When it comes to health, many people take a piecemeal approach, focusing on one behavior change at a time. That can be a smart move, so you don’t feel overwhelmed with making lots of changes. However, “there’s nothing in our bodies that exists in isolation,” says Gennev health coach, registered dietitian, and exercise physiologist, Stasi Kasianchuk. When you start to change one area, for example, your level of physical activity, it can affect your nutritional needs such as needing more nutrient-dense foods and more fluids. If you’re not meeting these new needs, it can affect the quality of your workouts. Likewise, what you are eating can either support or sabotage your workouts. Here are seven eating habits that may be sabotaging your workouts and how to fix them.
#1 Eating too few calories. Calories are a unit of energy, and the number of calories in food is the amount of energy you can get from eating that food. So, the fewer calories you eat, the less energy you’ll have for your workouts. Unfortunately, at midlife when extra pounds become an all-too-common phenomenon, trying to find the right balance can be challenging. Strategies like skipping meals and cutting out certain foods or food groups can result in eating fewer calories, which in theory should help prevent weight gain, but it can backfire. Depriving yourself can leave you feeling hungry and tired throughout the day, resulting in lackluster workouts and often overeating at night. And when your body feels like it’s being starved, it conserves calories, making it easier to gain weight.
What to do: To minimize weight gain while ensuring that you have enough fuel to power your workouts, focus on eating nutrient-packed, fiber-rich calories like lean meats, fish, poultry, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. These foods will fill you up faster and keep you satisfied longer so you don’t overeat. They’ll also fight fatigue, so you have more energy for your workouts. You should also make sure that you’re eating throughout the day, about every three to four hours, recommends Kasianchuk. Skipping meals and loading up on empty calories like those in highly processed foods such as baked goods, chips, cookies, and sugary drinks can tip the scales in favor of weight gain and leave you feeling tired all the time. These strategies should help you to balance your energy needs without having to count calories. Calorie requirements vary based on several factors such as age and activity level, but a general guideline for women in midlife is 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
#2 Being dehydrated. As estrogen levels decline in midlife, your body doesn’t store as much water as it used to, so it’s even more important to make sure you’re drinking enough water. Fluids support your body’s metabolic processes that produce energy. When your fluid levels are low, it can slow those processes and leave you feeling sluggish. And who wants to exercise when they’re feeling fatigued? Hydration also plays an important role in regulating your body temperature. As you exercise your body temperature rises. If you’re not properly hydrated, it’s harder to keep yourself cool and comfortable as you work out.
What to do: Aim to consume about half of your body weight in ounces of water. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should drink 75 ounces of water a day. This includes herbal or decaffeinated teas, calorie-free seltzers, and infused waters like those with lemon or strawberries and mint. Caffeinated beverages like coffee and colas can contribute to your overall fluid intake, but they don’t have the same hydration benefits as water, so aim to make water your primary beverage choice.
You also want to spread your intake throughout the day. “Your kidneys are the size of your fists,” says Kasianchuk. “Chugging a large amount of water at once can overwhelm the kidneys. Smaller amounts consumed throughout the day allow your kidneys to process and utilize the hydration more efficiently.”
#3 Skimping on carbs. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap lately, causing many women to cut them out of their diets. But that can negatively impact your workouts. “When you start restricting carbohydrates, you lose fuel that’s so important for any exercise,” says Kasianchuk. “That can lead to low energy and feeling fatigued prior to and during exercise, which is going to make the workout feel harder. If it feels harder, returning for subsequent sessions is going to feel even more challenging.”
What to do: Not all carbs are created equal, so you want to make sure that you’re choosing the right ones to fuel your workouts. Instead of refined carbs like white bread, pasta, rice, crackers, and baked goods, choose whole-grain options which have more fiber and nutrients and provide longer-lasting fuel. Refined carbs are broken down quickly, resulting in a spike in blood sugar and burst of energy, but it doesn’t last and can leave you feeling even more wiped out afterward. A better option is to eat more vegetables, beans, and fruits which are high-fiber carbs. Aim to get about 25 grams of fiber a day. In addition to fueling your workouts, carbs also boost levels of serotonin, a feel-good hormone. That combo can make it easier to start exercising, give you the lift you need to push yourself to go a little farther or faster, and leave you feeling more invigorated after your workout.
#4 Not getting enough protein. This nutrient is one of the building blocks of your body and is involved in both growth and repair, especially for muscles. As you age though, you lose muscle mass and strength, which can make exercise and even everyday activities feel more challenging. Your body also requires more repair as you get older. If you’re not getting enough protein, you may not be able to recover from your workouts as well. “You may notice more soreness which may hinder you from getting back out there,” says Kasianchuk. Most women in midlife are not meeting their protein needs.
What to do: Eat some protein at every meal, including snacks. In addition, to giving your body the protein it needs for repair, this practice also provides more sustained energy. “When women incorporate more protein, they’ve told me that they feel more energized throughout the day, especially in that late afternoon slump,” says Kasianchuk. “That’s going to work in your favor if you’re an afternoon walker.”
To ensure you’re energized anytime you walk and have an adequate amount of protein for recovery, spread your protein intake throughout the day by including a protein source with all meals and snacks. Aim to eat at least 20 grams of protein with each of your three meals. This can be a palm-size piece of animal protein, a combination of nuts, hemp seeds, and soy milk in oatmeal, or ½ cup beans with quinoa. For snacks, worry less about the exact grams of protein and just focus on making sure to include a protein source. Have some cottage cheese or peanut butter with fruit, bean dip or hummus with veggies or on whole-grain crackers, yogurt with fruit, or tuna or chicken with mixed greens.
#5 Starting on empty. If you haven’t eaten in about two to three hours, you might find it harder to get yourself moving and less inclined to push your intensity while you’re working out. While you’re still getting benefits from any activity at any intensity that you do, if you are looking for a higher intensity workout, you’ll do better if you fuel beforehand.
What to do: Have a small carb snack with a little bit of protein 30 to 60 minutes before exercising. Good choices include half an apple or banana with nut butter, yogurt, whole-grain crackers with bean dip, or carrots with hummus. You want to keep it small, so you don’t feel full when you’re exercising. The combination of protein and healthy carbs stabilizes blood sugar levels, fuels you with less, and provides more sustained energy.
#6 Too much sugar. Even if you’re avoiding things like cookies and candy, you may still be getting more sugar than you think. There are lots of hidden sources of sugar, such as cereals (even the healthy-looking ones), yogurt, condiments, energy bars, coffee drinks, and other beverages. These added sugars, not the natural kinds that are in fruits and vegetables, may worsen some menopause symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, and hot flashes—all issues that can disrupt your workouts. Sugar also increases inflammation in the body which may increase joint pain, especially if you have arthritis.
What to do: Read labels and limit the amount of “added sugars” to five teaspoons or 20 grams a day. In the past, it was difficult to separate “added sugars” from naturally occurring ones in foods, but nutrition labels now distinguish between the two, making it easier to track your intake. If a label doesn’t specify the amount of added sugar, check the ingredient list for one of the many aliases that sugar uses, such as ingredients ending in -ose, agave nectar, barley malt, brown rice syrup, dextrin, and malt syrup. The higher up the ingredient list it is, the more sugar is included in that food. Curbing your sugar intake should help prevent dips in your energy, keep off pounds, and may ease hot flashes and joint pain, making exercise more enjoyable.
#7 Lack of variety. Another effect of restricting what you’re eating is that you tend to eat the same things. Different foods provide different nutrients. So, for example, a restrictive diet is going to limit your intake of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, which can help combat joint pain, says Kasianchuk.
What to do: Don’t limit natural, whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables. The more colorful your diet is the more vitamins and other phytochemicals you’ll be getting. “Making sure that you get a variety of nutrients from a variety of foods can help to increase anti-inflammatory nutrients that can support joint health and decrease joint pain,” Kasianchuk says. If you’re going to limit anything, it should be highly processed foods with lots of added fat and sugar.
The next time you’re not feeling up for a workout either because you’re feeling tired or your joints are achy, think about what you’ve been eating. “Movement and what we eat have a synergistic relationship. Most people feel better if they’re moving and nourishing their bodies,” Kasianchuk says. A few simple changes in your diet may improve your workout performance—and perhaps more importantly, how you feel overall in midlife and on your menopause journey.