Many women complain of weight gain, especially in the waistline once they reach their early 40’s. Now unless you have a metabolic issue, such as PCOS or hypothyroidism, women tend to speculate that the cause of excess belly fat is due to a slow metabolism or unbalanced hormones. Although that can be the cause, there are other reasons for this to occur which can be as simple as poor lifestyle habits accumulating overtime. Therefore, lack of self-care over the years related to nutrition, lack of exercise, sleep and stress will eventually catch up in what seems like overnight weight gain.
Let’s start to identify the possible causes and get down to why this could be occurring.
Women enter 3 stages of menopause: perimenopause, menopause and post menopause.
Perimenopause is the stage when a woman’s body transitions from its reproductive years to when menstruation stops. This typically begins in a woman’s early 40’s but can start as early as the mid to upper 30’s and last for years. Symptoms or side effects during this time could be irregular periods, insomnia or mood changes, weight gain, hair changes, headaches, and forgetfulness.Menopause is defined as 12 months after the woman’s last period and can begin from the mid 40’s to mid 50’s Post menopause is after menopause has occurred and are post-menopausal for the rest of a woman’s life.
As you age, your estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone decline. Estrogen levels decrease gradually over the years, the reduced estrogen levels lead to more centrally located fat deposits around the midsection which can also lead to increased risk of heart disease. Estrogen plays a role in metabolism and how you store fat, as well as increases in insulin sensitivity. The more estrogen you lose, the more insulin resistant you become,therefore, the body makes more insulin which in turn triggers fat storage.
What foods should you eat to help keep from gaining weight?
A common problem as women age is that nutrition most often remains the same as it had been in their 20’s and 30’s with little or no changes in diet. Furthermore, containing foods that are higher in sugar, filled with preservatives and fillers, processed or refined, and in the end containing more calories than necessary.
A whole foods plant centered diet is one of the most supportive food plans for women over 40. This food plan contains foods closest to nature, unadulterated and unprocessed or with added sugars, artificial flavors or preservatives and trans-fat. Furthermore, these foods have anti-inflammatory properties which could affect menopausal symptoms and weight loss. Increasing your intake of vegetables, fruits, high fiber foods like whole grains and legumes, fat free or low-fat dairy, and eliminating alcohol can have a profound impact on your overall health.
There are three macronutrients every woman needs- carbohydrates, protein and fats.
These have gotten a bad rap over the years as being the sole cause of weight gain. However, carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient for the body and we cannot eliminate them completely. Our bodies use carbohydrates for energy and help us fuel our brain and central nervous system and ultimately help us burn fat! What you eat daily impacts how much glycogen (stored carbs in the liver and muscle) is available in your body. Therefore, depending on your activity level your glycogen reserve can be used quickly, or stay in abundance. Paleo and keto diets, where carbs are quite low, are very popular currently, and in the short term can help you lose weight.However, the cost of these diets is at a high risk of headaches, constipation, and even underactive thyroid issues that can worsen overtime, and tend to be inflammatory and acidic in nature.
As a woman ages, they become more sensitive to carbs, especially the refined and processed variety, which can be detrimental to your blood sugar and metabolic levels. Insulin resistance increases when you eat refined carbs and added sugars that can contribute to increased weight gain. Therefore, white flour, white rice, and white sugar should be reduced or eliminated for the diet while vegetables, especially non starchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains increase.
2. Lean protein
They can help to support a woman’s mood, energy, drive and metabolism.Protein rich foods include chicken, egg, lean beef, nuts, fish, tofu, greek low-fat dairy, legumes, and tempeh. As you age, there is a higher likelihood for sarcopenia, the involuntary loss of skeletal muscle with age, therefore, causing an increase in protein requirement to support muscle mass and protect metabolism. The RDA recommends at least .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For women over 50, it is recommended that women consume at least 1 -1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight . For example If you weigh 140 pounds, you would need at least 63 grams of protein a day.However, this may vary based on your activity or athletic level as well as rate of absorption and digestion of food.
Healthy fats such as Omega 3 fatty acids, are important for hormones and hormones need fat! Good healthy fats are needed for hormone production, keeping blood sugar stable, and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, C, E, D).Examples include avocados, coconut, olive oil, fatty fish, nuts and seeds,
Adequate Calcium and Vitamin D are crucial for women over 40, for better bone mineral density and to prevent osteoporosis and fractures as women age. Getting enough of these nutrients through diet is important to prevent fractures and bone related issues as hormonal changes can weaken bones. Furthermore, deficiency of Vitamin D can affect the amount of Calcium absorbed from the intestine. Therefore, it is important to maintain a proper balance between the two nutrients.
Sleep and weight gain in your 40’s and beyond
One of the trickiest parts of perimenopause is understanding the intricacies of how one symptom is interwoven with another such as mood swings, hot flashes, weight and sleep. The days of surviving on 4-5 hours of sleep a night are minimal if not gone, as you might have been able to do in your 20’s and possibly 30’s.
One key function of estrogen is it promotes the accumulation of fat typically in the breast, buttocks and thighs for healthy reproductive years. Therefore, when there is a balance of estrogen hormones, there is more likely a balance of fat to help carry out proper reproductive functioning. However, lower levels of estrogen, specifically estradiol, which decrease during peri menopause and menopause can lead to weight gain primarily in the midsection. Since the ovaries are no longer producing enough estrogen, the body looks at other sources of estrogen which can be found in fat cells.
Low levels of estrogen is not the only reason for weight gain, high estrogen levels can also be the cause. Excess estrogen signals the release of insulin from the pancreas where the cells eventually become insulin resistant. With the higher amounts of sugar traveling in the blood, high blood sugar and weight gain can occur.
Another hormonal change is decline in DHEA which is produced by the adrenals. DHEA limits the effects of cortisol production and if the adrenals are working overtime, they may not produce enough DHEA, resulting in weight gain. The decline in DHEA is not just age related but can also be high stress related, commonly seen at any age.
High amounts of cortisol in your system can affect sleep which has the potential to affect weight by increasing insulin and slowing the metabolism. The adrenal glands release cortisol when you are stressed, and this increase can affect sleep and hormonal balance. A poor night’s sleep may make choosing healthier options harder and therefore result in choosing foods higher in sugars and carbs (chips, cookies, etc.). Lastly, caffeine can cause a fight or flight response increasing cortisol levels which can alter blood sugar increasing cravings.
Insulin is another hormone that can affect sleep. If we don’t sleep well, our cells can prohibit or block insulin to allow glucose back into our cells causing us to be insulin resistant or leading to diabetes! As we get older, we are more susceptible to insulin resistance. So what do we do? Reduce or eliminate periods of overeating, especially with foods rich in sugary and carbohydrates, which can lead to insulin resistance, inflammation and eventually weight gain.
The right exercise for women over 40?
Adapting changes to your exercise regimen as you age can be supportive to your health and wellbeing
With hormonal imbalances around perimenopause, estrogen levels start to decline, causing a decrease in bone density and lean muscle and an increase in body fat. One of the most important forms of exercise you can do is resistance training. The older you get the more lean muscle mass you lose, which can impede on your health as lean muscle is metabolically active. Therefore, once you start to lose lean muscle your metabolism decreases and increases the likelihood of weight gain. Strength training can help improve muscle mass due to lower estrogen levels and help burn more calories. Women tend to lose muscle density from the age of 30 onwards.
It is important for a strong and healthy cardiovascular system, but too much cardio can break down muscle tissue over time. Running and cardio can be a risk during and after menopause due to lower bone density. If you do not want to give up your endurance training, combining strength training along with endurance training is recommended.
HIIT ( High Intensity Interval Training)
It is quite beneficial for women over 40. Less volume and more intensity can be a stimulus prompting the body to build lean muscle and decrease body fat. HIIT can also fight the effects of insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of being overweight. If you are not at your strongest or most athletic, you can always start off with slower or lower impact HIIT activities – shorter intervals, longer rest periods and fewer sets.
This is also a good option to add into your workout regime. Plyometrics can stimulate muscle protein synthesis and to help build strong bones. Stronger bones helps to reduce the risk of injury and helps to build power which is important as women get older at age as they are prone to osteoporosis and lower bone density.
Gaining weight, in your 40’s or at any age for that matter can take a toll on your self esteem and self confidence but this is the perfect opportunity to set health goals for the second half of your life!
If you’re doing all the right things and your weight remains the same, make an appointment with a registered dietitian, who will help you create a customized plan to reach your goals.
When we do everything it takes to eat right, sleep well and move our bodies, we can learn to accept our bodies knowing we have done everything to keep ourselves healthy and fit. Remember, aging is inevitable and changes to your body are normal, so be kind to yourself as you enter this next phase of life