A lot of you have asked me to write a post about weight loss after 40. And I hear you: as much as I wish I didn’t have the same struggles right now, I totally do.
My body is changing, and it’s really weird. It all started when I turned 40, and it seems to have accelerated with each passing year.
Extra layer on my stomach? Yup. My friend Amanda Thebe, author of Menopocalypse, talks about the ‘flesh blanket’ that covers her stomach. Never was there a more accurate description of what’s happening on my midsection right now.
Weird crepey skin on my legs? Yup.
Boobs like footballs? Excuse me, but how did each of my breasts get to be the size of a toddler’s head?
Bloating ALL THE TIME? Oh yeah. What is that, anyhow? I KNOW I’m not 8 months pregnant, but why do I look that way every single day by 6pm?
It’s OKAY to notice and mourn the difference between your body now and how it was even five years ago. Hell, mine was different 5 MONTHS ago! So weird how these changes seem to happen that fast. But yes, for some of us, it’s a hard pill to swallow to see how our body is changing, even though it’s a completely normal part of life.
I just want to acknowledge that what you’re feeling is okay.
For those of you who want to lose some of the weight you’ve gained after 40, it can really feel like you’re pushing a boulder uphill. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, or that you shouldn’t try. If you’ve fallen off the rails a bit with your eating habits, I hear you!
Dieting and crazy supplements aren’t the answer (unless your doctor recommends HRT, which doesn’t fall under the ‘crazy supplement’ category but is worth a mention).
Let’s talk this through, starting with the ‘why.’
Weight gain after 40 usually happens for couple of reasons.
Your estrogen levels are taking the plunge.
As you get into your 40s and approach 50 and beyond, your hormones start to change. Estrogen levels go down, which may lead to weight gain, although experts haven’t been able to tease out the actual source of weight gain as we age.
My friend Elizabeth Ward RD, co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan, tells me this: “My co-author Hillary Wright and I believe the research is unclear about whether it’s estrogen loss, decreased activity or muscle mass loss. We, who have been through the process, have concluded that it’s The Perfect Sh*tstorm of all three combined.”
One theory around the fat-estrogen link is that because fat makes some estrogen (ovaries make most of it, though), your body tries to counteract your dropping estrogen levels by increasing your body fat, hoping that the new fat contributes some estrogen to the pot. But this unfortunately doesn’t happen, at least not enough to alleviate the situation. No matter how much fat you lay down, it’s still not going to produce enough estrogen to make your body happy. Oh hi, flesh blanket!
Recent research suggests that in the perimenopause years, our lean mass drops due to hormonal changes, while our fat mass goes up. It’s like a little body composition switcheroo.
The loss of estrogen may also decrease our metabolic rate, adding to the ‘fat gain’ part.
Lack of estrogen causes that new fat to be stored around your middle instead of in your hips and thighs, so you might start noticing your belly getting bigger and your waist disappearing. But that’s not even the worst part: visceral fat – fat around our organs, which is what we tend to put on as we age – can lead to insulin resistance and heart disease if it gets out of control.
And the horrible bloating you might be having is probably due to hormonal fluctuations causing water retention and extra gas. If you’ve already gained weight in your middle, it can make bloating seem even worse.
Low estrogen may also mess with our hunger hormones. Some research suggests that ghrelin, the ‘hunger hormone,’ may ramp up as estrogen levels dip, causing our appetite to increase. So you might find yourself getting hungry more often, especially if you’re not eating balanced meals.
Activity may be low priority.
Many people are less active as they get older. They’re busy with their kids and maybe their parents are needing more care, and work is crazy…we have all sorts of big responsibilities at this age. So yeah, workouts can be a thing of the past.
After age 30, we lose 3-8% of our muscle mass every decade if we aren’t actively building muscle. Keeping your muscle mass up helps keep your bones healthy and your body strong and lean, so it’s super important.
That being said, let’s debunk a myth here.
While you may have heard that muscle burns more calories than fat, the actual difference between muscle and fat’s caloric burn is not as much as you think. A pound of muscle burns around 6 calories a day, a pound of fat, 2 calories. Replace 5 pounds of muscle with fat, and you’re burning 20 extra calories a day.
Still, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be exercising – both for your physical, and your emotional health.
You’re eating like a 20 year old.
Women over 40 – at least the ones I know – seem to be cooking less and drinking more these days. And alcohol is a basically worthless source of calories that has also been implicated in weight gain in women over 50 (and, in my experience, at any age).
There’s also an emotional eating component to many women’s weight gain after 40.
You’re not sleeping.
Our sleep tends to suck at this age. Maybe you have young kids who keep you up at night, or you’re working like crazy and your stress level iso jacked. Or, your lack of progesterone has you lying awake for hours and then your hot flashes are waking you up all night long.
Whatever it is, when we are sleep deprived, our ghrelin levels rise and our leptin levels decrease (leptin is the hormone that helps us feel full), driving us to eat more.
How about our metabolism?
Recent research shows that contrary to what we used to believe, our metabolic rate actually stays steady between the ages of 20 and 60, at which point it goes on a slow decline. (Read my post on the study here)
So the weight gain you’re experiencing at around 40 is probably not a metabolic thing.
So what can you do?
Losing weight after 40 has four parts:
- Tweak what you eat.
It goes without saying that whole and minimally processed foods should be first on your plate. But even more than that, if you’re eating piles of carbs (especially refined and/or sugary ones), you might find that cutting them down can help prevent weight gain. Here’s a recent study about lower-carb diets helping to curtail weight gain in menopause. I’m not talking keto, I’m just talking about cutting carbs down a bit.
When you’re putting your meals together, choose the protein first. Try to get around 25—30 grams of protein at each meal, which will fill you up and help with muscle synthesis, particularly if you’re active. 25-30 grams of protein looks like this (this amazing infographic is from the Daily Burn):
And no, you don’t have to eat 100 almonds or almost 2 cups of black beans at a meal. You can cobble together protein sources to achieve that 25 gram number. Even if you get close, but don’t reach, 25 grams, that’s fine too.
Once you sort out your protein, grab at least 2 handfuls of non-starchy vegetables or salad.
Lastly, a palmful of grains or starchy vegetables like potatoes will round out your meal. And if you want one or two meals without carbs, that works.
The things you should cut down on? Booze and sugary foods and drinks, which have no redeeming nutritional value to speak of. You don’t have to stop consuming them, but cut down as much as you can. I see far too many women drinking far too much wine, and it’s a bad idea in many respects, from weight to disease risk. I want you to enjoy your life, but I also want your life to be long and disease-free. Right?
And hey: don’t listen to menopause diet gurus who recommend the elimination of things like gluten and dairy from your diet because they’re ‘toxic.’ Total garbage. And, don’t fall for unproven menopause weight loss supplements like Provitalize, that are made to target vulnerable women going through this huge change in their lives.
Incorporate weight training into your workouts as much as you can, even if it’s just using a resistance band. And find time to be active, even if you have to schedule it into your day. If you can’t reach the recommended 150 minutes of activity a week, understand that anything is better than nothing, even if it’s just a 15 minute walk at lunchtime. Exercise in combination with a healthy diet can positively impact physical and emotional health.
I know, easier said than done.
Work on your sleep hygiene, and don’t be like me, staying up after everyone else just to get some quiet alone time!! Get to bed early if you can.
4. Accept and love your body.
This is probably the most important thing of all: loving and appreciating your body. And if loving your body seems too much right now, then just being neutral about it, and understanding that with age comes changes that are driven by hormones and just the aging process in general. We all go through it, and we’re in this together.
Unfortunately, celebrities like Jennifer Lopez (I’m always picking on her) have shifted our expectations of 40+ towards an unrealistic point for most of us. And you can spend all of the time, money, and emotions you have trying to get to that point, or you can do what you can with what you’ve got and love the f*ck out of it. Weight loss after 40 isn’t about trying to be someone else. It’s about tweaking your habits and your mindset to a comfortable place for YOU.
If you are having trouble with all of this, and/or you’re finding that stress eating is a consistent issue for you, you might want to speak to someone about your feelings around your body, where those come from, and how they’re impacting your food choices and how you treat yourself.