As women age, it’s natural for their bodies to experience some changes. Women over 50 may shift nutrition priorities to focus on managing weight, controlling menopause symptoms, supporting brain function or generally maintaining overall health.
Menopause typically begins between age 45 and 55, according to the National Institute on Aging, and this transition involves multiple changes that can result in weight gain, estimated to be about 1.5 pounds per year, particularly around the midsection.
Why Women Gain Weight After 50
“A loss of muscle mass leads to a slower metabolism, making it harder to maintain weight,” explains Lisa R. Young, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City.
Energy levels may decline as women get older, resulting in a decrease in physical activity, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia. Around the time they turn 50, Jones says some women become less physically active than they were at earlier stages of their lives because of increased career demands, focus on raising kids or the need to care for aging parents.
Poor sleep, which is quite common during menopause, may also contribute to weight gain.
A 2022 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that interrupted sleep and lower estrogen levels both independently affected how the participants’ bodies used fat, which they conclude may contribute to body fat gain in menopause.
“It may feel like you woke up one day and your pants didn’t zip, but it’s likely that you were gaining a pound or so every year during your 40s, at least according to the limited research available about women and weight gain,” says Boston area based registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward, co-author of “The Menopause Diet Plan.”
Ward also warns against restrictive diets. “Women should avoid quick weight-loss schemes because they will not last and they can be dangerous because of the lack of nutrients.”
Important Nutrients for Older Women
Certain nutrients become even more important for women over 50, so it’s important to follow a healthy eating regimen geared for older people that includes adequate levels of these essential nutrients.
Why it’s important: Women over 50 need more protein because the body doesn’t process and use it as efficiently, says Ward. This macronutrient is especially important for preserving muscle mass, which we lose as we age. Protein also helps women maintain strength, protect bone health and aids wound healing. Some studies suggest increasing protein intake after menopause to help prevent weight gain.
How much you need: The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Importantly, other guidelines recommend even more protein for postmenopausal women: 1.0 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, which translates to 68 to 81 grams of protein per day for a postmenopausal woman who weighs 150 pounds.
Best sources of protein: Lean beef, pork poultry, seafood, low-fat dairy products, eggs, legumes, nuts and plant-based proteins, such as tofu and tempeh are good sources of protein and can be incorporated at every meal.
Why it’s important: Once menopause occurs, and arguably during perimenopause when estrogen is declining, women need more calcium, says Ward. The loss of estrogen reduces the body’s ability to absorb calcium, a nutrient that is critical to keeping bones strong and preventing osteoporosis.
How much you need: 1,200 mg is the RDA for women over 50.
Best sources of calcium: Calcium can be found in both dairy and nondairy foods, including low-fat milk and yogurt, salmon, sardines, tofu and fortified foods and beverages like orange juice with added calcium.
[READ: Best Diets for Seniors.]
Why it’s important:
While vitamin D needs do not increase at menopause, most women fail to get enough, says Ward. “Vitamin D is necessary to absorb calcium and deposit it in your bones,” she says. Vitamin D also plays a vital role in immune health and may be protective against cardiovascular disease.
How much you need: 15 mcg or 600 IU is the RDA for women over 50.
Best sources of vitamin D: Fatty fish, mushrooms grown under UV lights, eggs and fortified foods and beverages are good sources of vitamin D.
Why it’s important: Stomach acid is required to process naturally-occurring vitamin B12, and upwards of 30% of people in midlife and beyond don’t have enough acid to perform this task properly, says Ward. Vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell production to help prevent anemia and aids in the function and development of brain and nerve cells.
How much you need: 2.4 mcg is RDA for women over 50.
Best sources: Vitamin B12 is found naturally in foods of animal origins, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. It can also be found in fortified foods like cereals and nutritional yeast. Ward recommends that women over 50 get most of their vitamin B12 from synthetic forms in supplements and fortified foods because it doesn’t require stomach acid to absorb.
Best Diets for Women Over 50
These are the three best diets for women over 50 because they are rich in important nutrients and may help with weight management and overall health.
— DASH diet.
— Mediterranean diet.
— MIND diet.
— Menopause diet.
The DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet is a heart-healthy eating plan that’s ideal for women over 50. Heart disease is still the country’s number one killer of women, and women over 50 are at an increased risk. DASH gets a perfect score from the American Heart Association, who praised the diet for its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean proteins.
This diet is low in sodium, added sugars, tropical oils (such as coconut and palm oils that are high in saturated fat), alcohol and processed foods. It’s abundant in fiber and a trio of essential minerals: calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
“The DASH diet not only reduces blood pressure for those with hypertension, it is a well-balanced eating plan for everyone,” says registered dietitian Rosanne Rust, coauthor of “DASH Diet For Dummies.”
High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and is often underdiagnosed, she says.
The DASH eating plan supports healthy aging because of the abundance of fruits and vegetables that contain protective plant compounds and the emphasis on foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which support brain health, says Rust.
The Mediterranean diet, which originates from the cuisines of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, is an extensively-studied diet that has consistently shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and improve overall health. For the sixth year in a row it has been rated the No. 1 diet overall by U.S. News’ panel of Best Diets experts. So it’s no surprise that the Mediterranean diet is an ideal approach for women over 50.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats like olive oil, along with twice weekly servings of fish and seafood and moderate portions of dairy eggs and poultry. The diet includes only occasional servings of red meat and is low in refined grains, added sugars and highly processed foods.
A hybrid of the first two diets, the MIND diet is short for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and targets the aging brain. Evidence continues to show that the MIND diet may help maintain cognitive function, including a 2022 study published in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy that found the MIND diet was linked to a lower risk of dementia within the first seven years of follow-ups (although associations disappeared after longer follow-up periods).
The MIND diet is a plant-rich eating regimen that includes foods that research suggests help boost brain function, including fruits (especially berries), dark leafy greens and other vegetables, fish, nuts, whole grains and olive oil.
While the aim of the MIND diet is brain health, this eating plan may also benefit heart health, diabetes and certain cancers because it includes a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
All three diets highlight plant-based foods and limit the intake of animal products and foods high in saturated fat.
The menopause diet is similar to the Mediterranean and DASH diets with a focus on plants and whole foods, but is especially designed to help women manage the effects of changing hormones throughout the menopausal transition.
A beneficial resource for the diet is expertly captured in “The Menopause Diet Plan: A Natural Guide to Hormones, Health, and Happiness” by two Boston-area registered dietitians who specialize in menopausal nutrition Elizabeth Ward and Hillary Wright.
The plant-forward menopause diet includes 25 to 30 grams of protein and 7 to 10 grams of fiber per meal, seafood twice a week, and limits saturated fat, sodium, added sugars and alcohol.
“The eating plan along with regular physical activity offers a natural approach to help reduce hot flashes, manage sleep, improve energy levels, and reduce mood swings,” says Ward. It’s also designed to preserve muscle mass and help prevent bone and heart disease, she adds.
While the menopause diet does not include any strict guidelines, it does recommend avoiding eating after dinner.
“Obey the rhythm of your body by eating most of your calories during the earlier part of the day,” Ward says. “Skipping late night snacking can help you sleep better and wake up hungry for a balanced breakfast to start the day off on the right foot.”
Is Dieting Safe for Women Older Than 50?
Restrictive dieting may be especially damaging after age 50 because these diets often lack nutrients that are especially important later in life. Instead of removing foods or food groups, focus on adding foods that offer heart-healthy, bone-strengthening and brain-supporting nutrients.
Rather than severely cutting calories to try to lose weight, Ward recommends increasing physical activity, especially strength training.
“We are big proponents of strength training because it builds muscle that burns a few more calories per pound, but mostly because it keeps you strong enough to do all the activity you want and need to stay healthy for decades to come,” she says.
Additionally, strength training can help increase bone density, making it especially valuable for women over 50.
To get the most out of your diet and reap the health benefits, focus on making sustainable modifications to your eating habits rather than trying to stay with a restrictive diet plan, Jones says.
“Choosing an option that fits with your food preferences in the long term is key,” she adds. “It should be something you find enjoyable, so you can stick to it over time.”
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Top Diets for Women Over 50 to Maximize Health and Vitality originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 11/17/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.