Do you feel like you don’t know your body anymore? By middle age it might seem like everything you always did to take care of yourself and stay fit just doesn’t work now. Maybe you’re frustrated with your body and want to feel good about yourself again. Maybe your kids are grown and you can see retirement on the horizon and you want to have enough energy for fun activities like traveling, walking, hiking, and or playing with grandkids.
Midlife weight gain is a struggle for many women. It is often weight gain around the belly and fat in this area creates the most health risks because it is around the vital organs. Many studies have confirmed that excess belly fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. You want to avoid these health issues enjoy your freedom as you age.
When you reach midlife, it can feel overwhelming to turn things around. Maybe you want to get healthier, but even when you do make some changes you just don’t see any results. You are not alone and it is a very real struggle. Experts estimate 90% of women gain weight during perimenopause and menopause. Weight gain varies, but it is not uncommon for women to gain over 20 lbs during these years. The pounds tend to creep on slowly and by the time you realize it, you may feel like you don’t recognize yourself.
There is a lot going on in your body during the years leading up to menopause and there are physiological reasons for the weight gain. Some of the factors involved include:
1. Metabolism – Our basal metabolic rate (BMR), the amount of calories needed to keep our body going if we were to do nothing and just stay in bed all day, declines as we age. This means unfortunately as we age, we need less food than when we were younger. For every ten years older you get after twenty, you need to decrease your daily calories by about 150 calories. The bottom line is that you now need to eat less than when you were in your twenties. Some estimates say a woman in menopause should decrease her calorie intake by up to 400 kcal per day compared to when she was in her twenties.
2. Stress – Let’s face it – at mid-life and beyond we probably have more going on in our life. We may be taking care of aging parents, have more pressure and responsibility in our careers, and even have health issues of our own. Stress raises cortisol levels in your body and sends you into fight or flight mode. This rise in cortisol levels was helpful back in the stone age when we needed to run away from predators. When your body thinks it is running away from a tiger, it goes into self-preservation mode to help you run away from the tiger. As cortisol is increased all your body’s energy goes to helping you run away from the tiger and your digestion and other non-essential processes grind to a halt. Even though you are not running away from a tiger today, stress creates the same response in your body and slows your metabolism.
3. Insulin resistance – If you have been eating a typical American diet full of processed foods, sugar, and less than 5 servings of vegetables per day your insulin may not be as effective as it used to be. This means that after eating, glucose (also called blood sugar) will build up in your blood and eventually be deposited as fat. Overtime this leads to weight gain, especially around the belly.
4. Hormones – During the decade before menopause, women’s hormones begin to decline. The ovaries start producing less estrogen and progesterone in your late thirties. Declining estrogen and progesterone levels drop affect metabolism and result in abdominal weight gain. Hormone testing can be done to look at other imbalances, which may be impacting your metabolism and could be influenced nutritionally.
5. Exercise – As the years have gone by, you may have stopped some of the physical activities you used to enjoy. Your schedule may not give you time for workouts or you may have injuries which keep you from doing your favorite sports.
Despite these factors influencing weight gain for women in midlife and beyond, there are some simple changes that can make a difference.
1. More vegetables – The amount of calories we eat matters, but the quality of the calories is more important. Rather than focusing on reducing our calories as we age, we can focus on adding more vegetables into our diet. The fiber in the vegetables will help reduce blood sugar spikes and thus there will be less fat deposited in the belly area. An added and important benefit is that all of the anti-oxidants in the vegetables will also reduce your risk of developing chronic disease.
2. Eliminate sugar – This is hard, but will show results. Sugar is highly addictive and over time creates insulin resistance. As mentioned above, insulin resistance leads to weight gain around the belly. You should see a reduction in belly fat within a short time after eliminating sugar. Read all labels and stay clear of anything with added sugars.
3. Exercise more – Exercise will boost metabolism. Additionally, weight bearing exercise will raise muscle mass, which increases your resting energy expenditure (BMR). If the weight machines at the gym intimidate you, try getting some hand weights and doing a video online at home. Group exercise classes can be fun and motivating for some people.
4. Sleep – Sleep is important to metabolism and hunger. We actually feel hungrier when we don’t get enough sleep. This is because, when we don’t sleep well our “hunger hormone”, gherlin increases and our “fullness hormone” leptin decreases. The increase in gherlin makes it hard to resist late night snacking. You can do things to improve your sleep. Start a sleep routine that relaxes you before bed. This can include a bath, reading a book or meditation. Drinking a cup of herb tea can also help you fall asleep. A couple of good herbs for sleep are valerian and passionflower; valerian tea helps you fall asleep and passionflower helps keep you sleeping through the night.
5. Reduce stress – Practice stress reduction techniques like yoga or meditation. Even just taking some deeper breaths can help to reduce anxiety and alleviate stress. Try breathing in for a count of three and then hold your breath for a short time and end with a slow smooth exhale.
By taking charge of your life now and making manageable changes, you can set yourself up with healthy habits which will help prevent chronic disease, keep you at a healthy weight, and give you tons of energy to sustain your active lifestyle. Working with a nutritionist, you can identify underlying imbalances and get the support you need to adopt a personalized plan that fits with your lifestyle.
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