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15 Foods You Should Never Eat After 40

Unhealthy foods can wreak havoc on your body as you age. Here's what to ease off your menu to stay in great health.

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Canned soup

You probably don’t consider soup an unhealthy food, especially since it’s so easy to pop open a can for lunch or dinner. But the canned stuff tends to contain tons of sodium, and research has shown that older people aren’t able to filter out excess sodium as well as when they were younger. “High levels of sodium in the diet can elevate blood pressure, and can also increase the risk of osteoporosis,” says registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet. Plus, “as we age, we are also more susceptible to water retention, so reducing sodium can help to reduce unwanted bloat,” Palinski-Wade says. She suggests making your own soups and freezing them in individual portions for easy defrosting, or at least selecting low-sodium canned options.

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Hot dogs

It’s time to say goodbye to those ballpark franks—as well as other highly processed meats like bacon and salami. “Processed meats are high in sodium, saturated fats, and nitrate [a preservative], all of which may have a negative impact on health,” Palinski-Wade says. High intake of processed meats has been linked with a greater chance of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stomach cancer—and we already have an increased risk of those diseases as we age. “If you do select processed meats, opt for ones made without nitrates and choose lower fat, lower sodium varieties when possible,” she says. This is the absolute best diet for women over 40.

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Barbecued or fried chicken

Unfortunately, swapping out that hot dog for fried or barbecued meat won’t do you much good. “Cooking meat at very high temperatures can increase the levels of HCAs [chemicals called heterocyclic amines] in the protein, which can be carcinogenic,” Palinski-Wade says. Some studies (although not all) have linked high consumption of fried or barbecued meat to colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. Even though research is ongoing, it’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to increasing your risk of the cancers that tend to strike older people. “Limit to one or fewer servings per week, and marinate your meat before grilling to help reduce the production of these compounds,” Palinski-Wade says. These are the 15 signs your body is aging faster than you are.

A closeup of a pile of chocolate chips cookies, shot from abovePlateresca/Shutterstock

Cookies

We all want that little treat at the end of the day, but unfortunately, settling in with a box of cookies might not be the way to do it. “Sugar in any form causes multiple changes, from our cellular membranes and arteries to hormones, immune system, gut health, and even our microbiome [the good bacteria in our gut and on our skin],” says dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. In addition to spiking insulin and inflammation, too much sugar can cause our skin to age faster through the process of glycation. “Glycation is the biochemical term for the bonding of sugar molecules to proteins, fats, and amino acids, which is a prominent feature of aging,” Dr. Bowe says. “Researchers have linked advanced glycation end products (AGEs) to hardened arteries, tangled nerves, wrinkles, and multiple disease processes.” Instead of processed sweets, reach for whole fruit. Above all, remember to avoid the foods cancer doctors never eat.

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Sports drinks

You probably know soda is bad for you, but you might mistakenly believe sports drinks are healthy—they’re not, because they contain a lot of sugar as well. “Sugary beverages are a source of empty calories and contribute a large amount of added sugar to the diet,” Palinski-Wade says. “Simple sugars not only increase weight gain, but also accelerate aging, increase inflammation, and have a negative impact on memory and learning.” Research has shown that the average adult does not need sports drinks, even when exercising—water will do just fine. Make sure to follow these 10 health tweaks you need to make in your 40s.

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Sugar-free snacks

If you shouldn’t have sugar, should you try snacks labeled “sugar-free” instead? Not quite. “Sugar-free snacks often replace sugars with artificial ingredients or added fats,” Palinski-Wade says. Although she says some naturally sugar-free and “no sugar added” snacks can have health benefits—for instance, dried prunes contain no added sugar and can benefit GI health and bones—read the labels on processed foods carefully. “Be on the lookout for foods that add large amounts of saturated or trans fat, excess sodium, or additional refined flours to replace added sugars, as these additives can have an equally negative impact on health,” Palinski-Wade says. Also, be sure to avoid the 50 unhealthiest supermarket foods.

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Almond milk

You may think avoiding dairy may benefit your health, but for older women, the calcium in dairy products helps strengthen bones to prevent osteoporosis, as approaching menopause causes loss of bone mass. Drinking a replacement “milk” may rob you of that protection. If you do chose an alternative, “make sure to choose a variety that contains fortified calcium and vitamin D to promote healthy bones,” Palinski-Wade says. “Also, avoid large amounts of added sugars in flavored almond milk, which can attribute excess calories as well as boost inflammation—and elevate blood sugar and triglyceride levels.”

Closeup view of several glass bottles filled with various types of hot sauces.Sinisa Botas/Shutterstock

Hot sauce

According to the National Institute on Aging, you should start laying off the spicy foods as you begin to enter menopause. “If you suffer from hot flashes or gastrointestional reflux [which is also more common in older adults], adding spicy foods like hot sauce to your diet is not recommended,” Palinski-Wade says. “Hot sauce can also be high in sodium, which can have a negative impact on blood pressure and bone health.” Instead, she suggests adding hot peppers, which are rich in capsaicin, a nutrient that can lower blood pressure and raise metabolism, which tends to slow with age. Here are 12 more ways to get the metabolism of a 25-year-old.

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Margarine

Swapping out butter for margarine isn’t the healthy switch you think it might be. “Some brands contain partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats,” Palinski-Wade says. “Since even just one to two grams per day of trans fats can have a negative impact on cholesterol and heart health, it’s best to avoid them.” Instead, read labels carefully, or choose plant-based oils instead. Palinski-Wade says fresh avocados are a great substitution for margarine in baking and cooking, and may help reduce intake of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Here are 13 other foods that are major bad news for your heart.

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Low-fat foods

Although you definitely want to steer clear of saturated and trans fats, don’t cut all fat from your diet. According to the American Heart Association, healthy fat (mono- or polyunsaturated) actually reduces age-related health problems, such as heart disease and high cholesterol—as well as diabetes. Plus, “low-fat” foods often make up for the lost fat with sugar. “The body needs some dietary fat in moderation to help with absorption of fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, K, and E,” Palinski-Wade says. In addition, healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in keeping the aging brain healthy. “A recent study showed that including one fresh avocado a day, which contains over 75 percent of its fat as unsaturated ‘good’ fat, may lead to improved cognitive function in healthy older adults due to increased lutein levels in the brain and eye,” Palinski-Wade says. Find out the best foods to eat in every decade in your life.

Image in close-up of raw penne pasta.Ongala/Shutterstock

Pasta

Refined and processed carbs, like pasta, pretzels, bagels, and many cereals, have a high glycemic index level. This means their high carb load rapidly spikes blood sugar, and can be a contributing factor to heart disease, weight gain, and diabetes. In addition, they’re not doing any favors for your skin. “Of all the potential dietary culprits to bad skin, refined carbohydrates rank among the highest on the list, if not at number one,” Dr. Bowe says. (Instead, eat these foods to make your face look younger.) “The effects that refined carbs have on spiking blood sugar can also increase hormones that stimulate oil production,” she says. “These hormones can even change the composition of your skin’s oil, making it more prone to acne formation,” including adult-onset acne. High-GI foods also cause the release of a hormone called insulin-like hormone growth factor 1 (IGF-1). “If you have too much of it, it can work against you by fueling the biological cascades that ramp up inflammation and lead to certain diseases such as cancer and skin disorders like acne,” Dr. Bowe says.

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Gluten-free foods

Before you turn in your white bread for a gluten-free variety, think again. Instead, swap out refined grains for whole ones. “Many whole grains containing gluten offer health benefits, such as fiber and magnesium,” Palinski-Wade says. Research shows fiber helps colon and digestive health as we age, in addition to reducing cholesterol and slowing absorption of carbs to keep blood sugar and weight down. Magnesium is an anti-inflammatory, and so may reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; it also helps prevent osteoporosis. “There is no need to remove gluten from your diet unless you have an allergy or intolerance,” Palinski-Wade says. “Focus on adding a good source of whole grain to each meal to help meet your daily fiber goals and promote a healthy gut, which is essential to a well-performing immune system.”

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French fries

As we age, our slowing metabolism simply can’t handle the extra calories that come from greasy food like french fries. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans reflect the reduced need for calories as we get older, and research has shown that energy processing in older subjects might actually be more efficient with fewer calories per day. Although Dr. Bowe says that some healthy dietary fat is needed for plump, youthful-looking skin, french fries will likely have the opposite effect. “When you don’t incorporate enough fats in your diet, you starve microbes that consume the oil found naturally on your skin and leave behind a thin antimicrobial layer of beauty-boosting fatty acids,” she says. But, “not all fats are created equal, and the fats in french fries are not good for your skin.” Instead of fried potatoes, try these 12 anti-aging foods that could add years to your life.

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Coffee ice cream

Coffee-flavored ice cream is a triple-whammy when it comes to health effects for older people: It has saturated fat, sugar, and caffeine. Java does have some health benefits. In fact, science says coffee can protect your brain from dementia. But when consumed in the form of an after-dinner dessert, it runs the risk of keeping you up at night. According to the National Sleep Foundation, older adults tend to have a harder time falling and staying asleep. For women, this can be partly due to hormonal changes as menopause approaches, and if that’s the case, the North American Menopause Society advises avoiding caffeine late in the day.

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Hamburgers

We’ve talked about how cooking over high heat may lead to cancer, but the process causes other undesirable effects as well. “When you brown the outsides of foods using high heat [such as a hamburger on the grill], it creates flavor and changes the color of the food. But in the late stages of the reaction, harmful advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed,” Dr. Bowe says. “To get a glimpse of AGEs in action, simply look at someone who is prematurely aging—a relatively young person with a lot of wrinkles, discolored skin, and a loss of radiance.” (Find out if your face is aging faster than you are.) Grilling can increase the total daily AGE intake by 25 percent compared to the average adult daily intake, she says. In addition, the University of California Berkeley says AGEs accumulate in cells with age, and are associated with not only premature aging but diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cataracts, and cancer. As for the foods you should be eating, check out the 50 healthiest foods you can buy in the supermarket.