Ask any woman over 40 years of age and most will agree: it’s just not like it used to be when it comes to managing weight. About 90 percent of perimenopausal and menopausal women experience some weight gain, averaging 12 to 15 pounds between the ages of 45 and 55. Weight gain after 40 is associated with increased amounts of fat around the midsection, frequently resulting in increased breast size as well. A major concern for all women who face weight gain during this period is the risk of chronic disease— including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke—which increases dramatically with weight gain.
Age and Hormone Changes Each Play a Role
Beginning at about age 30, a woman’s metabolism rate begins to decrease due to natural loss of muscle mass and deterioration of physical ability. This metabolic rate decrease, combined with hormonal changes, which generally begin after 40, creates a perfect storm of weight-gain potential.
When a woman’s body slows down or stops production of estrogen in the ovaries, fat cells increase to produce another type of estrogen. Fat cells burn fewer calories than muscle cells, resulting in a decrease in metabolic rate, which in turn leads to more weight gain. In addition, out-of-balance estrogen levels can lead to an increase in insulin, which can increase hunger and body fat. For individuals who develop insulin resistance, there is an increase in inflammation, and more calories are stored as body fat. Finally, decreased estrogen can result in sleep disturbances, which can cause fatigue and lack of energy; this often makes it harder to be active and increases the desire to snack.
Other hormone levels change, too. Testosterone, which helps women produce and maintain muscle mass, can decrease with age, decreasing metabolic rate in yet another way. The drop-in estradiol increases the appetite and deregulates hunger and satiation signals.
Lifestyle Changes Can Make a Difference
Although the physical changes women experience during this time of life are inevitable, weight gain does not have to be. We can challenge ourselves to be more active and healthier, making lifestyle changes, including those listed following, to help us maintain a healthy weight.
When working toward weight loss, accept realistic goals, which, depending on your unique body type, might average two to four pounds per month. As you make a plan, keep in mind that cutting back to a reduced calorie range you can’t sustain over a long period of time is precisely the wrong way to approach long-term weight loss and maintenance. Studies at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, showed that repressed levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, increase hunger after dieting, making maintenance of weight loss very difficult.
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Instead of dieting, aim for slower, more-consistent weight loss by eating in a healthy, sustainable way. This long-term approach will help decrease further muscle-wasting, which in turn slows the metabolic rate and can cause you to regain the weight you’ve lost. For most women who are moderately active, eating 1,400 to 1,600 calories per day will maintain a healthy weight.
To maintain a healthier, lower weight and to assist in weight loss when necessary, bump up your exercise. After the age of 40, women should strive to double the Center for Disease Control’s recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. Include cardiovascular activity for calorie expenditure and heart health as well as strength training to increase muscle mass, which will help boost the metabolic rate. While you may need to work up to it, an hour most days of the week is a prescription for success.
Along with exercise, maintaining a healthy diet can be a major step toward weight loss and maintenance at this time of life. Aiming for a daily range of 1,400 to 1,600 calories is ideal. Limiting the empty calories in refined sugars (sweets) and alcohol to no more than 700 calories per week is a big first step.
Consider a glass of wine or a small dessert a special once weekly treat, rather than a daily indulgence, and strive for a healthy diet low in refined carbohydrates (white food). Eat whole grains, which keep you full longer and decrease your risk of chronic disease, in controlled quantities: four to six carbohydrate servings of whole grains are adequate for most women and help maintain a healthy weight. Bump up the volume of your fruit and vegetable intake, as well. Three fruit servings per day and unlimited vegetables will not only improve your health but also bulk up your meals and snacks without adding unwanted calories. Instead of two cups of pasta, have one cup of whole grain pasta with one cup of steamed veggies.
Grilled Summer Vegetables with Balsamic Vinaigrette
4 small zucchini, cut lengthwise
1 red onion, sliced into rounds
2 yellow summer squash, thinly sliced
2 firm-ripe tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices
½ pound asparagus spears, trimmed
2 Portobello mushrooms, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 red or yellow bell peppers, cut into thin slices
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Place chopped vegetables in large bowl. Add remaining ingredients; mix well with hands to evenly coat all vegetables. Grill for 5 minutes on each side. Check frequently to avoid burning. Transfer to serving platter.
Note: May be made ahead of time and served at room temperature. Use leftovers in sandwiches or salads. Makes 6 servings