Every woman knows that it gets harder to maintain your weight, let alone lose weight, once you reach midlife.
Even women who’ve been naturally thin their whole lives and could eat anything they wanted can find themselves suddenly (and I mean suddenly!) putting on weight in midlife. Yesterday I was chatting to a woman who’d recently joined my office and she happened to mention that she had put on 20 pounds in the last 6 months and increased 2 clothing sizes while doing nothing differently. She said that she’d always had a size zero boyish figure, turned 50 six months ago and suddenly shot up to a size 4 and she just didn’t know what to do with the new womanly curves now covering her hips and abdomen.
Now I know most of you might think – size 4 – she’s got nothing to worry about but its a matter of degree and I know it was a nasty surprise for this woman. I use the story about my skinny friend to show you that it can happen to anyone. Another of my friends, in her late 40’s who has always worn a size 12 confided to me last week during our shopping trip that she’s now struggling to squeeze into a size 16 and doesn’t know how to stop the weight gain.
This weight gain can really throw us for a loop. As for me – I spent my whole life a little chubby (I have PCOS) and I only realized that I was insulin resistant 6 years ago. I was lucky enough to change my diet to a low carb one quite a few years before I hit menopause. So for me the midlife transition was a little easier as I was already eating in a preventive way. There was no way I wanted to become diabetic in midlife.
Friends who’ve only recently met me ask me “what do you do to stay so slim?” And I tell them that I eat LCHF. Still, even I have found that I now need to eat less than I did 6 years ago and if I should happen to gain a few pounds it’s much harder than before for me to lose them. That’s why I try to never eat off plan. If I want dessert (which I freqently do), I eat a LCHF one. In addition, at the age of 51, nature has conspired to find other ways to torment me which as some of you know I’ve been blogging about lately (Hypothyroidism, reproductive hormone imbalance and so on…) The point I’m making is that its hard enough going through menopause without the additional problem of gaining weight.
So what can you do if you’re a woman going through perimenopause or menopause and are really struggling to lose weight?
I’ve researched this issue online and have been really disappointed with the unhelpful cliches and limited advice available for women our age (Suzanne Somers being the great exception!). While there seems to be plenty of general weight loss advice, especially from paleo groups, doctors and a few low carb nutritionists, directed at people with normal metabolisms, who are in their 20’s and 30’s, 99% of this information is over-generalized, unhelpful and falls under the broad category of “move more, eat less, eat LCHF and no need to count calories”. This advice largely ignores the special needs of women in midlife. Women over 40 are a very neglected, misundestood and under-served population. Noone wants to discuss what menopause really does to your ability to lose weight and everyone says that we should all be signing up for CrossFit sessions and eating LCHF until we’re full and noone will tell us what to do if this advice doesn’t work! We’re just left to feel frustrated and bad, and like we’re doing something wrong.
I’d like to share with you some tips that have worked for me and for some of our LCHF Nation weight loss clients that we’ve found to be particularly helpful for keeping those pesky menopausal pounds at bay.
- Lower your carbs. Insulin resistance increases with age and, unlike in our 20’s and 30’s our bodies become less efficient at using the carbs we eat. You will find that you can no longer eat pizza twice a week and still stay slim. In response to carbs, your body now produces more insulin (the fat storage hormone!) to try and remove extra glucose from your circulation. Unfortunately, the extra insulin being pumped out by your body, converts that extra glucose to body fat – and it makes sure it stays there. By lowering your carbs you will decrease the need for your body to produce insulin and you will find it easier to lose weight. Btw – extra glucose circulating will also make you hungrier everytime your body releases insulin to whisk it away! Roller-coaster blood sugar dips are no fun. When you stop the rollerocaster and prevent the blood sugar spikes and dips you will also remove the constant hunger and you’ll find it easier to follow a LCHF meal plan, and lose weight. Try and find carbs that agree with you that don’t raise your blood sugar, make you hungry or trigger a binge by making you immediately crave more of them. Not all carbs are created equal. Veggie carbs are the best and safest choices. In midlife your body may no longer tolerate carbs from grains or simple sugars. For 1 week, measure your post-meal blood sugars at 1, 2 and 3 hour intervals to find your optimal carb level where you’re able to lose weight and don’t experience raised blood glucose levels. The two usually go hand in hand ie you will lose weight when your blood glucose levels remain steady and don’t spike significantly. Take note of which carbs cause a blood sugar spike for you and avoid them. Note that while some women do well, feel better and will only lose weight if they keep their daily carbs at or below 20g net carbs per day, while some will feel better at a slightly higher level of 30-40g net carbs and will still be able to lose weight. Everyone’s different. Experiment and see.
- Eat fewer calories. The older we get, the fewer calories we need. It’s a fact of life. At 25, you may need to eat 2000 calories to maintain your body weight. At 50, you may need only 1850 – and that’s without a change in activity level! Many people don’t realize this and continue to eat as much as they did in their 20’s and 30’s. Those extra calories will add up. Don’t listen to those low carb ‘experts’ who say calories don’t count – they do and never more so than in midlife! At this age many women don’t need to eat 3 full squares a day – try and make lunch a small snack such as an ounce of almonds or a small salad. You may find that a high fat, high protein breakfast should be enough to get your through until dinner especially if you have a sedentary job. Learn to disregard what most people say/do – and instead do what’s right for you. Listen to your body and don’t eat just because its midday. You need to live with your choices the next day. Eat in a way that is right for YOU. Action Step: Go here to obtain your ideal calorie level and macros for weight loss and maintenance.
- Balance your reproductive hormones. At menopause, decreasing estrogen and progesterone levels mean that our bodies will fight hard to hold onto our body fat – particulalrly the fat around our abdomen (the so-called ‘menopot’). At menopause our body likes to keep this extra fat around because fat cells produce estrogen which our aging female bodies desperately need. By supplementing with Estrogen, if deficient, ( I wear a continuous patch), our bodies are more likely to let go of our excess fat and so you will have an easier time losing weight. Similarly, at menopause we stop ovulating. Ovulation is the event that happens once a month that stimulates production of the hormone Progesterone. Progesterone is a very important hormone to human health. Without sufficient progesterone you will experience fluid retention and have trouble sleeeping. In addition, without adequate levels of progesterone, many women experience longer, heavier and more painful periods. If you have low progesterone levels, taking oral micronized Progesterone daily or for 14 days each month will make you feel better and decrease symptoms of bloating. Ask your GP to check your reproductive hormone levels and find out if hormone supplementation is right for you.
- Move more! While, exercise is always an important component of any weight loss plan, staying active at menopause will improve your insulin sensitivity, help maintain your muscle mass aswell as improve your mood. As we’ve noted earlier, we become more insulin resistant as we age so anything we can do to improve insuin sensitivity is a plus. While back and joint problems can make it harder to participate in acivities we used to participate in such as team sports and running, everyone can try and get a minimum of 30 minute of walking daily and preferably up to 1 hour. Performing a few sets of weight bearing exercise is also a great idea as you age as it helps maintain your important muscle mass which will keep your metabolism humming along. Its a well known fact that muscle mass decreases with age. Plus, weight training will keep those upper arms in shape 😉
- Balance your thyroid hormones. After the age of 45 women are 5x more likely than men to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism. If you have hypothyroidism you will find it extremely difficult to lose weight. There is a curious interplay between thyroid hormones, insulin and reproductive hormones. If you’re having difficulty losing weight after the age of 40, insist that your doctor run a full thyroid panel (TSH, T3, T4 and Thyroid antibodies) in addition to testing your reproductive hormones, blood glucose levels (both fasting and post-meal) and other blood biomarkers. Most doctors will only measure TSH levels – and to make matters worse, the TSH reference ranges they rely on to diagnose hypothyroidism are usually too broad and out of date. If you’re an older woman experiencing symptoms of hypothyroidism insist that your doctor run a full thyroid panel – or find a doctor who will! Don’t let your doctor intimidate you. Depression is just one symptom of hypothyroidism and reproductive hormone imbalance. Untreated, depression, anxiety and moodiness can lead to comfort eating.
- Find an integrative physician or holistic medical doctor who will listen to you, conduct a full assesment of your thyroid, reproductive and adrenal hormones and diagnose and treat your symptoms by considering all of your symptoms together – not as separate, isolated complaints with no interrelationship. Depression, anxiety, tiredness, hairloss, cold extremities, difficulty sleeping, digestive difficulties such as IBS, and difficulty losing weight need to be looked at as a cluster of symptoms which occur together and may be due to many factors. Find a doctor who won’t dismiss, or refuse to treat, your health issues as ‘normal for your age-group’ simply because they’re not life threatening. Your quality of life matters.
- Try intermittent fasting BUT balance your hormones first (see previous points). Intermittent Fasting (IF) can be a useful strategy for women in midlife who have tried everything to lose weight and are still experiencing difficulty doing so. A couple of words of warning: Research shows that IF can worsen hormone imbalance and exacerbate symptoms such as tiredness and moodiness, especially in women who fast on consecutive days. Many women find they do better when they have a break for a few days and don’t fast on consecutive days.
- Get plenty of quality sleep. Difficulty sleeping can be a problem at menopause. Inadequate sleep can result in increased cortisol levels and hunger which will make it harder to lose weight. Balancing your hormones can relieve night sweats and hot flashes which disturb sleep for many women. Installing black-out blinds in your bedroom, keeping the temperature low, limiting exposure to blue light from lights, TV and the computer (and banning snoring husbands!) can all help you get a good nights sleep.
- Take these supplements. If you’re struggling to lose weight I highly recommend the following supplements: D3, magnesium, potassium, a multivitamin designed for over-45 women aswell as a probiotic. I swear by the first four. Research on the gut microbiome is showing some interesting links between the bacteria in you gut and the ability to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
- Finally, get slim and stay slim BEFORE you reach menopause – maintaining your weight is easier than losing weight! Once you become over-weight it’s harder to lose weight. Increased amounts of body fat will result in even more insulin resistance, leptin resistance and the higher levels of hunger that go along with these conditions. Once you become diabetic, and your metabolism beomes damaged, often diet alone may not be enough to manage your your high blood glucose levels. Once you’ve reached the point where you need insulin to regulate your blood glucose levels weight loss can be extremely difficult. The message is clear – deal with your insulin resistance before it deveops into full-blown diabetes. Having to take insulin at midlife will only make losing weight even harder to do.
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