So here’s the thing, weight loss does get harder as you get older, FACT. It’s not just in your mind; that excess weight, post 40, clings for dear life to thighs, hips, tummies and upper arms and so, if you’ve just come off the back of a January diet and gave up after ‘being good for a month and not losing a thing’, I can guarantee you, you are not alone.
Sorry for the depressing start but it will get better later, so please read on!
So, why can midlife weight loss seem like mission impossible? I want to delve into this today because knowledge is power when it comes to getting in to that all important 'positive mindset' for weight loss – I’ve yet to meet anyone who tried to lose weight half-assed and succeeded. As the saying goes, always use your full ass!
So, what the heck is going on?
Of course the biggie is hormones. Hormones (in particular oestrogen for women, testosterone for men) begin to decline as soon as the late thirties, but by midlife they do a bit of a Tom Petty and start free fallin’. The upshot is a three-pronged weight loss whammy: a slowing metabolism (your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR, i.e. the number of calories required to keep your body functioning at rest, slows by around 2% per decade), a redistribution of fat to accumulate around the middle third of the body and a disruption of sleep patterns leading to low energy levels and subsequent food cravings. It’s plain to see the odds are stacking up against us with every passing year. OUF!
The second reason for a slowing metabolism is muscle mass – or more specifically the loss of it as you age - also called sarcopenia (a word I find mildly disturbing!). Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after the age of 30. Even if you are active, you’ll still have some muscle loss. The reason this matters when it comes to weight loss is that the less muscle you have the less calories you burn, so that BMR is just getting lower and lower. ARGH!
Another emerging theory is that gut health may have a part to play. There are many, many studies showing links between the microbiome and age-related conditions, such as obesity and diabetes. Many factors contribute to microbiome diversity, such as diet and lifestyle, but what we do know is that as we age we typically experience a loss in diversity. GREAT!
So there you go, so far so depressing, BUT take heart! Now that we know the reasons why losing weight can seem like such an uphill struggle after 40 we can be more targeted in our approach.
Here’s the plan:
1] CALORIE RESTRICT. All weight loss progammes, which ever way they are packaged, are basically different forms of calorie restriction. Yes, it’s hard, we hate dieting, so what I do is have 3 ‘Light Days’ every week. By focusing on calorie restriction just a few days a week it’s not too onerous and it allows enough flexibility to actually live my life. On ‘Light Days’ I aim for 800-1000 calories, I don’t strictly calorie count but I am Calorie Aware (more on this below) and I watch my Volume Control.
To find out more click on these previous blog posts:
When I’m not on a ‘Light Day’ I don’t think too much about calories but I try not to overeat and practice Eating with Awareness. By the way, croissants/cheese/chocolate aren’t off limits but they are very much something to be kept to a minimum, savoured and enjoyed. Same with alcohol, I try and stick to 14 units a week, have at least 3 days booze free and favour dry wine and spirits with sugar-free mixers. It’s not joyless I promise, I still do have all the things I love I just don’t have them every day, and when I do have them I enjoy them all the more.
2] MINIMISE HEALTHY FOODS THAT ARE CALORIFIC. Ok this is important. If you are serious about losing weight in midlife it’s not enough to just eat the ‘good’ stuff. I meet so many frustrated people who insist they eat really healthily but can’t shift a bean. Yes, it’s perfectly possible to eat ‘well’ and not only NOT lose weight but actually put it on! Why? Because some of those healthy things are SUPER calorific. Things like avocados, nuts and nut butters, granola, energy balls and those raw vegan cakes which are to be found in healthy cafes because they are unbelievably calorific (they are basically nuts and oil).
A good friend of mine was getting super frustrated about her failure to lose weight and when I probed further it turns out she was working her way through a large bag of almonds every day, 100g of almonds has 636 calories! Now I’m not saying don’t eat these things, they are really good for you, but only in small quantities. To find out more about healthy foods that pack a hefty calorific punch click here Calorie Awareness.
3] EXERCISE. Whilst I truly believe you can’t exercise your way out of a poor diet I also know that exercising, particularly in midlife, is key for long term success. Of course, exercise expends calories so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that burning calories is a good thing, but if you are doing the right kinds of exercise it can help maintain and even build muscle mass, which will increase that all important BMR. Aim to be active every day – walking, Pilates, yoga, swimming - and try to do 2-3 more structured weight-bearing sessions each week too (weights at the gym, body pump, reformer Pilates HIIT training, Crossfit, F45). If I’m having a really busy day I will still try and do a 15 minute HIIT workout at home, my favourite free app is HASFIT but there are loads of others out there.
4] SLEEP. Your sleep can really suffer in midlife so it’s worth taking a few steps to improve your ‘sleep hygiene’ as it’s now called. The reason it’s important is that if you have a crap night’s sleep you are going to have really low energy levels the next day which inevitably means the raging munchies. There are a number of simple steps you can take to improve your quality of sleep such as, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, minimising noise and light in the bedroom and avoiding alcohol or caffeine after a certain time, but possibly the biggest issue these days are our screens. Turn your smartphone off entirely before you go to bed and charge overnight in a different room and switch off the WIFI completely at a certain time each night, then you won’t be tempted to keep on scrolling!
If you are still really struggling with sleep it’s worth getting some expert help, it could be hormonal (in which case HRT might be recommended), or stress-related or perhaps some other underlying medical reason. Without decent sleep weight loss will be virtually impossible.
So the upshot is, weight management is possible as you get older if you take an holistic approach. Regular but healthy calorie restriction, effective daily exercise and better sleep hygiene are key and, if you stick with these healthy habits long term, you may not end up half-assed, but you might well have a slightly perter one!*
Happy, healthy eating.
*I’d just like to mention that I feel slightly conflicted talking about weight loss because women have been beaten with the thin stick for too long, but the truth is that many of the midlife women I meet want to lose weight for a variety of reasons. The point of this post is to help them to do so in a positive, sustainable way with optimal long-term health outcomes.