You have probably heard that weight gain at midlife is due to your metabolism slowing down. And research shows that this is partially true: your basal metabolic rate decreases about one to two percent per decade after the age of 20. This means that permanent weight gain can begin early and continue beyond midlife – if you don’t know how to prevent it.
In addition, menopause is associated with changes in body composition, including less muscle mass and more abdominal fat. Since muscle burns more energy than fat, this is also a set-up for weight gain. Plus, visceral fat around your internal organs and blood vessels produce inflammatory proteins that are the cause of many major chronic diseases, including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Whether you are trying to lose weight at midlife to stave off chronic disease or to just feel your best, I want to dispel some weight loss myths that could be sabotaging your efforts and share my secrets for achieving your healthiest weight at midlife and beyond.
4 Weight Loss Myths You Need to Lose
Myth #1. Your metabolism is too slow. While your metabolism does slow as you grow older, it’s usually your daily habits that drain your metabolism to the point that you gain weight. One of the biggest reasons for midlife weight gain is a sedentary lifestyle. When you are sedentary you lose muscle mass and pack on the pounds around your middle. Stress is another contributing factor to midlife weight gain. It’s usually brought on by pressure at work and juggling family responsibilities. When you are under continual stress, cortisol sends messages to your brain to store fuel, which may cause you to eat more.
Myth #2. You need to eat less, exercise more. If you have ever drastically cut calories and increased the amount or intensity of exercise in an attempt to lose weight only to plateau or gain it all back – and then some – you are not alone. That’s because the calories in/calories expended theory of weight loss that you have been taught is wrong. Human biology evolved over thousands of years to survive hardship. So, when you starve yourself, your body responds by slowing down your metabolism and producing what’s called the starvation response in order to keep you alive. That’s why the contestants on The Biggest Loser gain all of their weight back. You can lose weight by severely restricting calories at first, but as soon as you start eating again you re-gain the weight. And, when you go back to restricting calories again, you can’t lose.
Myth #3. It’s your genes. We all know families in which everyone is overweight. So, many people believe that if their family members are overweight, then they, too, are destined to be overweight. While genetics do play a role – that’s why identical twins usually have the same BMI – it’s the habits you inherit from your family, not your genes, that can cause you to be overweight. For example, according to studies, a person’s predisposition toward obesity can be reduced by 40 percent with exercise.
Myth #4. Low-fat diets are healthy. Everyone needs some amount of healthy fat in their diet. That’s because fat is a major source of energy, so you need some fat to keep your metabolism going. Eating healthy fats may even help you lose weight because they don’t cause a spike in insulin, so you stay full longer. (High levels of circulating insulin causes your body to store fat.)
16 Secrets for Establishing a Healthy Weight for Life
- Find your set point. We all have a natural ideal weight set point. Most people’s set point is actually a range of about 10-20 pounds. It is within this weight range that your body is programmed to function optimally and at which your body will be comfortable. The setpoint theory states that your body will fight to maintain that weight range. Your metabolism will slow down when you go under your body’s set point. In addition, your metabolism will increase if you go above your set point because your body will try to fight against weight gain. You can find your own set point by listening to your body and eating normally and exercising moderately. That said, set points can change over time due to poor nutrition (including too much yoyo dieting), stress, and lack of sleep. If you are struggling to lose (or gain) weight at midlife, you can get back to your body’s preferred set point. Yet, it can take up to a year of eating normal, nutritious food in order for your body’s metabolism to function properly and to return to the weight range that is healthy for you.
- Eat healthy fats. If you follow the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet recommended by the USDA and haven’t been able to lose weight, it’s no wonder. This way of eating will elicit an insulin response causing you to feel hungrier and thus crave more carbohydrates that will continue to increase insulin. Instead, try to limit carbohydrates and add healthy fats, including Omega-3 and monounsaturated fatty acids. Healthy fats keep you fuller longer. Plus, they improve cellular functioning and cell-to-cell communication. So, throw out the fat-free salad dressing and use good old olive oil. And try to eat more fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
- Lift weights. As women approach menopause, changes in body composition can occur – namely you may lose muscle and gain fat. In addition, the way fat is distributed in your body changes with more settling around your middle. Since muscle burns more fuel than fat, the less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism. Resistance training is the best way to increase your muscle mass and thus your metabolism. You can try lifting weights, practicing Pilates or yoga, or even doing good old-fashioned calisthenics (including knee bends, lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups) to maintain and build muscle. Aim for an hour or two per week. The nice thing about having more muscle is that you will be thinner even at the same body weight. And remember, muscle tone is critical to maintaining your balance as you grow older.
- Balance your hormones. As estrogen, progesterone, and even testosterone decline during menopause, your body gears up for storing weight. Studies show that women in menopause who take estrogen therapy tend to have less abdominal fat than women who do not. For some women, supplementing with bioidentical progesterone and/or testosterone is enough to avoid midlife weight gain and even lose weight after menopause. For others, just using natural supplements containing plant hormones (phytoestrogens) will do the trick. Though it is standard practice to get your hormone levels checked, I have not found this very helpful because levels can vary so much over a 24 hour period. I do however, recommend you get your thyroid hormones checked and also your cortisol levels. Then work with your health care provider on a plan that is right for you. Also, remember that a high-quality diet will go a long way toward balancing your hormones. And so will meditation and exercise.
- Get off the couch. An hour of exercise a few times per week won’t overcome the effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. If you sit all day, drive everywhere you go, and then relax on the couch all night, you need to build in some other types of regular movement. That’s because sitting for extended periods puts your body into energy-conservation mode, which means your metabolism can slow. Joan Vernikos, Ph.D., former head NASA Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, has found that simply standing up every 20 minutes and then just sitting back down again can work wonders.
- Try HIIT. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very efficient way to exercise. It can help you lose fat, gain muscle, and increase your metabolism. HIIT can also reduce your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. And, it is as effective as endurance training for improving your body’s ability to use oxygen. Finally, HIIT training can keep your metabolism fired up for several hours. HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise followed by an active recovery period. For example, you might pedal a stationary bike for 30 seconds as fast as you can with high resistance, then recover with slow pedaling at a lower resistance for 30-60 seconds, and repeat this several times in one session. Plus, HIIT workouts are usually only 10-30, minutes long, allowing you to achieve maximum health benefits in a short period of time.
- Eat healthy protein: You need a little protein to help maintain your muscles. Dietary protein can also keep you feeling full, which can help you achieve a healthy weight. Finally, protein requires more energy to break down than carbohydrates or fat, so your body will use more energy during digestion, increasing your metabolism. This is known as thermogenesis, or the thermic effect of food (TEF). And, studies show an added benefit of getting enough protein is that it can help maintain bone mass.
- Get quality sleep. When you go for long periods of time without adequate sleep, your metabolism suffers. Science shows that if you are sleep-deprived or suffer from a sleep disorder, it can lead to a decreased metabolism as well as hormonal imbalances and even cardiovascular disease.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking 500 ml of water can increase your metabolism by 30% according to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. So, staying optimally hydrated from drinking (or eating) water throughout the day can be an easy way to boost your metabolism. To make your water more hydrating, add a pinch of Celtic or Himalayan salt to it.
- Reduce stress: When stress levels increase, your body produces cortisol, which can lead to an increased appetite and cause you to crave comfort foods. Stress also decreases our desire to exercise. Plus, stress can cause you to lose sleep. So, while you can’t always control environmental stressors, you can control how you respond to them. Meditation is a great tool for this. When you don’t allow yourself to respond to stressors, you not only improve your metabolism through reduced cortisol response, but you improve your overall health and well-being.<.li>
- Practice mindful eating. It’s become routine in our culture to multi-task while we eat. This is a huge mistake. Not only are you more likely to overeat, but you are less likely to feel satisfied despite overeating. Practicing mindfulness around food can help you reconnect to your inner wisdom regarding hunger and satiety. You can start by turning your meal prep into a ritual. This doesn’t need to be complicated or time-consuming. Just bring awareness and intention to your food as you prepare it. Then, as you sit down to eat, be sure to remove all stressors from your environment, including TV and social media. Take a deep breath and give thanks to everyone and everything that helped to create your food. Finally, enjoy eating your food without judgment.
- Try intermittent fasting: Our ancestors didn’t have access to food 24/7 the way we do now, so our bodies evolved to perform better with intermittent periods of fasting. The primary reason intermittent fasting works to control weight gain and help with weight loss is because it helps to lower insulin levels and thus keeps your metabolism working optimally. It can also help lower inflammation, which is another key contributor to midlife weight gain.
- Support your gut. Good bacteria keep your digestive system working properly – and your metabolism humming swiftly. The number one factor that determines what microbes live in your gut (and which ones die off) is your diet. When your diet is poor, your gut microbiome can’t do its job, and this can affect the rate and efficiency at which your body absorbs food and can potentially lower your metabolism. Restore and maintain proper bacterial balance by eating at least one serving a day of fermented foods or beverages, including kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh, and yogurt with live cultures.
- Spice it up. Research shows that certain spices, including capsaicin, black pepper, and ginger, can fire up your metabolism by slightly increasing body temperature during digestion. Cayenne and turmeric may have a similar effect. Additionally, cumin may help your body absorb and digest fats. So, be liberal with the spices, but be sure to use real spices and not natural flavorings, which may not have the same nutritional properties.
- Meditate. Meditation is a proven technique for weight loss. One reason meditation works is because it helps to reduce stress. And let’s face it, trying to lose weight can be stressful. Reducing stress is crucial for sustainable health and weight loss because stress can actually trigger a fat-storage response. Plus, the weight gained from stress is the most dangerous type of weight. It’s associated with heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer.
- Set realistic goals. One common way to sabotage weight loss is to set unrealistic goals. For example, it’s common for women to say, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds before my daughter’s wedding in 2 weeks,” or, “I’ll lose 50 pounds before my high school reunion this summer.” These are unrealistic goals, not to mention unhealthy ones. To be successful in your weight loss journey, start by assessing how you feel at your current weight and how healthy you are. If you really do need to lose 20 or 50 pounds, break it up into smaller, more achievable goals – say, losing 2-4 pounds per month. I also recommend using online tools to help you keep track of your food intake and weight loss.
As with everything, you need to tap into your inner wisdom to figure out what weight loss path is right for you. (I personally use oracle cards and sometimes a pendulum to help me access this wisdom). We all process food in our own, unique way, and there is no cookie-cutter weight loss method that works for everyone. The most important thing to remember is that food is the foundation that creates the basis for good health. Pills and shakes alone are not going to help you sustain an optimal weight. You need to eat an abundance of real, nutritious food to be healthy.
Do you struggle with midlife weight gain? What have you done to lose weight and feel better?