If you miss the days when you could buckle down on diet and exercise to drop a few unwanted pounds within a reasonably quick period of time, you’re not alone. Older adults, especially women, face physiological changes that can promote weight gain and, even worse, muscle loss. I know, Talk about a midlife crisis.
Once women reach 40, their likelihood of becoming overweight or obese sharply rises. In fact, about 68 percent of women aged 40 to 59 are overweight or obese–a 17 percent increase compared to women between the ages of 20 and 39–according to data from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)). Hormonal changes may be to blame, researchers suggest.
Everyone has some subcutaneous fat but the dangerous fat is the visceral fat that hides in-between your organs. Visceral or “deep” fat wraps around the inner organs and spells trouble for your health. How do you know if you have it? If you have a large waist or belly, of course you have some visceral fat but if your stomach protrudes and is tight too the touch, it could be a sign of visceral fat. Visceral fat drives up your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even dementia.
Visceral fat is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance which boosts risk of diabetes more than other fat. It’s not clear why, but it could explain or partially explain why visceral fat is a bigger health risk.
A large study conducted by the International Menopause Society found that hormonal changes in women alter the way the body distributes fat in the body, making it more likely to accumulate in the abdomen as visceral fat. Visceral fat worsens existing hormonal changes by acting as an endocrine organ itself, pumping out hormone-like compounds that increase inflammation and the risk of insulin resistance related to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Another study from the Mayo Clinic investigated what was going on at the cellular level during menopause by comparing fat tissue of pre- and post-menopausal women. They found the two enzymes that work to produce and store fat were more active in the postmenopausal women, increasing their risk of having a higher body fat percentage (3).
How to battle the middle-aged spread?
Exercise intensely. Engaging in exercise, especially resistance training at high intensity, helps stimulate muscle growth, which in turn boosts metabolism and burns fat. Studies show that physically active women who enter menopause are leaner than sedentary women and have a decreased risk of developing metabolic disease (4). What’s more, postmenopausal women who exercise daily maintain their weight while those who have lower activity levels have been found to have increased body fat, mostly around the midsection (5).
Eat a balanced, protein-rich diet. What you eat can also influence midlife weight gain. A study with 17,000 postmenopausal women assigned to either a control or a diet group (who were encouraged to eat healthy, balanced meals) found that those in the diet group had less severe menopause symptoms and were three times more likely to have lost weight (6).
A diet lacking essential nutrients and high in refined carbohydrates and empty calories will accelerate the aging process including age-related weight gain. Instead, eating a balanced diet with the right amounts of high-quality protein can stimulate muscle synthesis and boost metabolism, turning the scale in your favor.
Hold on to muscle. Loss of muscle is a common result of the aging process with women losing about 1 percent of their lean body mass per year after age 40 if they aren’t physically active (7). Because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, a muscular body composition burns more calories and uses fat tissue for fuel rather than stored energy. Eating a protein-rich diet and engaging in muscle-building exercise helps establish a healthy balance of fat and lean body tissue in the body.
Get quality sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, up to 61 percent of postmenopausal women have issues with falling asleep or getting enough quality sleep most nights . A major reason for this loss of sleep is due to instances of hot flashes. Hot flashes can disrupt sleep because body temperature drastically increases, leading to discomfort and waking. Consequently, lack of sleep has been associated with increased levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and decreased levels of the satiety hormone, leptin, leading to overeating and weight gain.
To improve sleep quality, it’s best to avoid caffeinated beverages before bedtime, follow a regular sleep routine, and exercise during the day. If sleep issues still persist, it’s best to see your doctor for further guidance.
Make sure to get enough fiber. Middle-aged women commonly face gastrointestinal changes caused by fluctuations in hormones that lead to bloating and sluggish intestines. These feelings can affect appetite and energy level–two important aspects of staying on track with diet and exercise goals. To support bowel health, drink plenty of water throughout the day and eat sufficient amounts of fiber. In addition to getting fiber from whole grains, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, supplement your diet with extra fiber to reach the recommended 25 grams per day.
While there may be additional challenges when trying to lose weight midlife , sites like www.SummerBodyNow.com can provide you with the tools to alter your lifestyle and reach your weight-loss goals. They specialize in coaching over 40 men and women through diet and exercise programs individually designed for your unique situation and body type.
Take your health into your own hands and make 40 and above feel like 30 all over again.
- Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Curtin LR, et al. Prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States, 1999–2004. JAMA. 2006;295(13):1549-1555.
- Davis SR, Castelo-Branco C, Chedraui, et al. Understanding weight gain and menopause.Climacteric. 2012;15(5):419-29.
- Santosa S, Jensen MD. Adipocyte fatty acid storage factors enhance subcutaneous fat storage in postmenopausal women. Diabetes. 2013;62(3):775-82.
- Sternfeld B, Dugan S. Physical activity and health during the menopausal transition. Obset Gynecol Clin North Am. 2011;38(3):537-566.
- Sternfeld B, Wang H, Quesenberry CP Jr, et al. Physical activity and changes in weight and waist circumference in midlife women: findings from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation.Am J Epidemiol. 2004;160(9):912-922.
- Kroenkw CH, Cann BJ, Stefanick ML, et al. Effects of a dietary intervention and weight change on vasomotor symptoms in the Women’s Health Initiative. Menopuase. 2012;19(9):980-8.
- Paddon-Jones D. Lean body mass loss with age. Abbott Nutrition websitehttp://images.abbottnutrition.com/ANHI2010/MEDIA/14-110th AN Conf Paddon-Jones Final.pdf. Accessed march 31, 2014.
- Menopause and sleep. National Sleep Foundation website.http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/menopause-and-sleep. Accessed March 31, 2014.
- Heitkemper MM, Chang L. Do fluctuations in ovarian hormones affect gastrointestinal symptoms in women with irritable bowel syndrome? Gend Med. 2009;6 Suppl 2:152-167.