Hormones and weight gain after 40 | why nutrition matters even more now

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.

hormones and weight gain

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! 



  1. it’s interesting you say RETHINK THE DRINK.
    Ive struggled a LITTLE less than friends on all this (Im only 44 though) and I wonder if it is because I never drink?
    That said Ive completely noticed what you say: Im not willing to exercise more (or a lot –but thats a personal issue :0)) so it is imperative now for me to feel as good as I did 10 years ago I eat NOT LESS BUT SUPER CLEAN.

    thankfully it’s how I feel the best anyway.
    Miz recently posted…Life balance: not easy but necessity (guest post)My Profile

    • I wonder also if it’s because you had a very good muscular basis coming in to your 40’s?
      It’s so much harder to build muscle at this point than it is to retain what you already have?
      And you’re an amazing eater! (minus the raw fish 😉 )

  2. Ah, yes the joys of getting older, where keeping that visceral adipose at bay gets trickier and trickier… Great article, Tamara. Hope your achilles is healing up. I’m sure that must be very frustrating.
    Carrie Rubin recently posted…Are Blogging And Writing Progress Mutually Exclusive? Update #2 From An AWOL BloggerMy Profile

    • But aging is not all bad, is it? I love how free I feel in my own skin and how much I realize most things don’t really matter to my overall happiness! Achilles is still bugging me; I may need to think about a long term change in my teaching. Frustrating yes, but also perhaps the push I’ve needed to launch a big idea I’ve been thinking about for awhile…

  3. UGH!!!! I wish there was a magic pill to eating…..but I know there isn’t and I do believe what I have read 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. We (as a society) just eat too much, love our social drinks, and indulge in the sweet treats more than we should. Thus “Muffin tops” or “Pear bottoms” (as in my case) are being seen more and more.

    Then I also have been dealing with some IBS issues. I tried coconut milk recently and that ran through me like a river and too many veggies can be baaaad for this girl so again back to moderation. 😉
    Kathy recently posted…RANDOM!!!My Profile

    • Kathy, are the IBS issues new to you? Or something that you’ve had to work around for your whole life?
      I hadn’t hear the term ‘pear bottom’ before; I’m trying to picture it…

  4. Great post Tamara! At my young age of 45, yes, I’ve definitely noticed changes and I’m happy to say I’ve been successful at keeping the weight gain to next to nothing. My tip? Stay active, minimize/manage stress and follow your tips 🙂
    Jill @ Fitness, Health and Happiness recently posted…Principles of Healthy EatingMy Profile

    • Yes! Stress is a huge component of mid-life weight gain; in particular central adiposity. I’ll be talking about that in part 4 of this series; lifestyle issues! Have a great weekend!

  5. Best thing you have written here yet. Excellent! Eliminating or just minimizing alcohol, grains, and dairy, for either gender, into early mid-life has a profound effect on losing body fat. I have seen it, and I have lived it.
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted…Bombs away…My Profile

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment Roy. I’m still amazed at how many people want to argue about being able to eat what they want and still maintain a lean physique (I had a Twitter convo this morning to just that effect).

  6. Great article. Honestly it was like I hit 40 and overnight everything changed. Luckily I love exercise (especially strength training). gave up sugar and started being carb picky many years ago. It’s made the transition a little less painful but I most definitively have to work harder and watch my diet a lot more than I use to.

    I thought milk was suppose to be good for weight loss? At least that’s what the milk people tell us…
    mommy oustide recently posted…Hurry and Save 50% off Thank You Cards at tinyprints today only! (affiliate)My Profile

    • Sounds like you’ve figured out what works for you!

      I think that the jury is out on milk and milk products. Some people develop an intolerance that leads to bloating. Others like their dairy in the form of high fat cheese (too many calories!). I’ve also read recently that whey (even in powder form) triggers a surprisingly large insulin response, which of course, contributes to fat storage…

  7. I am 42 and had to minimize grains and eliminate dairy. it isn’t just about losing the belly for me. it allows me to have consistent and good energy that I couldn’t get to otherwise. As far as the alcohol, I might have a glass or two one a month but that is it. My body just doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to. It just isn’t worth it and my two young children are not forgiving if mommy doesn’t feel so great the next day lol
    Stephanie Robbins recently posted…Total Training 4th of July SaleMy Profile

    • Stephanie, I totally agree! There’s nothing worse than not being able to participate in family life because you had ‘too much fun’ the evening before… Glad to hear that you’ve round something that works for you! Happy weekend!

  8. Love this post, such important information. Have a great weekend, Tamara!
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted…Scenes from the weekMy Profile

    • Thanks Laura! I love getting back to my ‘research’ roots! Have a fabulous weekend yourself!

  9. I’m glad you are doing more posts on the hormone issues.
    Great tips here – even though I fail epicly at a couple of them (I like to have a cocktail at night!!).
    I do move more, though and so far it is working pretty well.
    Kim recently posted…300My Profile

    • Kim, thanks so much for checking out the post. I find the whole subject of hormones and food just fascinating! I do think that having a history of fitness makes it easier to deal with the challenges of our 40’s…

  10. You are right on about this Tamara!!! I was already doing everything experts say when I hit perimenopause in my later 40’s. I did have to eat cleaner than I already was eating…I had allowed bagels as part of my life & even a couple a day.. replaced with healthy breads… had to change out certain healthy foods for different healthy foods… It just got harder & harder & still in my mid 50’s having to make choices to change things up still… I not only eat a lot less calories than I did in my late 40’s & early 50’s BUT the intensity of my workouts are still there – it is a hard time of life! 🙂 I don’t eat minimal calories since I was at 2200+ when this all hit but it is a lot less than what I was used to.. I had to make small changed along the way…. kept at it & still making changes…. I am not willing to eat as clean as Carla! 😉
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Healthy Eating on the Go -GoStak GIVEAWAY!My Profile

    • And I would think that you started perimenopause in the best place possible Jody; with lots of lean muscle mass. It’s just so much harder to put it on later in life (and I know that you work hard to keep it!)

    • I really appreciate this comment. I’m 45 about to hit 46. I’d always been fit and eaten healthy. I started eating clean back in my 30s and still peri menopause has hit me hard. My breasts are engorged sometimes to the point that coats and shirts can’t button. My waistline is up from 27 inches at 40 years old to 36 inches at 44. I went to multiple doctors for thyroid and everything else. Bottom line my progesterone was off. I fasted for a month and got my waist down to 30. I Cut back on cardio and increased strength training and I bust my butt daily at it doing workouts my husband can’t even do and I’ve only been able to barely maintain 32 waist. And it’s not muscle. So what gives? These days I try to eat and workout for health and try not to get discouraged. I also wonder just how bad off I’d be if I didn’t eat clean or workout like I do. It’s a scary thought for me. Is anyone else dealing with this?

  11. Thanks for all the time and research into this topic. Even though I run, eat a vegan diet with few processed foods, I can feel challenged to keep my weight where I want it to be. For me, it is usually portion size creeping up, so that is what I address first.
    Debbie @ Live from La Quinta recently posted…Food for Fitness Friday: Vegan Recipe & a Fast and Furious WorkoutMy Profile

    • Portion size kills me too Debbie. It’s amazing how quickly it can ‘creep’ up if you’re not attentive! Especially if you eat out at restaurants…

  12. I eat good (healthy breakfast, salad for lunch, dinner some carbs), I plank and I run! Boy have I been running a lot lately. Stupid muffin top just won’t freaking go away.

    While I am noticing tiny changes eating more clean lately. Wheat bloats me. Thinking of trying paleo. This mid section is driving me Crazy!!!!
    Christine recently posted…I Can’t Find my Brilliant Run cuz…My Profile

    • I hear you Christine. My body responds almost instantly to bread and the like. And not in a good way. LOL!
      Have you talked to Kerri O about her paleo experience? She guest posted on my site awhile ago and had some great things to say about it!

  13. I definitely like research terms, I CAN button up my favorite jeans, and I definitely can NOT eat as I did in my 20s. Here’s my helpful tip: Put veggies and fruit into a morning smoothie. You’ll get a big start on your daily produce needs and be filled up.
    AlexandraFunFit recently posted…6 Practical Fitness Tips for Older AdultsMy Profile

  14. This is a great great post! I turned 38 in January and can already tell a difference in how my body reacts to the foods that I eat or when I don’t work out consistently. I still notice changes that are coming on pretty fast….:) My cravings are completely different from what they were even 2 or 3 years ago!
    It makes you really want to freak out about it, but reading things like this does make me feel better and it also makes me feel…..”normal” I mean some days you feel like you are going to come out of your skin and then other days you just want to walk into the kitchen, pour chocolate syrup over the entire refrigerator, and eat it. 🙂 But the cool thing is that finding balance is possible! 🙂
    Brandi recently posted…Embrace WednesdayMy Profile

    • Brandi, it’s great that you’re figuring all of this out now, before the real hormonal changes start. In my opinion, coming into this time of your life with solid eating and workout habits is half the battle. Try and build as much muscle as you can now, before natural processes start to make it even more difficult…

  15. The missing piece for me is remembering to keep that darn food journal! I read a tip that said to track only the non-“healthy” foods as those are the key ones that we tend to overlook and understate. Maybe I’ll start there so as not to be overloaded with yet another task. For the record, 40 is still YOUNG! That menopot gets more challenging in one’s 50s.
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Abs Exercise for Older Adults: No Head or Neck Strain with this No-Crunch MoveMy Profile

  16. Great list and one that everyone should print and put on the refrigerator. No matter how many times you say you’ve heard it all before, you should have it you need it most.
    Glenn recently posted…Talk To The Hand For Portion ControlMy Profile

  17. I am so in this stage of life. For some reason, hitting 40 was not such a big deal, I actually got in the best shape of my life that year. 43 was a really rough year with illness and injury. Half way through 44, my health is back on track, but my fitness has not been consistent. I love my blogging, but I need to move more and blog less.
    Jenn @comebackmomma recently posted…Helpful Tips for Yoga Mat SelectionMy Profile

  18. I turn 60 in two months. I have weighed the same since high school (currently 128) and can still wear the same clothes. Yes, I have had a baby. Yes I work out. Yes I lift weights and run, and cycle and swim and do yoga and eat well but allow myself beer and wine and dessert. It’s really not that hard. Don’t buy junk so you don’t eat junk. Pack your lunch when you go to work (IF you DO go to work!) I think too many women are at home all day, or are out to eat with their friends who say “it’s OK to have that brownie, we can walk it off later” …and you don’t. Work hard at your job and do something for others – clean a cat shelter, volunteer at your local elementary school, take meals to old people who can’t get out of the house, walk your neighbor’s dog!!! Move. Eat smart. Play hard. Make it a lifestyle and quit obsessing over it. You don’t obsess about brushing your teeth, right? You don’t write about that…so make your workouts just another part of your boring life and guess what? No weight problem!

    • Cheryl, that’s fantastic! I love to hear about people who’ve figured out what works for them and can stick with the plan long term.

  19. Being almost 52 and a late to running convert, I can attest to how hard it is to gain muscle. Top off the fact that my stomach muscles have been cut by three C-sections (two vaginal deliveries, also) and getting abdominal muscles to show tone is particularly hard. Great information in this!!!! Thank you!
    Nicki recently posted…Training Is ComingMy Profile

  20. You’ve got a terrific site here most certainly done good job

  21. Is it too late to want to get fit/healthy at 42? Is it doable? I know its a tough road but I’ve hit the wall and am ready to put some effort into my health 🙂

    • Never too late Jodie! And now is always better than later 🙂
      How can I help?

      • Thanks Tamara 🙂
        My struggle is planning and sticking with it. I can’t afford a gym membership so it will have to be dvds and walking, and I’m ok with that. Its just getting started and making time for ‘me’. I did enjoy your online bootcamp you did last year and I’d like to pull those exercises out again.

  22. I’m ready to put myself first for awhile and get healthy/fit..,can I be successful at 42?

  23. Thank you so much for posting this. I think I innately understood this about nutrition because I have experienced it. However, it is so validating to hear from someone who’s actually done the research how important clean eating is during this season of life! I am almost 45 and have been looking over my shoulder, waiting for the belly fat monster to overtake me. So far I’ve escaped unscathed, because I work really hard to stay ahead of it by eating well. I DESPERATELY hope that what I’m doing now will allow me to finish peri and get through menopause without the legendary muffin top!
    Cassye recently posted…Healthy Comfort Foods: Recreating Foods From Your ChildhoodMy Profile

  24. I was reading through these. I’m 37 and suffered two stress fractures last year. I’ve had no estrogen for 5 years which caused the fractures. No doctor informed me until last year how bad the lack of hormones was for me. What’s interesting about my injury experience is that I gained some weight, 10-15 lbs even though I wasn’t putting as much stress on my body and I do eat really well. In fact, I probably don’t eat enough. I have yet to figure out the right combination to let me lose this weight. It’s all in my stomach and love handles. Neither of which I had before my injury even with the low estrogen. I don’t get it.
    Megan @ Skinny Fitalicious recently posted…15 Healthy Cinco De Mayo RecipesMy Profile

    • Megan, when you say ‘no estrogen’ I’m assuming you mean estrogen produced by your ovaries? Once ovarian function declines (usually due to menopause, but also when a woman has a hysterectomy) fat cells in the belly and thighs are encourage to increase to pick up the estrogen ‘slack’, so to speak. As you know, these are often the hardest areas to shed fat. Have you had your thyroid checked? Or seen a nutritionist? That would be my recommendation. Sometimes all it takes is a little ‘tweak’ to the diet (assuming hormones are in check) to see progress. And are you lifting weights? They will definitely help with increasing your BMR…

      • Thanks for your response Tamara. According to the blood work, my ovaries are capable of producing estrogen. I was diagnosed with HA. My body was under too much stress and not producing enough estrogen. I was also on a low estrogen birth control for 8 years. They changed my birth control to a higher dose estrogen and that brought things back to normal. I did see an endocrinologist who confirmed my thyroid is fine. I have no seen a nutritionist. I do lift weights 3-4 times a week. Since my 20s I’ve been good about lifting and I lift very heavy. I’m concerned that it may not be my diet. It may be the cardio stress on my body. Unfortunately no doctor can really evaluate this and tell you if you’re doing too much. I do about an hour of cardio a day. I used to do more prior to my injuries.
        Megan @ Skinny Fitalicious recently posted…WIAW…Soul FoodMy Profile

        • I do wonder about the volume of cardio you’re doing… The latest research suggests that longer bouts of steady state cardio may actually stimulate cortisol production. High cortisol can contribute to belly fat storage, especially when estrogen is low or dominant over progesterone. My best advice would be to cut back on the cardio, make sure you’re eating enough (use a calorie calculator to figure out what your basal metabolic rate is) and pay attention to your body’s response. Be the detective and find the best solution for you!


  1. […] Part 2 in the series is now up >> Why nutrition matters ever more now […]

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