Several weeks ago, I initiated a conversation about hormones and weight gain after 40.
In that post, I highlighted the physical changes women can typically expect to face during peri-menopause and the menopause transition itself. The picture I painted wasn’t pretty and many of you wrote to say that you’ve experienced the changes I described, including muscle loss, weight gain, insatiable food cravings and a belly or ‘muffin top’ that won’t go away.
I promised to do some research and come back and share what I discovered about the effects of exercise, nutrition and overall lifestyle on the challenges we’re all facing.
Today’s post will focus on nutrition, which means we’ll be once again talking about the hormones estrogen and insulin. (And just a head’s up, they’re just as important to the upcoming posts on exercise and lifestyle change, so pay attention ).
Many (if not all) of my 40+ female clients lament the fact that they can no longer eat the way they did in their 20′s and 30′s and zip up their favourite jeans. Gone are the days when a weekend of pizza, chips and beer had no effect on your body come Monday morning.
We’ve already touched on the primary reasons why people (both men and women) tend to gain weight as they age, but decreased physical activity and loss of muscle mass are only part of the story.
For women entering their peri-menopausal years, the frequently-observed increase in ‘middle of the body adiposity’ is directly tied to lower estrogen levels.
Estrogen is a most interesting hormone. In our reproductive years, it initiates breast development and helps to maintain pregnancy and kickstart the development of fetal organs.
Evidence from animal models tells us that estrogen also plays a role in
- feeding behaviour (estrogen-depleted mice consume significantly more food than their ‘normal estrogen profile’ counterparts)
- the uptake of lipids from the circulation (lower estrogen levels result in greater lipid uptake and ‘middle of the body’ fat storage)
- the development of insulin resistance (recall that insulin’s function is to remove excess sugar from the blood; when you become resistant to the effects of insulin, your body stores that excess sugar as fat)
- physical activity and energy expenditure during physical activity (estrogen-depleted mice move less and burn fewer calories while engaged in ‘exercise’ than ‘normal estrogen profile’ mice)
“Eat more, move less” is almost always a recipe for weight gain, regardless of whether you’re “mice or (wo)man”!
So, what does this all have to do with nutrition? How can we take this information about hormones and turn it into a plan for counteracting their effects on mid-life weight gain?
The following list will be familiar to you if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile (And if you haven’t, take a minute and enter your email in the box at the top right to get an alert every time I publish a new post. Alternatively, you can also follow my blog on Bloglovin’; click on the ‘Follow this Blog on Bloglovin’ box, midway down the right sidebar)
It’s based on the premise of clean eating. With a little tough love. If you’re serious about losing or maintaining weight through the menopause years you can’t keep eating the way you have been and expect to see any changes in your body.
- eliminate processed foods and added sugar. Without estrogen around to help you out, excess dietary sugar will be transformed into fat, in particular, belly fat. The high sodium count in most processed foods will also lead to water retention which only contributes to that puffy look.
- pay attention to serving size. Educate yourself about what a serving of lean protein looks like. Do the same for grains and healthy fats. Weigh or measure portions until you can do it on your own. Given that energy expenditure during exercise can decline with estrogen levels, keeping your calorie count in check is more important now than ever.
- notice how you feel before, during and after a meal. Keeping a food journal is always helpful when trying to lose weight, but even more helpful when you’re experiencing food craving and lack-of-estrogen feedback about satiation. Pay attention to your trigger foods and learn about your body’s response to carbohydrates.
- re-think that drink. Alcohol is a sugar and your body metabolizes it as such. Still can’t give up your weekend wine binge? Don’t expect to lose your belly bulge.
- experiment with reducing grains and dairy. I’m not suggesting that you ‘go paleo‘ here or jump on the gluten free bandwagon. However, many women find that reducing their consumption of these two food groups helps with both overall weight loss and abdominal fat loss. Grains, in particular, will raise blood sugars and trigger an insulin response. Remember to journal your ‘experiment’; it’s the only true way you’ll have of knowing whether this strategy works for you.
- embrace vegetables. They’ll fill you up (dietary fibre for the win!) and help ensure that you get the calcium and magnesium you need to help offset age-related losses in bone density. In order to meet your daily requirement of 7 to 10 servings, make sure you’re adding a veggie or two to every single meal.
[Here's where I remind you that I'm NOT a registered dietician or nutritionist, so my suggestions are based on MY OWN research and the strategies that I've found to work for MYSELF and MY clients. Remember that there is no single diet that is better than all others for losing weight or maintaining weight loss; finding something that works for you and sticking with it over the long haul is key.]
To read the first part in this series go here >>> Hormones and Weight Gain after 40: the biology of aging
To read the third part in this series go here >>> Hormones and Weight Gain after 40: exercise for hormonal balance
Watch for parts 4 and 5; the effects of stress and lack of sleep on weight gain after 40…
Now it’s your turn. Share YOUR nutrition tips and tricks for dealing with weight gain after 40.
Anything that hasn’t worked? I’d love to hear about YOUR experiences!
Not afraid of technical terms? Want to read more on the subject? Check out the article Understanding Weight Gain at Menopause. And my own personal ‘menopause bible’, “The Menopause Book” (2009), by Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz.