Q: “Controlling my weight was a piece of cake in my 20s and 30s, but not anymore. Why does it seem so much harder now that I’m 50-something? Is there anything I can do to fight the middle-age spread, or is this a battle that all women my age are destined to lose?”
Answered by Janet Mann, MS, RD, LD, dietitian with certificates of training in adult and pediatric weight management, Providence Nutrition Services.
There’s a good reason why weight control seems harder as you get older: because it is harder. As women age, our lean body mass declines, our metabolism slows down and our caloric needs diminish. If we continue to eat and exercise as we always have without adjusting for these changes, we’re going to gain weight.
The situation isn’t hopeless – you can make a difference – but as you’ve discovered, sticking with the status quo is not going to work. At this stage of your life, it’s going to take a stronger commitment, a more focused effort, and possibly some new tactics. Let’s take a look at some of the natural forces that you’re up against, and what you can do about them.
Maintaining muscle mass
Women naturally lose lean body mass – aka muscle – as we get older. Men do, too, but women have less to begin with, so hanging onto it takes more effort. Starting a muscle-building program may not be on the average middle-aged woman’s agenda, but it’s a very worthwhile pursuit. A body composed of more lean, strong muscle not only helps you look and stay trimmer, but also improves balance, mobility and self-sufficiency as you get older.
The best thing you can do to build your muscles is to challenge them regularly. Set aside about 20 minutes, twice a week, for some type of muscle-building workout, such as:
- Pushups, planks and other exercises that use your own body as a weight
- Resistance exercises with stretchy bands
- Weight training with free weights
To support your muscle-building efforts, pay attention to protein. You’ll build more muscle if you spread your protein evenly throughout the day, rather than eating one large portion at dinner. Shoot for 20 to 30 grams of lean protein at every meal. That’s the amount in about three ounces of chicken (21 grams) or six ounces of fat-free Greek yogurt (14 grams) and a quarter cup of almonds (8 grams).
Metabolism – the rate at which we burn calories – starts to slow down by 2 to 3 percent per decade beginning in our 20s, with more noticeable slowing between 40 and 60. This is true for both men and women, but once again, women start with a slower metabolism in the first place. As we get older and the number of calories that we burn throughout the day drops further, weight gain becomes more likely unless we change our game plan. Three changes will help:
- Start that muscle-building program we just talked about: Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat, so it burns more calories, even when we’re resting.
- Be more active in general: Some of the “age-related” decreases in metabolism and lean body mass may result from our tendency to be less active as we get older. Don’t be part of the problem – be part of the solution. Sit less and move more. Turn off the television and go for a walk.
- Trim a few calories from your diet (see below): You may not be able to halt the slowdown in your metabolism completely, but you can reduce the calories you consume to adjust for the new normal.
Fueling up on fewer calories
As women’s lean body mass and metabolism decline with age, so do our caloric needs. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to eat less – just differently.
Gradually start shifting the dividing lines on your plate, expanding the portions of low-calorie vegetables and fruits, and shrinking the portions of meat, pasta, bread and other starches. As veggies start to crowd out the higher-calorie foods, you’ll still get the volume and nutrients you need, but with fewer calories. Other switches that can cut calories without leaving you hungry:
- Switch to plain, fat-free yogurt and stir in your own fruit
- Choose fish, chicken and turkey (no skin) over fatty cuts of meat
- Opt for broth-based, vegetable-rich soups instead of creamy soups and chowders
Minding your middle
On top of all of these weighty challenges, menopause adds a final kicker, sending hormonal signals to your body to redistribute weight. Before menopause, any extra fat would spread itself evenly – and less noticeably – around your body. After menopause, most of it marches straight to your middle.
There is no easy fix for this. The only reliable way to reduce your waist size is to reduce your overall weight. Becoming more active, getting into a strength-training program and eating lighter will help. But that’s not the last word on the subject.
Choosing your battles
At some point, we just need to get more comfortable with the idea that our bodies change as we get older, and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean waving the flag of surrender – you can make lifestyle changes that do make a difference – but it’s not reasonable to spend your 50s, 60s and 70s fighting a constant battle to get back into the jeans that you wore in your 20s.
Decide for yourself: What weight can I maintain reasonably well, with a reasonable amount of effort? Congratulate yourself for every success on the way to that goal – even if it only gets you part of the way there – and make peace with the rest.
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