Nutritional strategies for midlife women | simple steps to a slimmer midsection

I struggle with food and the fact that since I have turned 42 my body seems to be gaining fat even if I weight train almost every day and I eat healthy 95% of the time.

I’m 51, peri-menopausal and only in past few months struggling with my weight for the first time since I was a teen. I have gained 12lb in past 5weeks! I’m super healthy with my diet already.

I am 44 pretty much have always worked out, some times more than others. But try to stay on a good path. As of this summer I gained the belly issue, which is driving me CRAZY.

The above are just a sampling of the e-mails I receive every week.

From midlife women who, despite exercising regularly and eating fairly well, can’t seem to shift the extra middle-of-the-body weight that all too often accompanies the fluctuating hormones of perimenopause.

Clearly, we all want to love our bellies once more 🙂

 

And there are more than aesthetic reasons for wanting to trim belly fat. The deeper layers (or ‘visceral’ fat) are linked to myriad health concerns in peri-menopausal women, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels.

Let’s leave for a moment, the possibility that their diets aren’t quite as ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ as they think (it’s still possible to have difficulty losing weight on a healthy diet) or that the exercise program they’re following isn’t precisely the one their body needs to build muscle and shed fat (remember doing more doesn’t always translate into faster progress towards one’s goals) and instead, talk about the most important places to focus their nutritional attention.

The following five strategies don’t require adhering to any particular ‘diet’ and can be implemented by simply taking the time to analyze your current way of eating (MyFitnessPal is the tool I use with my 1-on-1 coaching clients), noticing where improvements could be made and creating ‘rules’ for implementing those changes on a daily basis.

Recently, I’ve had a client lose 4% body fat, 13 pounds and 3 inches around her belly in our first two months of working together, by doing nothing more complicated than reducing alcohol, eliminating her morning ‘fancy’ coffee-shop coffee and add an extra serving of protein to her day. Not to mention going from 0 to 10+ good form toe push-ups!

She started a new exercise program as well, but I don’t believe that her short, twice-weekly strength workout has had as much impact on her physique as the nutritional changes she’s implemented; it’s always much harder to change your daily energy budget via exercise than via nutrition.

5 Nutritional Strategies for Midlife Women | simple steps to a slimmer midsection
  • Reduce added sugars

This is probably the single most important dietary change you can make (regardless of whether you’re aiming to tame your tummy or lose weight all over your body).

Midlife hormonal changes make the body more likely to store fat, in particular around the midsection. They also make it more difficult to access this stored fat as fuel during exercise. The combination of higher circulating insulin levels and lower estrogen production encourages the proliferation of fat cells in the belly. You’re not crazy if you’ve noticed a difference in the way your body responds to chocolate cake now, in your 40’s, as compared to your 20’s and 30’s.

For more discussion on the relationship between carbohydrates, insulin and fat loss you’ll want to read this post >> How to eat carbs and still lose weight

Go ahead. Eat the cake. Just not every day.

Registered dieticians recommend no more than 30 g of added sugars per day (note that if you’re using a food tracker like My Fitness Pal to analyze your diet, the daily sugar column may combine both the sugars that naturally occur in many whole foods with the sugars that manufacturers add to them; read your labels to know where your sugar is coming from).

  • Reduce alcohol

In addition to alcohol having more calories per gram (7 cals/gram) than either protein or carbohydrate (4 cals/gram), it is not used as fuel by your body and is immediately stored as fat (see the above comment about sugar). While red wine does have some health benefits, these same benefits can be obtained by eating certain fruits and vegetables.

I’ve personally noticed a big difference in my midsection by simply cutting out alcohol during the week (a habit that’s no longer serving me) and limiting myself to a glass of wine or two on Friday and Saturday nights. Moderation rather than deprivation 🙂

  • Increase protein

There are three reasons to ensure that you’re getting enough protein in midlife.

(1) Protein ameliorates the effects of carbohydrates on your blood sugar levels, keeping your body from going into fat storage mode.

(2) Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, thereby keeping you feeling fuller for longer and reducing cravings for starches and sweets.

(3) Protein is required to build muscle. Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active. More muscle means a higher metabolic rate, thereby allowing you to burn more calories (estimates range from approximately 50 to 100 calories per pound of muscle each day), even while at rest.

Note that the standard RDA recommendation of .8 gram per kilogram lean body mass per day may not be enough to have a significant effect on weight loss, especially if you’re also training for strength.

Personally, I prefer to set daily protein goals based on macronutrients in my diet. I aim to get 30% of my daily calories through protein, although I’ll be the first to admit that 135 grams of protein isn’t always easy to pack into 3 meals and 1 or 2 snacks.

Struggling for ways to increase your protein intake? Here are some suggestions >> Getting More Protein in Your Diet

  • Increase fibre

Dietary fibre is important for digestive regularity. It helps keep blood cholesterol at healthy levels. It also fills you up. Vegetables and fruits are full of dietary fibre. Not to mention the array of vitamins and minerals they provide.

Aiming for 5-10 servings of fruits and veggies per day will typically provide you with the 25 mg of dietary fibre most nutritionists recommend for midlife women.

Eat a rainbow to ensure you’re getting a broad array of micronutrients too.

  • Reduce processed grains

The more processed the grain, the lower the nutritional value. Compare the protein, fibre and sugar content of a standard piece of white bread (1 g protein, 1 g fibre, 1 g sugar) with that of a sprouted grain bread (4 g protein, 3 g fibre, 0 g sugar). Given the above discussion on the effects of sugar, fibre and protein on middle-of-the-body weight gain, the choice should be obvious. Choose brown over white whenever possible.

Some women find that their bodies no longer tolerate grain-based starchy carbohydrates the way they did in their 30’s. Try substituting sweet potatoes, squashes, beans and pumpkin for breads, cereals, pasta and rice. It may take a week or two before you notice a change in your belly. Pay attention as well to your energy levels to determine whether this is an appropriate choice for you.

Note that this doesn’t mean you won’t ever eat a bagel or enjoy a piece of warm, French bread every again. Only that you’ll need to monitor the effect of these ‘indulgences’ on your body and decide how frequently to include them in your nutrition plan given your health and fitness goals.

Caveat:  Know your own body well enough to be able to distinguish between a ‘little belly bloat’ and a more serious, persistent health condition. A swollen or distended abdomen may be an indicator that there’s more than imbalanced hormones going on. See your primary care physician and tell them about your concerns sooner, rather than later.

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Comments

  1. I LOVE my fancy coffee in the morning! I do one pump instead of the four that come with it and will use almond milk instead of regular but I know I shouldn’t drink it as much as I do. Do you suggest artificial sweeteners over pure sweetness like maple syrup to help reduce sugar. I know everyone has a view on this and I go back and forth.

    • Personally, I’m not a big fan of artificial sweeteners. My preference is to slowly reduce your desire for sweet by weaning yourself off the sugar you add to your coffee, bit by bit. Change your palate and you’ll suddenly find many things too sweet and as a by-product, have dramatically reduced the sugar in your diet.

  2. This is excellent advice. I do think the ability to do those toe pushups counted for something, though! Good on her!

  3. Great post! Thanks Tamara, turned 40 a couple months ago.

  4. (One of) My issue is that I get bogged down in the numbers when I try to food track. I enjoy eating less because I’m constantly micromanage my food when I track. BUT when I don’t track, I know that I’m not getting enough protein and fiber.

    I’m having a hard time finding the middle ground between tracking the numbers, but not letting them control me.

    • Thea, one of the approaches I frequently use (to great success) with clients, is exactly the middle ground you’re looking for. I have them track for at least 10 days. We then summarize, observe and assess and set up a few small changes to their daily menu. In doing so, we create two or three template menus for each of breakfast, lunch and dinner. They track for another few weeks, until they’ve got it down and no longer need to think when it comes to meal time. Some take longer than others to get to this point. And then re-visiting it every few months (or after vacation or illness) to get back on track. Please ask if you need some help with this in our Facebook group. I’d be happy to give some more guidance.

  5. Jen Forton says:

    I love this article. I’m 45 and for the first time ever I’m dealing with love handles. I now walk at least 12,000 steps and follow Weifht Watchers… it’s a slooooow process.

    • Thanks for commenting Jen. Sounds like you’re doing everything right. Including being aware that it all takes time. I think that last bit is the hardest for most of us 🙂

  6. This type of article leaves me with mixed feelings. When I read that a client lost 13 pounds and 3 inches in such a short time just by cutting out alcohol and coffee and adding in some more workouts, I become even more frustrated that I already am. What would you tell someone like me who doesn’t drink alcohol or fancy coffee, who has already eliminated grains and sugars, who works out 5 days a week and is not seeing the results?

    • I completely understand where you’re coming from. Michelle’s results make it sound easier than it is for many of us. Probably because she was a complete beginner when she started working with me. Beginners almost always get results from making relatively small changes (although she was incredibly consistent; even with her frequent work travel).

      Without knowing anything more about you than the details you’ve given me (for example, how old are you? have you had your hormones checked? any health concerns? how many pounds overweight are you? what do your workouts look like? intensity? duration? type? when was the last time you change your workouts? how many hours a night do you sleep? is your job stressful? do you meditate? etc.) it’s difficult to say exactly what types of changes you should make to start seeing results. Have you ever worked with a personal trainer or coach? Sounds like that might be a helpful approach.

      I so wish there was an easy and universal answer. I do know, however, that the strategies I’ve shared in this post are a great starting point for many.

      • True. I realize there is no easy and universal answer. If so, “simple steps to a slimmer midsection,” is misleading and while Im truly happy for Michelle, using her as your example without explaining her backstory is like false advertising. It’s something I expect to see on the cover of a women’s magazine, not on a professional blog.

        • I’m sorry that you feel I’ve mislead my readers. I try hard to be fair and honest and purposefully avoid ‘click bait’ strategies (which is the number one reason I can’t compete with celebrity trainers and ‘big bloggers’ and am not making the big bucks 😉 ). But I do feel like the main thrust of the article is fair and true; perhaps I should have spent more time discussing Michelle’s back story. Point well taken.

  7. Tamara, This post really hits home. I’m 62- older than most of your posters. I’ve been slowly gaining back weight I lost several years ago following most of these tips. So I know it works right? But lately the weight is shifting- lots more belly fat and thicker middle. Retirement has made it harder to follow these rules- more travel, dinners out etc. but thanks for the reminder. I’ll try again!