6-ounce container light yogurt with 1/2 cup raspberries


  • Chickpea salad (toss 1/2 cup canned, drained chickpeas with 1 tablespoon Italian dressing)
  • 4 ounces lean flank steak, grilled or broiled, topped with 2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce
  • 2 cups baby spinach sauteed in 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 medium baked sweet potato

Evening Treat

  • 1 ounce dark chocolate

Nutrition info for the day: 1,868 calories, 94g protein, 64g fat (17g sat), 243g carbs, 34g fiber

Nutrition in Your 40s

"This is when women start to find some time for themselves again," says Hill. "They're really anxious to improve their health and fitness." To conquer your biggest diet dilemmas:

Beat your belly bulge. If your belly seems a little rounder, blame it on estrogen withdrawal. "In her childbearing years, a woman puts on weight in her butt, hips, and thighs to fuel breastfeeding," says FITNESS advisory board member Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Fit to Live. "The fat cells in those areas have estrogen receptors. As you go through estrogen withdrawal, those receptors aren't being activated anymore." That signals your body to sock away the fat in your tummy. Dr. Peeke's solution: cardio five days a week and resistance training on the other two.

Cut just 100 calories a day. "For every decade after 40, there's roughly a 1 percent decrease in calorie requirements," says Bonci. "That's the equivalent of one extra cookie." Eating every three to four hours to keep your metabolism revved can also help keep off the weight.

Key Nutrients You Need Now

Calcium: As you approach menopause, bone-building estrogen starts to decline and calcium becomes more important. Ironically, you absorb less calcium from the food you eat because your stomach doesn't make as much of the acid necessary for absorption. Aim for 1,000 milligrams a day from low-fat dairy, supplements, or a combination.

Vitamin D: This nutrient helps your body absorb calcium, keeps your immune system strong, protects against breast and colon cancers, and even prevents hearing loss. But by the time you reach your 40s, levels of D quickly start to plummet. "There's no way to get enough vitamin D from your diet because very few foods contain it," says Bonci. Your best bet: a daily supplement of 600 to 1,000 international units.

Fiber: It reduces bloat and makes you feel fuller longer. Plus, "fiber helps decrease cholesterol and your risk for colon cancer," says Dr. Peeke. Aim for a mix of soluble (from fruits, vegetables, barley, and oats), and insoluble (from whole wheat bread and bran).

What to Eat in Your 40s

Your 40-Something Healthy Meal Plan


  • 1 cup high-fiber cereal (such as bran flakes) with 1 cup 1-percent milk and 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 cup green tea

Morning Snack

  • 1 medium apple with 1 tablespoon soy-nut butter


  • Veggie burger on a whole wheat bun with 2 slices low-fat cheddar cheese (1 ounce each)
  • 6-ounce can low-sodium vegetable juice

Afternoon Snack

  • 2 tablespoons hummus with 6 whole wheat crackers


  • 3 ounces broiled salmon over 1 cup barley pilaf
  • 6 asparagus spears sauteed in 1 teaspoon olive oil

Evening Treat

  • 6-ounce container light vanilla yogurt topped with 1 tablespoon mini chocolate chips

Nutrition info for the day: 1,656 calories, 92g protein, 48g fat (13g sat), 228g carbs, 39g fiber

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, August 2007.