Those jokes about middle-age weight gain suddenly don’t seem so funny now that maintaining your ideal weight has become more difficult than in your 20s and 30s. “Middle-age spread” may have packed on an additional 20 to 30 pounds, especially in perimenopausal and menopausal women, as it becomes harder to lose those unwanted pounds in the 40s and 50s. Data from the federal Women’s Health Initiative indicate that the years 45 to 50 may be the hardest in which to maintain weight because it’s not just a matter of reducing caloric intake, which is why weight management techniques that have worked in the past may no longer be working. “Weight gain is so complicated; there are so many factors that can impact your weight. It is more likely a combination of things more than just one factor,” according to Dr. Michelle May, author of Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don’t Work.
Adding Pounds in Midlife Is Not Inevitable
By Rebecca Rochat
Middle-age weight can have serious health complications such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes, all of which can put you at risk for heart disease. For women, there is evidence that weight gain during menopause increases breast cancer risk. Women who gain more than 20 pounds after menopause increase their breast cancer risk by 20 percent, while losing 20 pounds after menopause decreases breast cancer risk by as much as 23 percent.
So, what is causing this frustrating weight gain during middle age? Can anything be done to prevent or reverse it? Middle-age weight gain is often a symptom of your body simply being out of balance, not necessarily a lack of willpower or exercise. There are several conditions that can contribute to weight gain during middle age: hormonal imbalance, toxicity, inflammation, medications, aging and lifestyle factors, and even genetics. For middle-aged women especially, there is a link between hormones and weight, particularly the masking effects of estrogen. Symptoms of insulin resistance and adrenal fatigue due to lifestyle may have been developing over a period of time, but it is only after estrogen levels dip (for menopausal women) or fluctuate (for perimenopausal women) that they become noticeable. The seemingly “new” symptoms are a result of the link between insulin, metabolism, and body fat. Over time a low fat, high carbohydrate diet can lead to insulin resistance which causes the body to convert calories into fat, even on a diet.
There is also a link between stress and body fat. Prolonged periods of stress cause the body to produce the hormone cortisol, which blocks weight loss by triggering the body to refuse to let go of extra body fat. And so the combination of a typical low fat, high carbohydrate diet with a high stress lifestyle creates the “perfect storm” of hormonal imbalance. The body then attempts to maintain homeostatis by storing body fat, hence those unwanted pounds.
Toxins and inflammation are two additional factors that contribute to mid-life weight gain. By middle age, most people have had years of exposure to toxins such as pesticides, plastics, chemicals, heavy metals, allergens and other irritants which, if not eliminated, get stored in, you guessed it, fat cells. The toxic overload keeps the body from functioning at an optimum level and may also be related to digestive inflammation which, for women, often shows up during menopause due to a lack of estrogen which has soothing effect on the digestive tract. Dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance in the digestive tract, undiagnosed food allergies, yeast, and other food sensitivities can also undermine weight loss.
Aging and lifestyle factors that contribute to middle-age weight gain include a less active lifestyle, higher calorie consumption, and slower metabolism as the amount of calories the body needs for energy decreases. During middle age, body composition is comprised of more fat and less muscle which slows metabolism. Replacing fat with muscle will help compensate for slower metabolism as muscle burns more calories than fat.
Cathy Nonas, the director of the diabetes and obesity program at North General Hospital in New York, says, “There is a very subtle slowing down of the metabolism between 45 and 60. On a daily basis, it’s not that big of a deal, but over the course of a couple of years, it adds up. And even if your weight doesn’t change, your body fat distribution is changing. Suddenly your waist is getting bigger and none of your pants fit right, and you can’t figure out what’s going on. This period is very frustrating for women.”
Weight gain may be the result of certain medications that are prescribed for middle- age related health issues. Some of the more common types of medications that may cause weight gain include antidepressants, antiseizure, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heartburn medications. It is important to remember, however, that medications can contribute, but are rarely the sole cause of weight gain.
Preventing Extra Pounds
Given the plethora of probable causes of middle-age weight gain, is it inevitable? The good news is that middle-age weight gain does not have to be accepted as inevitable. It is simply a matter of educating oneself as to the causes and taking steps to prevent weight gain before it starts. If you’ve already succumbed to “middle-age spread” (women gain an average of one pound per year during perimenopause), here are some steps you can take to reverse the trend.
1. Increase your physical activity, both aerobic and strength training. This will help boost your metabolism, increase muscle mass and burn fat.
2. Reduce caloric intake. You need about 200 fewer calories a day to maintain your weight as your approach middle age. Choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and fats from healthy sources such as nuts, olive, canola and peanut oils. Do not make a drastic cut in your calorie intake as your body will react by conserving energy, making those extra pounds harder to lose.
3. Get a good night’s sleep. Dr. Michelle May says “When you don’t get enough sleep, your body experiences physiological stress and, biochemically, you store fat more efficiently.” Dr. May suggests adding about 15 minutes to your bedtime and continue to experiment with additional 15 increments until you find the right amount of sleep for you.
4. Reduce stress levels. This may be the one lifestyle change that is easier said than done for most people as stress is an inevitable part of life, particularly at middle age. Family, financial, health, and job stressors can extract a toll on our body’s ability to cope. Prolonged stress can lead to chronic inflammation and adrenal fatigue, a metabolic disorder, which increases body fat. The body reacts to stress by storing fuel, slowing down metabolism, and dumping chemicals and hormones into our system. Added to our bodies’ reaction to stressors is the fact that we often react to stress by eating more high-carbohydrate foods which have a calming effect on the brain and cause neurotransmitter imbalances which lead to food cravings.
Body changes at midlife are inevitable, but accepting those extra 20-30 pounds as a rite of passage is not. Bingeing and yo-yo dieting may have worked in the past, but in mid life, weight loss can only be addressed by lifestyle changes to offset slower metabolism and the effects of hormonal imbalances. Concentrate instead on becoming more fit by getting more aerobic and strength training exercise to decrease fat and add muscle, consuming about 200 less calories a day, and eating a healthy diet low in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables. By doing so, you will go a long way towards enjoying health and vitality during middle age.
Rebecca Rochat is a resident of Chattanooga. She attended the University of Tennessee where she earned a BS in Child Development and MS degree in Textiles and Merchandising and Design. In addition to freelance writing, Rebecca serves as an adjunct instructor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.