Why Women Gain Weight in Middle Age and 5 Dietitian-recommended Solutions
Watching your body shape change and gaining weight in middle age can be frustrating, but you can weather the storm and enjoy a healthy life with these nutrition and lifestyle tips.
Can you relate to the frustration associated with middle aged weight gain?
Perhaps you find yourself thinking…
I can’t button those pants I wore last month!
I haven’t changed my eating and exercise habits that much…have I?
Why is my body changing so rapidly?
Can I blame this on the pandemic?
You know your food intake and exercise routine hasn’t changed significantly, but your body seems to change by the week.
You might even be questioning your sanity.
I want you to know that your body’s changes in middle age are not in your mind!
Has your changing body affected you?
Have you recommitted to your diet and exercise plan, only to face frustration when the scale doesn’t budge?
Perhaps you’ve gone to your doctor to find a medical cause, only to be declared perfectly healthy.
All this frustration might cause more body shame and resentment. And that is an added layer of stress.
As a registered dietitian, there’s something I need you to know:
Weight gain and a change in body shape in middle age is normal!
But I’m only in my late 30s! I’m not middle-aged!
I know it can be frustrating to be experiencing this change in body shape while still having regular cycles.
In fact, women’s bodies start to change in the late 30s and early 40s, for a couple reasons:
1. Fat is a source of estrogen. Starting in our late 30s or early 40s, our bodies’ estrogen levels begin to drop because our ovaries slowly start making less. This is a normal part of aging.
Did you know that fat tissue is another source of estrogen?
Our bodies want to create more estrogen to partially replace the estrogen that is being lost. Because our bodies are so adept and clever, our fat cells increase in size to provide another source of estrogen.
While you might not love this change, it is protective. Research shows that this increased fat can improve our post-menopausal heart health.
2. Our muscle mass decreases as we age. As you may have heard, muscle is metabolically active, so it needs more energy. As a normal part of the aging process, all humans (male and female) experience a loss in muscle mass. Some people find that their appetites decrease as they age because of this. That’s why listening to your body is so key!
How much middle-aged weight gain is typical?
This is a tricky question because so many women have been yo-yo dieting (or weight cycling) throughout their lives. Additionally, as a weight-neutral practitioner, I hesitate to put a ‘normal
number’ out there because it can cause women guilt and shame if their experience is different.
Remember: Each body is unique and there isn’t a right or wrong answer.
If you are a woman whose weight has been stable throughout most of your adult life and you eat regularly and do not engage in excessive exercise, you can expect a gain of approximately 5-15 pounds. Some women experience a slower, steady weight gain, but for others, it can be sudden, like 5-10 pounds in a year.
However, if you (like so many other women) have been yo-yo dieting, restricting your food intake, or exercising excessively, it’s likely that you don’t know your body’s natural (or ‘set point’) weight, so your body’s weight change may be greater.
Understanding vs. accepting middle-aged weight gain
You might take solace in knowing there’s a physiological reason, but perhaps you still feel frustrated! I totally get it!
Did you know that research has shown that over 3/4 of women said that weight and shape affected their self esteem? (Gagne, et al. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2012.)
You might be thinking:
- I’d gladly take hot flashes if I could fit into my skinny jeans!
- There has to be some way to get this weight off!
What Can I Do About Middle-Aged Weight Gain?
Here are my 5 Tips to weather the storm of midlife weight gain and live your prime years with vitality.
1. Avoid the Diet Trap.
You might be tempted to jump back on the diet bandwagon, but here’s the bad news: Diets have the exact opposite effect. The restriction of a diet mobilizes your fat cells even more as they expand to produce that needed estrogen.
Furthermore, dieting increases your risk of developing an eating disorder. In fact, eating disorders are on the rise across the population, but at a greater rate in women aged 40+.
The solution: Eat 3-6 meals and snacks a day, based on your personal preferences and your body’s needs. Your meal pattern may change from what it was like 10-20 years ago, and that’s OK!
Tune in to your personal hunger and fullness cues to determine what works best for you. This takes practice and is something I help my clients to feel confident with!
Above all, taking the focus off of the number on the scale is the key to living a life of true health.
2. Deal with Stress.
Chronic stress wreaks havoc on our bodies, and we need to find a way to manage it. When you’re under stress, your brain doesn’t know if you’re under a work deadline or about to be eaten by a tiger, so it responds in the same way: it releases hormones that increase your blood sugar so you have the energy available to flee from that threat.
The problem is that so many of us live in a state of chronic stress that contributes metabolic imbalances. Note: stressing about what you can or can’t eat also has negative consequences!
I find that so many women are accustomed to this highly-stressed state that they don’t even know they’re stressed out!
This constant state of ‘fight or flight’ also makes it hard to tune into our body to feel our hunger and fullness signals, causing many women to skip meals and then binge later in the day.
The solution: Find a mind-body practice that you can use to help ease your stress. While meditation is a classic example, you might also consider:
- tai chi,
- qi gong,
- journaling, or
All of the above have been shown to be great stress busters.
If you find that stress causes you to eat even when you’re not hungry, read my article, A Simple Solution to Overcome Emotional Eating here.
3. Find Some Movement that Brings You Joy.
You’ll note that I refer to exercise as movement here.
That’s because I want you to start thinking about it differently.
So many women endure punishing workouts with little rest because they firmly believe that more is better, or they use exercise to compensate for food they’ve eaten. I want you to know that movement is an important part of health, but not if you’re dreading it or pushing yourself too hard.
Just like it’s healthy to eat a variety of foods, having several movement options you enjoy can keep it enjoyable and reduce your risk of injury.
For more detail about finding exercise you enjoy, read my article, 7 Simple Ways Exercise Can Make You Happy.
The solution: Take a class, go for a hike, do some gardening, explore some resistance training. Don’t focus on your heart rate, the number of pounds you lift or the calories burned. Just do it for the joy of moving your body.
If you haven’t exercised in years (or ever):
- Please consult your doctor for medical clearance.
- There are programs to suit every body. Take it slow!
4. Consider some weight-bearing or strength training exercise
If you are experiencing a change to your body shape, and are in your late 30s, 40s or 50s, you were probably raised to believe that cardio is the way to go when it comes to movement. (Remember the 80s and 90s? Stairmasters, kickboxing, treadmills, etc?)
In the paragraph above, I encouraged you to think outside the box and find something that you truly enjoy.
I’d like to expand on that here: Way up at the top of this article, I mentioned decreasing muscle mass that occurs with aging.
Because we lose muscle mass every year past 30, adding some form of strength work (that you enjoy!) is an important part of aging.
The benefits of strength work are many:
- Building muscle helps us stay active longer. Women who continue to do strength work are more mobile in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and are less likely to experience falls and breaks, which are common reasons for less fulfilling lives.
- Muscle also helps us stabilize our blood sugar levels which can make us less insulin resistant.
- Strength work has been shown to help prevent osteoporosis and can help build bone.
When I mention muscles, your mind might immediately go to biceps and quads, and while those muscles are important, we have so many others that help support our organs and bones and help keep us upright.
Strength training can be as little as 10 minutes at a time, and you won’t necessarily get sweaty and need a shower afterwards. And, no you don’t need to worry about bulking up!
The solution: Experiment with forms of strength work you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be heavy weights, but it can be if that’s your thing! Other examples of strength work include chair workouts with light weights, yoga, Pilates, barre, and swimming.
Better yet, schedule a session with a physical therapist or personal trainer who can provide you with exercises specific to your bodies’ needs, while they show you how to safely perform these movements..
5. Consider Adding Some Phytoestrogens to Your Meals.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that mimic the structure of the estrogen that our bodies make. But that’s just fancy nutritional biochemistry that you don’t really need to know!
Consuming some phytoestrogens helps to balance our bodies’ often erratic estrogen levels that occur in midlife.
Phytoestrogens are found in nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. However, the greatest source of phytoestrogens is available to us is in the form of soy.
There are just a few research studies examining the benefits of soy, but given that the risks associated with adding these foods are very low, it might be worth a shot.
NOTE: Some women are fearful of soy because of some articles questioning its safety. However, any potential health concerns are found when people eat large quantities of highly-refined soy, like twice daily soy protein powders and soy-based protein bars.
If you have a personal history of breast cancer, please consult a registered dietitian or physician to discuss your specific case.
The solution: If you are otherwise healthy, adding soy in its form closest to nature, like edamame, tofu, soy milk, tempeh, or miso, for example, may provide some relief from menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. If you enjoy these foods, eating them a few times a week can be a good strategy.
If you’re over 35 and experiencing changes to your body’s shape and weight, you might be entering perimenopause.
I challenge you to start using the steps above to improve your mental and physical health.
I’d also like you to remember that the shifting of your body shape doesn’t correlate with reduced health. If you follow the steps above, you can live these years with health as you feel good in your body!
You have the power to make positive changes in your life that support your body and mind throughout middle age and beyond.
If you’ve read this article and feel like you are stuck in a cycle of poor body image and know some of it has to do with middle-aged weight gain…
- You’ve found that years of negative self-talk hasn’t made you happier or improved your relationship with your body.
- You want to live your middle age and beyond with increased confidence.
I have a solution for you!
My worksheet 5 Steps to Improved Body Image will give you actionable steps to begin the process of improving your body image, piece by piece.
Ready to get started on improving your Body Image?
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”