Midlife is the period when most people face stressors in all facets of life, including career and financial challenges, a decline in physical abilities, and the realization of opportunities missed out. Some people may also see a shift or increase in responsibilities as they reach middle age, such as taking care of an aging parent, supporting critical life stages in children or accepting that the children are becoming more independent.
Women experience menopause, which comes with a variety of symptoms, such as hot flashes, changes in mood, and difficulty sleeping. All of these may contribute to an increase in overall stress. Midlife will likely bring changes to your body, sleep habits, and relationship with food. The menopausal transition is associated with increased visceral fat (Belly fat) that leads to metabolic disorders typical of menopause, including Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high blood levels of cholesterol.
Ovarian (Ovaries are the egg-producing organs in women) aging plays a role in body composition changes in midlife. Many studies have observed that lean body mass is lower in post-menopausal women than in pre-menopausal women. Thus, reduced metabolic rate (due to lower lean body mass) leads to low energy levels, which further discourage any kind of physical activity. Menopausal women are more prone to osteopenic sarco obesity syndrome, which refers to the simultaneous deterioration of bone, muscle and excess fat, resulting in reduced functionality and systemic metabolic dysregulation.
Rather than feeling discouraged by the above changes, dedicating a little extra time to developing and maintaining healthy habits can make a world of difference. It’s never too late to incorporate the following tips.
1. Re-assess your Diet: As you enter midlife, it is more important than ever to replace bad eating habits with healthier alternatives. Replace refined carbohydrates with whole-grain foods, as well as fruits and veggies that offer plenty of fiber. Look for healthy sources of calcium and protein to maintain strong bones and muscles. Be mindful of your relationship with food. Even middle-aged adults may struggle with issues like emotional eating in response to stress and eating disorders in response to poor body image.
Important Note: Medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, can affect how the body uses nutrients. For individuals taking medications for long periods of time drug-nutrient interactions may lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies. For example, laxatives cause food to move rapidly through the body causing poor nutrient absorption. Diuretics (medicine given to reduce BP and fluid overload) remove excess fluid from the body. Some diuretics may also increase the loss of potassium and sodium along with fluids. Potassium is very important in the proper functioning of the heart and other muscles. Metformin (available under different brand names in the market), which is commonly prescribed to reduce insulin resistance, can cause Vitamin B12 deficiency. Do remember to discuss these details with your healthcare practitioner.
Here is a list of some KEY nutrients that you need to pay attention to in midlife:
Vitamin C is a versatile nutrient that supports immunity and possesses good antioxidant properties. Some of the good sources to include are the juice of a full lemon, berries (at least 70 to 100 g), and peppers (1 Bowl). Vitamin C is highly unstable and may get destroyed when these foods are exposed to heat, light, or air for a long time.
Try eating it in the fresh form as quickly as possible (Vitamin C is water-soluble, so it is necessary to consume it every day).
This nutrient is well-known for its role in bone health. The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) can be up to 1200 mg/day in old age. It is advisable to consume varied sources of calcium (grains, pulses, dairy products, dry fruits, seafood, etc.) and distribute them throughout the day for better absorption.
Remember to space out iron and calcium foods or supplements at least 1 to 2 hours apart, to get the full benefit of the nutrients.
Vitamin D is important for bone metabolism, enhancing calcium absorption from the intestinal tract and reabsorption of calcium in the kidney. The efficiency of calcium absorption is related to physiological calcium requirements and is dose-dependent. Supplements that provide 400 to 500 mg of calcium at a time are optimal. Exceeding this level may not necessarily give any additional benefits and predispose to calcium deposits or stone formation in the body.
There is a decline in the efficiency of Vit D production by the skin as one grows older. Researchers have linked vitamin D deficiency with an increased risk for poor bone health coupled with muscle weakness and fatigue. The most traditional way of getting vitamin D is spending 15 to 30 minutes a day in the sun. Some adults with very low levels may require supplements at frequent intervals. It is very common for food manufacturers to fortify breakfast cereal, dairy products, bread, orange juice and other convenient foods with Vitamin D. The best natural food sources of Vit D are fatty fish like mackerel, sardine, and salmon. Vit D in combination with calcium and magnesium is helpful in joint mobility, muscle health and improving your mood.
There are a lot of vitamin Bs out there, of which vitamin B12 often tops the “must-have” list. This vitamin is important for making red blood cells, healthy digestion, and neurological function. With the rise in gluten-free and vegetarian diets, a lot of women are not getting enough vitamin B-12 anymore. Irregular bowel movements, imbalance in the gut microbial composition, and a lack of fibre in the diet can contribute to the deficiency of Vit B12 in old age. A reduction in stomach acid and active digestive enzymes leads to poor Vit B12 absorption from food.
Many animal products have vitamin B-12. This can be a concern for women who are vegetarians. At very low levels, supplementation becomes necessary along with some prebiotics (soluble fibre, greens), probiotics (unsweetened yogurt, fermented foods), and low-fat dairy products in the regular diet.
It is recommended to take adequate amounts of protein to prevent muscle loss and maintain a healthy body structure. Opting for protein-dense snacks rather than calorie-dense snacks is a viable option. The inclusion of powdered dry fruits, pulses or lentils in the main daily meals, as well as eggs and curds, can provide good-quality proteins to the body.
While you should be getting the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients through your diet, it’s possible to miss out on getting enough of what your body needs. A healthy diet is the first step, but if you are still not getting the right vitamins and nutrients, talk to your doctor or nutritionist. They may recommend taking supplements or have recommendations on how to adjust your diet.
2. Get enough sleep: Health conditions, hormonal changes, and daily stressors can make it hard to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. However, they should not stop you from trying to get enough rest. Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. Experiment with bedtime rituals, such as reading a book or taking a relaxing bath. Make a note of what seems to work best for you.
3. Practice gratitude: Take time to appreciate the people in your life and the circumstances around you. Make a list of what you are thankful for, say your parents’ longevity, your children’s growth, a stable job, financial independence, etc.
4. Have a positive mindset - Reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth: Setbacks can be opportunities to learn and grow. If you feel that your career has plateaued, challenge yourself to develop new skills that you can put to use at a new job or volunteering position. If you’re disheartened by an expanding waistline, think of it as a motivation to embrace new and exciting forms of physical activity.
Not everyone experiences midlife problems, but those who do can benefit from such coping skills and emotional support. All of these will not only help people navigate the crisis but also help them find satisfaction later in life as well.
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About the author
Soumya Chandan Peeru (MSc in Dietetics and Food Service Management) is a registered Dietitian with the Indian Dietetic Association. She is a passionate believer in the power of real foods. Her philosophy in life revolves around balance and moderation. A clinical turned WHOLISTIC Dietitian with a rich experience of 15 plus years in the management of lifestyle disorders, Soumya aims to spread the wisdom of nutrition science for healthy living.