Get the right diet to eat your way out of a midlife energy crisis

It’s possible to eat your way out of a midlife energy crisis, says Clodagh Finn

THERE was a time when a midlife crisis was characterised by a sudden urge to spend thousands on a flash new car or think about investing in a bit of surreptitious Botox.

The emphasis, though, has shifted. These days, the most common midlife crisis is one that is marked by flagging energy and weight gain. Earlier this year, an Irish Life Health survey screened thousands of workers and found that a majority (54%) were overweight and a third (34%) had high cholesterol.

Sarah Keogh, dietician at, has seen the effects of that weight gain and reports that an increasing number of 40-somethings are seeking help to find lost energy. They say they’re feeling tired, run down, and lack the drive they took for granted in their 20s and 30s.

Part of the reason is simple: It’s payback time for the way you treated the body over the previous 30 years. But that does not mean you are condemned to live life in the slow lane once you hit midlife. Tweaking your diet and making small changes to your lifestyle can bring about big changes.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help midlifers eat their way to better health — and more energy.

Can you avoid the middle-age spread?

“Of course,” says consultant dietician Aveen Bannon. “Women, once post-menopausal, have a drop in oestrogen levels which can cause a slight change in body shape making it more likely to gain weight around the middle. This does not mean that the middle-aged spread is inevitable. It just means we need to make adjustments to maintain a healthy weight.”

However, midlifers probably do need to make sure they are getting enough exercise and eating in a balanced way, she says. And they need to set aside time to make sure they are doing that.

Busy lifestyles, explains Bannon, can often mean exercise routines and food planning fall down the priority list. “As we get older, we probably need to look at the quality of the calories and to ensure that we are getting nutrient-rich foods without overdoing the calories.”

Dietitians Sarah Keogh, left, and Aveen Bannon, right, recommendations include limiting alcohol intake, moderating coffee levels, and eating good carbs such as wholegrains.
Dietitians Sarah Keogh, left, and Aveen Bannon, right, recommendations include limiting alcohol intake, moderating coffee levels, and eating good carbs such as wholegrains.

Why do I have less energy in my 40s-50s?

It’s not rocket science. As we age, the body starts to slow down and degenerate. Cardiac output decreases, blood pressure increases, muscle loses tone, and skin elasticity. That, however, is not necessarily bad news. The ageing process is natural and while it means your body is changing, it does not have to mean a struggle in your midlife years.

Sarah Keogh says one of the most common reasons for lack of energy in midlife is that many of the people she sees in their 40s and 50s are carrying extra weight. The weight gain might not be dramatic, she says, but each extra pound of body weight will put 4lbs of extra pressure on your knees.

“If you are two or three stone overweight, that is putting an awful lot of pressure on your joints and muscles,” she says.

What do I need to cut back on portion sizes?

Serving plates are now a full 2in-3in bigger than they were in the 1960s. Portion sizes have steadily increased too. For instance, if you asked for popcorn at the flicks in the 1950s, you’d have been served a portion measuring about three cups. These days, your back-row snack can measure anything up to 21 cups, and often it comes with calorie-laden butter.

Keogh says bigger portions and snacking are two of the biggest reasons for Ireland’s growing obesity problem, which, according to the World Health Organisation, is one of the worst in Europe.

If you want to know how big your dinner plate should be, here’s what Keogh advises you do: Put your hand on a piece of paper and spread out your fingers as widely as you can. Draw a circle around your outstretched hand. That’s the size of your ideal dinner plate.

Should I cut out carbs?

“No,” says Bannon. “They can be a great source of fibre. Watch portion sizes and chose high-fibre options.”

Wholegrain carbohydrates and grains are fantastic, adds Keogh, but she advises limiting refined and processed carbohydrates (white bread, biscuits, cakes).

Is skipping breakfast or fasting the answer?

Fasting has its place, says Keogh, but it should only be done under the supervision of a dietician.

As it stands, the majority of people are not getting the nutrients they need in what they are eating, so cutting out meals or fasting will only make things worse. For instance, 30% of Irish women don’t get enough calcium, while 40% don’t get the recommended daily intake of iron.

Just one in three of us eats the recommended five-a-day portions of health-giving fruit and veg, according to Safefood figures. Boosting intake of fruit and veg, rather than following a particular regime, is the best way to increase energy levels.

Include them at every meal. At lunch and dinner, vegetables should make up half of your plate, advises Keogh.

Is there a special mid-life diet that I should follow?

As we get older, particularly past 55, we need more protein, says Bannon. “But this can start in your 40s. Higher protein intakes, of up to 35% of daily calories, may be beneficial in older age groups. The reason for this increased requirement is due to the fact that we lose muscle as we age and the body struggles to repair it efficiently. However, good dietary protein intake coupled with exercise can help maintain good muscle.”

It’s also very important to focus on bone health, she says. Vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium are all important. “Dairy, oily fish, tinned fish, and eggs are natural food sources of these nutrients but sometimes people may require supplements.”

Get the right diet to eat your way out of a midlife energy crisis

What about alcohol?

In moderation, alcohol is OK but that means keeping alcohol intake to 11 or fewer units per week, says Bannon. A unit of alcohol is one 25ml measure of whiskey, a third of a pint of beer, or half a standard glass of wine.

She says midlifers should also aim for a few alcohol-free nights each week.

Do I have to say goodbye to the barista?

There is good news for coffee-lovers. Studies have shown that moderate amounts — one or two mugs a day — can help fight dementia.

However, Keogh warns against drinking coffee, or indeed tea, in late afternoon as it can interfere with sleep. And getting a good night’s sleep is vital to reboost energy levels.

Staying hydrated is also vital to keep energy levels buoyant. Aim for at least 1.5 to 2 litres a day and drink water in the mid-afternoon — it will help you beat sugar cravings, explains Keogh.

Is fat always bad?

No, fat is not necessarily the villain of the piece. It’s essential to maintaining a healthy heart with good-quality fats. Include omega-essential fats from oily fish and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats from olive or rapeseed oil, says Bannon.

What about exercise?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of exercise. European Week of Sport runs September 23-30 and it aims to get people of all ages and at all levels of physical fitness up and active.

If you need a little inspiration, you’ll find a full list of events on the Sport Ireland website ( Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five or more days a week.

It’s never too late to start and reap some of the immense number of benefits. However, failing to do so will increase your risk of illness. A US study of more than 18,000 adults, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that middle-aged adults who didn’t exercise were most likely to develop chronic conditions in the ageing process, such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or cancer.


VITAL FOODS: Baked salmon garnished with asparagus and tomatoes with herbs.
VITAL FOODS: Baked salmon garnished with asparagus and tomatoes with herbs.

Fill up your shopping basket with oats, yogurt, eggs, oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel), fruit and veg (especially dark green ones), cinnamon, nuts, beans and pulses, advises Aveen Bannon.

It is also very important to eat regularly and to spread out your protein intake over the day, she says.

Sarah Keogh would also add in a vitamin D supplement. Irish people really struggle to get enough of the sunshine vitamin but it is essential for bone health, normal muscle function and a healthy immune system.

A recent Trinity College Dublin study from TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing) found that vitamin D deficiency is higher among older adults and only 8.5% of the over-50s take a supplement.

If you are perimenopausal or menopausal, women’s health specialist Marilyn Glenville recommends adding lentils, flaxseeds, chickpeas and soya beans to the diet as they have been shown to reduce night sweats and hot flushes.


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