While cancer and heart disease might not have been huge concerns for you a few years ago, your risk for both jumps as you move into your 40s and beyond.
In fact, cancer is the number-one killer of women in their 40s and 50s, and heart disease comes in at number two, according to the CDC. Diabetes and stroke also creep into the picture as you move into your 50s and 60s.
While not always fatal, autoimmune diseases—rheumatoid arthritis in particular, but also lupus, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis—disproportionately affect women in midlife and beyond, per a 2015 study in Women’s Midlife Health.
Blame a slower metabolism and shifting hormones for many of these health risks, says Felicia Stoler, RD, a nutritionist and author of Living Skinny In Fat Genes. If you’re still following the diet that worked for you during your 20s and 30s, you’re headed for trouble, she says.
Experts say adding plenty of the following foods to your diet—particularly if it means replacing some of your current less-than-healthy foods (like your morning white bagel)—can help you avoid the health issues most likely to strike during your 40s and beyond.
Declining gut health and issues related to improper digestion are tied to the kinds of inflammation-related autoimmune conditions that hit women during middle-age. Stoler says a lack of dietary fiber is part of the problem. “The typical American eats less than 10 grams of fiber a day, when the recommendation is for 20 to 30 grams,” she says. When it comes to fruit, raspberries are fiber champs. A cup packs 8 grams, according to the USDA.
Legumes are also loaded with fiber, Stoler says. While all beans are all good sources, the Mayo Clinic says lentils and split peas are tops when it comes to digestion-aiding fiber.
Research from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute links carotenoids like beta-carotene to lower rates of many cancers, and breast cancer in particular. That makes foods loaded with these healthy antioxidants great additions to your diet. Any red, yellow, purple, or orange vegetables—as well as dark leafy greens—are going to be packed with carotenoids. But orange carrots and canned pumpkin are beta-carotene superstars.
Along with beta-carotene, a dietary antioxidant called lycopene also seems to be a potent cancer-fighter, according to a study in the International Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment. Red-hued fruits and vegetables—tomatoes, but also watermelon, papaya, pink guava, and red bell pepper—are all good sources of lycopene. Cooking tomatoes may help your body absorb more of their healthy antioxidants, says research in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
No one is telling you to go nuts with bread. But modest amounts of healthy whole grains—the “sprouted” kinds that contain the grain’s entire bran, germ, and endosperm—are one of the few good dietary sources of tocotrienols, a type of vitamin E that may lower your risk for age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. “The NIH is also looking at tocos for stroke prevention,” Stoler says.