Midlife weight gain is common, but is it inevitable? The complaint I often hear from women goes something like this:
“I never used to struggle with my weight. I’m active and eat well, but since I turned 40, the weight just won’t stay off like it used to.”
For the health-conscious individual, this can feel extremely frustrating. In addition to battling challenges with negative body image, concerns with overall health related to increasing waistlines become overwhelming for women in their 40’s and beyond.
Why do women experience midlife weight gain?
A common misunderstanding is that hormones are to blame for midlife weight gain. Although the menopause-related shift in hormones contributes to the problem, lifestyle and aging play a significant role. As women age, there is a gradual loss of muscle mass or lean tissue, which is more metabolically active. Behavioral factors such as stress and the tendency to move less, sleep less, and increase alcohol and food intake also change as women reach midlife.
“But, why am I gaining all this belly fat?” Numerous studies demonstrate that the change in hormones during the menopause transition is associated with an increase in body fat and more specifically an increase in abdominal or visceral fat. This type of fat is a concern as it is related to several adverse health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers, including breast cancer. Visceral fat also contributes to increased inflammation in the body potentially resulting in insulin resistance and further weight gain. Coincidentally, dieting or restrictive eating (at any age) has also been shown to contribute to an accumulation of abdominal fat upon weight re-gain. Therefore, midlife weight gain becomes “a perfect storm” of sorts with the convergence of behavioral factors, aging, and shifting hormones.
What can women do to counteract unwanted weight gain?
Prevention is the key! Minimizing fat gain and maintaining muscle by getting back to the basics of healthy eating and regular exercise are essential for attenuating midlife weight gain. So, do we need to just “eat less and exercise more”?
- Eat Wisely. Many of the female athletes I work with don’t eat enough to begin with and their body has consequently “learned” to become very efficient with the low amount of calories eaten. Others fill up on easily-digestible, processed foods (including energy bars or highly processed powders and supplements) and wonder why they can’t lose weight with such a low intake. And others struggle with the cycle of “diet at breakfast, diet at lunch and blow it the rest of the day.” So, the message: “eat less” is often misunderstood. Instead, focus on eating wisely. It has been shown that women who were successful with weight loss and weight management goals used food journals, ate out less, and ate at regular intervals during the day. Also, eat more nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish, beans, yogurt, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and olive oil.
- Regular exercise. For the sedentary individual, the message to “move more” may be helpful. In fact, physical activity has been shown to be the single most important factor in preventing age-related weight gain. But, for the active woman, what does this really mean? Too often, I see women running, biking, accumulating “steps” and interpret this message as “just run more, bike more, and accumulate more steps” yet still struggle with weight. While there may be benefits to doing more (for training purposes) adding in a variety of activity, most notably resistance and strength training exercise, is critical for slowing the loss of lean tissue and preventing weight gain.
Midlife weight gain is complex and not easily explained by the effect of one thing, such as hormones. This is an ideal time for women to reassess their health and weight management goals with the support of a qualified medical provider or dietitian. Women can find many helpful resources and certified practitioners on the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) website at www.menopause.org.