Metabolism Mayhem?
Here’s how to eat to stay healthy (and slim) once you’ve hit your mid-30s

By Dagny Scott Barrios

The inexorable little milestones of aging announce themselves quietly but insistently. Another gray hair spied in the morning. The skin growing looser on your neck, then your arms. And of course, the number on the scale creeping up, always up.

It’s a fact of life. As we grow older it’s harder to maintain our weight. Some women notice a change at 30, some at 35, and a few lucky souls might make it all the way to 40 before their waistbands begin to tug. But sooner or later every woman hits a point where she just can’t eat the way she used to. Miami-based nutritionist Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, describes the phenomenon as “the dietary curse and blessing of aging.” Dorfman counsels women to work with the changes they are experiencing to develop healthier eating habits. “As a curse,” she says, “the body acquires more fat and less muscle, so women use fewer calories. And if women remain on their 20s or 30s diet, they gain even more body fat.” The blessing part? Look at it as a beneficial wake-up call “to examine your eating habits and make better choices to avoid excesses in sugars, fats, and calories,” Dorfman advises.

Portraying aging as a blessing is a powerful stratagem; in any endeavor, it’s far more effective to look on the bright side rather than focus on the negative. Weight management is no different. Diets based on deprivation and restrictions are notoriously unsatisfying and ineffective. And thus they inevitably fail. Think about it this way: A slowed metabolism is only one challenge your body faces as you age. If evidence of this change—a few extra pounds—motivates you to overhaul your diet in a nutritious and satiating way, then you’ll feel better, healthier, and stronger as you face off against whatever other challenges come your way.

We’ve come up with five effective and simple strategies for modifying your cooking and eating habits as you age. The beauty of these food dicta is that they all are designed to leave you feeling indulged and inspired, rather than deprived, depressed, and defeated.

Add flavor, not fat.
Instead of ladling fatty sauces over pasta and creamy dressings over salads, make these standby meals inherently appealing with nutrient-packed additions. Pasta, rice dishes, and salads become rich with flavor—not to mention fiber—when you add almonds, walnuts, peas, chopped broccoli, pine nuts, and other such accompaniments. You can use the same approach to punch up soups, adding a gourmet touch to even the canned variety. This strategy is a two-pronged winner, explains Dorfman. Not only do you leave off the fat that’s found in many sauces, but it’s a time-saving, simple way to eat more vegetables and legumes.

Diversify with every meal.
Variety, it turns out, is not only the spice of life, but also the key to a satisfied stomach. A simple way to follow this rule is to become a food “groupie.” “Strive to eat three food groups at every meal, and two food groups in every snack,” says Alice Lindeman, PhD, RD, who devised this strategy for her clients in Bloomington, Indiana. “This approach forces you to eat the food pyramid without thinking about it.” The benefits are multiple: A mix of foods and flavors is more likely to satisfy your hunger psychologically. Also, when we’re in a hurry, the meals and snacks we grab are heavy on the preprocessed carbs—think bagels, chips, and pretzels. The items you’ll be adding to hit your food-group goal tend to be often-neglected fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

Here’s how it works: Instead of just an apple for a snack, add some low-fat cheddar cheese or a tablespoon of almond butter. Instead of eating a burger and bun for dinner, bump up to three food groups by including carrot sticks or a salad. And don’t forget to add a peach or berries to your cereal and milk for breakfast.

Give satisfying protein a try.
For years you’ve been relying on carbohydrates and managing to maintain a healthy weight: cereal or English muffin for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, spaghetti for dinner. But the old reliables aren’t doing you as many favors as you age. Carbohydrates, especially refined types that are high in sugars, are particularly easy to overeat, Dorfman says, and are therefore often the culprits behind a burgeoning belly as we age. You can easily—and deliciously—solve the problem by replacing some of those carbohydrates with rib-sticking protein sources, including fish, chicken, and beef.

It’s not that all carbs are bad, but we tend to eat too many processed carbs, such as cereal, bread, and pasta. You’ve probably never seen someone eating three or four apples or chicken breasts at one sitting. “But with pasta, it’s so easy to consume multiple servings—the label-advised, 2-ounce portion size is ridiculously small compared to other things,” Dorfman says. “It’s much easier to look at a 4-ounce piece of steak or chicken, eat it, and you’re done. The fat satiates your appetite.” So go ahead and cook fettuccine for dinner, but sauté a chicken breast, fresh fish, or steak to go with a more modest portion of whole-wheat noodles.

Whole-grain carbs, which provide fiber and significantly more nutrients, should remain an important part of your diet, says Urbana, Illinois-based Susan Kundrat, MS, RD. “To cut back moderately, just take a look at how many ‘extra’ carbohydrates you’re taking in as sweets and soda, as well as serving sizes of pasta, bagels, and bread,” she suggests. (A mere half of a small bagel constitutes one serving of carbohydrates.) Also, experiment with nutrient-dense carbohydrates, such as oats, quinoa, and millet. Dorfman and Kundrat both strongly caution against going to the other extreme by axing carbs altogether and ending up with a high-protein diet.

Go tropical.
Mangoes, papaya, pineapple, plantains—can you hear the waves breaking on the beach yet? Dorfman, a nutritional consultant for Caribbean-based Sandals Resorts, is a huge fan of tropical produce. She says any meal can benefit from a blast of tropical flavor. “It can be frozen, fresh, even canned,” she says. “Tropical is good because the more color your fruits and vegetables have, the more antioxidants and phytochemicals they tend to contain.” But that’s just the science. The real reason why this is a winning weight-control strategy: Tropical fruits are full of flavor, fiber, color, and psychological appeal. “They’re fun to eat,” says Dorfman. “It’s an adventure—you feel like you’re lying on the beach sipping a fresh drink.”

Eat more often.
Now that’s diet advice that won’t leave you feeling deprived. Call it whatever you wish: grazing, noshing, snacking, the five-small-meals-a-day-instead-of-three theory. Just be sure you don’t allow yourself to get so hungry you can’t think straight. “Once you become famished, it’s hard for anyone to make sensible food choices,” Kundrat says. Eating often helps to regulate blood sugar, fending off that woozy fatigue that comes from an empty stomach. It also keeps your metabolism stoked—a bonus as we age and our metabolisms tend to slow. Kundrat recommends strategizing ahead of time so that you’re never caught hungry by surprise. Take snacks to work and in your car, plan your lunches so that you know where you’ll be eating, and have healthy foods prepared and ready to grab when you get home. By planning ahead and knowing that your midafternoon snack will be a slice of whole-grain bread or an apple with almond butter and a glass of low-fat milk, you reduce the chances of grabbing a candy bar instead, or going to the dinner table ravenous.

Freelance fitness writer Dagny Scott Barrios is the author of Runner’s World Complete Book of Women’s Running (Rodale Press, 2002).

Never be caught hungry by surprise. Take snacks to work, plan your lunches, and have healthy foods ready to grab when you get home.