As a woman passes through midlife, if she eats “the same as ever” and exercises (or doesn’t) the “same as ever” she will gain a few pounds (and sometimes more) yearly. This averages to a 20-pound weight gain (sometimes more) between ages 40 and 50. It is the “Way of Life”.
In a word, her metabolism slows. Around the perimenopause, there is a distinct decrease in output of ACTH, or “Growth Hormone” from the pituitary gland in the brain, resulting in less stimulation of the adrenal glands. The adrenals, small glands located on top of the kidneys, are the “energy regulators” of the body. Basically, the motors idle at a lower speed. This change in “idle” decreases caloric expenditure by as much as 50-100 calories/day, even if everything else is the same. This can account for a weight gain of up to one-half to one pound per month.
Some of the other changes through midlife and menopause that lead to weight gain are secondary and not as obvious.
If a woman’s estrogens are roller-coasting or suddenly hit the pavement and she is flashflushing all over the place, not sleeping well, moody and depressed, she may not feel like working out or paying close attention to what she eats and may substitute food for other of life’s pleasures (even though exercise is one of the things that will “save” her).
If her testosterone level is down (testosterone is secreted from the ovaries too, you know), her “energy” and sense of well being is diminished. This also leads to a more sedentary lifestyle. Lower testosterone levels diminish sexual desire and sometimes sexual arousal. Food tends to be substituted for other things women used to do more of (like sex, strenuous activities, etc.).
Another indirect cause is affluence. Midlife folks may eat out more often than they did when their children were younger.
It is not so much the hormone fluctuations that predispose midlife women to food cravings, as it is the often topsy-turvy disruption of their homeostasis and the phsyiologic changes described above that tend to add the pounds. The University of Illinois’ professor Brian Wansink, in his analysis of comfort foods, has shown that women feel better about themselves after they ate snack foods such as brownies or cookies (while men were soothed by heartier fare such as pizza or steak…).
There certainly are dietary and nutritional tips to help you overcome the menopauseassociated weight gain. Because it is “The Way of Life” does not mean it has to happen to you!
First, what can you do (other than take “speed” or ephedra) to increase your metabolic rate? Certainly, exercise is paramount, and I will talk more about this later.
Each time that you digest a meal, the muscles of your intestines work and calories are burned (weight is “simply” a matter of calories in, calories out. The idea is: less in; more out). So, spread your foods throughout the day. Eat small amount of food (perhaps single items, but not snack food, convenience food or fast food) several (five-six) times a day…”Get that motor working”… Multiple small meals are always better than fewer large meals, no matter the time of day.
The biggest nutrition tip is to be aware of the nefarious increases in portion sizes we see in fast food, at restaurants, in pre-packaged convenience foods. Today, a fast-food serving of French fries, a burger and soda are much larger than they were in the 1970s. A sit-down restaurant will serve you a meal at two-three times or more larger than recommended serving sizes. Remember, “quality is not value”.
Regarding snacking: It depends on what you snack on. Planned “snacking” through the day, with planned, low-calorie, low-fat foods, as discussed above, is very different than unplanned chip, nuts, donut, fries, candy-type snacking.
There is no good scientific evidence that so many “tricks” you read about in any magazine you care to pick up does any good. Every week you read of some new vitamin or supplement, some method of eating “this” with “that” or “that before this”. You will find someone to support anything…it is all a bit of a shuck.
Weight and obesity is all about calories. Calories are all about what you eat, how much and how many calories you burn off, and that boils down to portion size and exercise!
What can you do?
1. At a restaurant, ask for the “doggy bag” to arrive with the meal. Take one-third to one-half of the entrée home for later.
2. Avoid fast foods. If you must, order the small burger. Fries are the worst.
3. Share your meal with others.
4. At home, serve reasonable portion sizes. Eat until you feel satisfied.
People do not necessarily stop eating when their stomachs tell them to. People eat until they “see the bottom of the plate” (remember your mom’s admonition: “Clean your plate”, “…remember all of the starving children in China…”). People will shovel in a bucket of popcorn even if it is stale and will gobble one candy after another if it is within arms reach.
The larger portion you get, the more you are likely to eat. In research performed by Barbara Rolls at Penn State, when served a 12-inch sandwich, as apposed to a six-inch sandwich, women ate 31% more than their counterparts who received the shorter sandwich (men ate 56% more!).
Small changes can make a huge impact on caloric intake. Unequivocally, the single-most important thing midlife women can do to maintain weight and health is EXERCISE. Early in the day is best (exercise shortly before bedtime can make falling asleep difficult). Exercise early in the day makes the rest of the day go better. Exercise reduces hot flashes and improves mood. It significantly reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and–yes– colon and breast cancer as well.
Data from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study shows that an average of six-seven hours of exercise a week decreases the relative risk of breast cancer approximately the same amount as taking very long-term mid-dose estrogen plus progestin increases that risk!
You should shoot for 45 (30-60) minutes of somewhat out-of-breath, sweaty (yeah, you have to work) exercise daily. That way, if you miss a day here and there, it is okay. Remember also, do not look at exercise as something you will do “if there is time,” or is something that is fun (although if it is fun, that’s gravy!). Exercise is work. But absolutely necessary work if you want to be healthy, strong and not gain lots of weight. It does not make any significant difference if your “daily quota” of exercise is all at once or in two sessions–whatever works best for you!
What about dieting?
There is a definite place for dieting in weight loss and midlife weight maintenance, but– and this is crucial–your exercise and dietary adjustment regimen must be well in place and a working routine before you “begin” dieting.
If you “diet” first, well, sure: you will take off 10-20-30 pounds, feel happy and go about your (non-exercise, poor diet) business as before, and, certain as night follows day, you will gain it all back (cuz ya haven’t changed lifestyle!).
BUT, if you first get your lifestyle routine in place and then want to take off some pounds– sure–use Adkins or Southbeach or Whatever to take off that extra. Because of your “routine” you won’t gain it back.
Supplements and replacements? Soy is always good. Excellent source of low-calorie protein and contains a decent amount of calcium and can also help mitigate some of the disturbing symptoms of the midlife passage. It does not, however, “replace estrogen” and has no effect in maintaining bone density. Long-term use of a pre-measured mealreplacement plan (e.g., replace one meal and one snack/day with a meal-replacement product) appears to be effective for weight loss maintenance.
Remember what jazz pianist Eubie Blake said upon reaching the golden age of 100: “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”