If you've hit your 40s then this may be familiar :
Suddenly you notice your paunch in your belly.
Your clothes feel tighter.
You have less energy.
But you're confused because nothing has changed. So why has your body changed?
Google has made us experts at everything. If we need an answer to a burning question all we have to do is look it up. Therefore, most of us are "experts" at eating healthy, we know what a good and bad habits are, and we know exactly what we should do for exercise.
So why are we still getting fat?
And why is it that women over 40 in particular have trouble losing weight?
The glaring truth in that is that when we are in our 40s we are approaching menopause. Menopause, which is the halt in our periods, is a time in life that all women will experience. We tend to associate menopause with weight gain. But does menopause actually cause weight gain?
This study looked at understanding weight gain at menopause. And the conclusion was that :
"Whereas weight gain per se cannot be attributed to the menopause transition, the change in the hormonal milieu at menopause is associated with an increase in total body fat and an increase in abdominal fat".
So hormonal changes are associated with menopause. And it is these hormonal changes that are actually the cause of (at least some) of the weight gain. We tend to blame our metabolism on this. We say "oh my metabolism has slowed down". And this may be right. I say "may" because the BBC published an article recently that said actually, our metabolism does not change from age 1 to 60.
So maybe our metabolism does or does not slow down. But your metabolism can be influenced by many factors including how active you are. Because your body has a basal metabolic rate (the bare minimum of calories needed to live and do the basic things). And some important factors that influence your BMR are your activity levels (purposeful exercise and just daily movements), and these factors :
- Your sex
- Your weight
- Your height
- Your age
- Your ethnicity
- Your weight history
- Your genetic factors
- And your body composition
Which one of these can you directly influence? That's right - your body composition. Meaning, how much lean muscle mass and fat you have.
These are all clues as to why women gain weight after 40. Let's see how it all ties in together, and then, how we can do something about this.
Hormones - Estrogen & Progesterone
Hormones are your body's chemical messengers. They travel throughout your body, and tell various organs, muscles and cells to do certain things. The balance of these hormones in a body can change due to a myriad of reasons. The most known female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, get lower as we age. As they are essential for reproduction, when we get older these hormones drop, which tells our bodies to stop getting ready for babies.
Estrogen is partly responsible for the following when we approach menopause :
- It increases visceral fat. This is the fat around your organs, deep in your belly, and is considered the dangerous kind of fat to have.
- It decreases your bone density, making it more porous and susceptible to breakage.
- It decreases muscle mass, which also means we get weaker.
Hormones - Ghrelin & Leptin
Ghrelin is a hormone that signals that you're hungry and leptin signals that you're full. (If you're ever confused about which does what, think of Tummy Growling = Ghrelin).
In onestudy, ghrelin was found to be lower in perimenopause (before menopause). This made women hungrier and want to eat more.
Then in the later stages of menopause, leptin fell which meant women were not getting cues that they were full. So they'd overeat.
Reduced Muscle Mass
Sarcopenia is a condition whereby muscles degenerates, and is more common in those aged over 50. Muscle strength decreases about 3% per year after middle age. This drop in muscle strength limits the ability to do certain activities. Such as opening a jar, pushing a heavy shopping cart, carrying groceries up flights of stairs, and getting yourself up off the floor. These are all things that a body should be able to do. Feebleness unfortunately can shorten life expectancy. So with this is mind, it's imperative that muscle strength is at the very least, preserved.
When muscle mass drops as we age, this affects metabolism. Muscles need fuel, and muscles burn fat and glucose in order to be able to do things. So as muscle mass reduces, it burns less calories. And that can contribute to fat gain.
We must at all costs, preserve or increase our muscle strength as we age.
As we age, most people tend to slow down. A variety of factors could be a reason for this. If we are weaker due to loss of muscle mass, then we won't have the energy to be active. Or perhaps we have more pain in our joints which makes activity painful.
Less activity means that we are burning less calories. So if we are eating the same as before we noticed a tummy, then we are in a positive caloric balance. Which means, we gain weight.
Many women complain that as they age they aren't getting enough sleep, or the quality of their sleep is poor. Sleep is one of the often overlooked factors that is crucial to an overall positive health balance. While there are no doubt some chemical reactions that could affect your metabolism and hormones, it's quite simple to see how less sleep can make you gain weight.
It leads to feeling tired, and not having enough energy. And with less energy, we move less, have less muscle mass and - yep - gain weight.
One other factor that should be included is that the later we sleep, the more we are awake at night. And if you get the munchies after dinner, these added calories can lead to weight gain.
Many of us feel stressed at some point. Just living from day to day, dealing with family, work and health can be very stressful. When we are stressed we are in a "fight or flight mode". Your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert, and these are associated with an increase in cortisol.
The term "Stress eater" is bandied about a lot these days. When someone is feeling overwhelmed and stressed, she may reach out for food as a tool to calm her down.
Chemically, cortisol (produced in your adrenal glands) is released during times of stress (think about running away from a tiger), and causes your heart rate, blood pressure to increase. Your body is poised ready to sprint away from danger, so your digestive system is shut down. That's why you may hear that cortisol increases abdominal fat.
In Summary -
As we age, the drop in estrogen is a prime culprit for packing on body fat in the abdominals. We also lose muscle mass, we have less energy, and are less active. Our stress and lack of sleep could be factors that cause us to eat more, which are not helped by the change in our ghrelin and leptin levels which make us hungrier and want to eat more. We are in a positive calories balance which means that we are eating more than we are burning off. So we gain weight, and in particular, keep fat warmly tucked around our bellies.
How to reverse weight gain as we age?
It almost seems too simple. Move more. Eat less. But it's not that clear cut either. Because how you move and what you eat are more important. Managing your sleep and stress are also important.
As you age, the type of movement you do needs to be done with purpose. You must include the following :
This will help build muscle and get you stronger. You'll burn more calories, keep your metabolism running well, and also avoid getting feeble. You'll be strong so you'll have energy to perform daily tasks. Exercises that can be included that give you most bang for your buck are :
- Goblet Squats
- Push Ups
- Bent Over Rows
- Kettlebell swings
Increase your Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
NEAT actually burns more calories than purposeful exercise. Things like walking around, fidgeting, doing laundry, standing, all burn calories without you even thinking about it. Investing in a stand up desk is worth it as standing is a form of NEAT. Install an activity reminder such as "Simon Says" which will remind you to stand every hour to complete a short set of exercises. Don't worry, the activities are things like "Do 8 squats". Nothing over the top!
One of the easiest forms of movement, this will help increase your daily calorie burn, and also help reduce your stress, especially if you walk amongst greenery. If you can't get out, then it may be worth investing in a walking pad. These slip under your desk so that you can walk while you work on your stand up desk. It also means that regardless of the weather you'll be able to get your daily steps in. And if you need a motivation push you can always walk while catching up on netflix shows!
What you Consume
We can't ignore that the food we eat is what is causing weight gain. Fundamentally, this is the thing you should be most concerned about, and is something we can affect. It's hard, but here are the general rules.
Avoid Processed Food
Food that is closest to its natural form means that it retains most of its nutrients. When a food is processed the nutrients can be stripped away (such as in white rice and plain flour); or there are additives such as fat, salt and sugar (like crisps). These foods offer little in the way of nutrition, but they increase your caloric intake and also your insulin levels. These foods also make you hungry faster, so you're more likely to overeat.
Eat More Vegetables
Increasing your vegetable intake (especially the non starchy kinds) will keep you full because they are less calorie dense. Gram for gram, they'll have less calories than a stick of cheese for instance. They are also full of fiber, which keeps you feeling full (added bonus is that you'll be regular in your Number Two's). They are also nutrient dense, so they make a perfect choice to add to all meals.
Eat better Carbs
Carbs are so easy to eat, especially if they are processed. Stick to more whole grain, whole foods and mind the amount. A fist full is size that's simple to eyeball, to make sure you're not eating too many carbs at each meal.
Mind Your Fat
Fat has 9 calories per gram making it a very caloric dense food. Mind how much added oil/butter you add to your meal. A rule is look at your thumb. Don't eat more than that (oil used in cooking no matter how healthy counts). Your delicious almonds and avocados also need to be mindful sizes. And when looking for condiments, be mindful about how much you add. Because it's all these simple squirts of mayonnaise and ketchup which pile up those calories.
Protein is the overlooked superfood that can keep you full. That's why the Atkins diet was so successful, because it was a high protein no(zero) carb diet. Try to add protein to every meal. Great protein choices are :
- Plain yoghurt
- Lean red meat
*If you are eating plant based protein bear in mind they are also high in carbohydrates so they should count for your carb intake.
Sleep & Stress
I've combined these two because they are easily linked, and the solution can be similar for both. Stress can affect your sleep and poor sleep can make you more stressed. So they need to be targeted together. In my recent article on Sleep here, I go deep into sleep and the common ways to fix it. Plus, a few unique ways of my own.
But the generic advice that will help both sleep and stress are :
- Don't consume alcohol, food or caffeine too close to bed.
- Don't go on your devices 2 hours before bed
- Meditate during the day, or before bed
- Listen to a calming sleep story on your phone (yes I know this is a device but 10 seconds won't hurt!)
- Have a warm bath before bed with candles and calming music
- Get your exercise in
- Journal to get your worries on paper so you can forget about them
- Let it go! Don't let the stress be a hang up. Get mad about it - then quickly discard it and move on.
While it's common to gain weight past the age of 40 as we approach menopause, sometimes we can't just leave it to the Gods of Hormones and Metabolism and go "oh well, there's nothing I can do about it".
Because you can. But we tend to think that we are doing those things when in fact, we aren't. One useful thing to do is to log your food intake. You could be shocked at how much you're actually eating. All those little bites here and there really DO add up to a lot. I like My Fitness Pal because it has a wide database on foods.
So in a nutshell increase your daily fidgeting, lift weights, sleep well, log your food, don't overeat, and eat good whole nutritious foods.
Is it that easy? It can be. But the key is in keeping track of what is reality against what you THINK you're doing. Because without this data, you'll never know.
Go on - give it a try.