Welcome to midlife: The last time your body experienced so many changes, you were in 7th grade, worrying about your latest crush and pimples. These days, your top-of-mind concerns are more along the lines of, Where'd my waistline go?, What's my HDL number?, Where the heck are my keys?, and I hope that's just a pimple.
"The changes adults experience as they hit their 50s can be overwhelming," says Mark Liponis, M.D., medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Everyone's gaining weight or having to work harder to keep their weight, the risk for heart disease, hypertension and other chronic conditions are going up, we're starting to really understand that we can't take our health for granted anymore — it's a lot to deal with."
But even though the stakes are high, he says there are simple strategies you can take to age better. For starters, make a point of getting some form of daily exercise, avoid prolonged stretches of sitting, value your sleep and find ways to relax and unwind. And, of course, pay better attention to what you're putting in your mouth. "Eating right and feeling right go hand in hand," says Dr. Liponis, author of "The Hunter/Farmer Diet Solution." Here's a closer look at ways the foods you choose effect you, inside and out.
"Good eating strategies are the closest thing to a magic bullet we have when it comes to keeping our weight in check and preventing things like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol," says Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian and the director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Rather than thinking in terms of what you can't eat, she says to make your eating experience a positive one: Here's what I'm going to eat. Start by following the MyPlate guidelines that have you filling a little more than one-third of your plate with a lean protein, more than one-third with vegetables and fruit, and a quarter of your plate with grains. Other rules of thumb: Make half of your daily grain choices whole grains; eat heart-healthy fatty fish (like albacore tuna or salmon) twice a week; have a vegetable and fruit with every meal and snack to increase your fiber intake; choose good-for-you fats like olive and canola oil, or a handful of nuts; cut saturated fat to 7 percent or less of your daily calories; drink water with every meal to stay hydrated; and make sure you're getting enough calcium and vitamin D for bone strength.
"Generally, people in their 50s need fewer calories because their metabolism is slowing, but you're still going to be hungry," says Bonci. So as you strive to trim 200 or so calories from your daily meals, you might find it helpful to insert more substantial morning and afternoon snacks — meaning a snack that has a lean protein, some healthy fat and fiber. A yogurt with banana slices and pecans counts, as would hummus spread on a whole wheat bagel thin with some carrots.
In your 50s, you don't just think you're more forgetful — you really are becoming more forgetful, says Dr. Liponis. Midlife is when the neurons in the brain start diminishing in both number and size. The connections between those neurons — how your brain sends word from one cell to another — also aren't as strong. These natural processes lower your ability to recall details and facts as quickly as you once did. What's more, a lifetime's worth of daily stressors has been taking its toll on your memory. And high blood pressure and high cholesterol have also been associated with an increased risk of having a brain-damaging stroke and of developing Alzheimer's disease.
While food doesn't have the power to restore your memory powers, certain foods have been shown to boost key brain functions. For example, all those fruits and vegetables you're encouraged to eat more of contain antioxidants that fight free radicals, which gather in brain cells, damaging DNA and bringing about premature cell death. Research from the University of Cincinnati has linked antioxidants with improved learning and focus among older adults. And berries, in particular, have been associated with slower rates of cognitive decline among older adults who eat them regularly.
All that salmon and olive oil health experts push? They're one of the few foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, a class of "healthy" fats that reduce inflammation throughout the body and improve your chances of keeping your memory sharp. Even a humble cup of green tea has been shown to support the production of new brain cells.
"It's important for people to realize that when their doctor or nutritionist is talking to them about better eating habits, they're concerned about their overall health — and that definitely includes mental health. Better eating is about the complete head-to-toe picture," says Dr. Liponis.
We pop champagne when we're celebrating, bring out chocolate-covered strawberries when we're ready for romance and devour pizza and mac 'n cheese when we've truly had enough. "To say there's a food-mood connection is most definitely an understatement," says Joan Salge Blake, author of "Nutrition & You" and an associate professor of nutrition at Boston University.
But there's more going on between food and moods than simply consoling ourselves with a pint of ice cream. (Hello, guilt!) Low iron levels can result in feeling down and experiencing attention problems, for example. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to wield a powerful influence over moods, according to a study from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In that study, participants with low levels of omega-3s were more likely to be feel symptoms of depression. And one study linked insufficient B vitamins to a drop in self-confidence and a foul mood.
"One of the first things people will say after they've started eating right and losing weight is that they feel better," says Salge Blake. "When you start giving your body the right fuel, you'll have more energy, you'll feel better about yourself, you'll have a better outlook. That's why it's so important to make good food choices everyday — it's not just about avoiding diseases, it's about enjoying life."