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Nutrition and Your Body at Midlife - Why Does It Feel Different?

Go out to dinner or have coffee with women in their 40’s and you will inevitably hear “No matter what I do, I put on weight!”  As a woman in my 40’s (albeit my last year) and as a dietitian that sees women in their 40’s  and 50’s, I assure you, we are all experiencing these changes. 

AND, there are real, physiological reasons this occurs.  Despite what you may believe, you are not lazy, or unmotivated, or “eating the wrong foods”, and your dryer is most likely not shrinking all of your jeans.  Here are some of the reasons our bodies change at midlife.

1.  Hormones:  Peri-menopause begins for most women in their 40’s but can start in your 30’s. Menopause is said to occur one year after your last period sometime in your 50’s.  Estrogen is linked to changes in storage and distribution of fat. It’s not “in your head” that things are changing-especially around your middle.        

2.  Lean Body Mass:  Lean body mass (muscle) declines with aging. Why is this a factor in weight GAIN? Lean body mass is more metabolically active than fat which means it helps you use more energy.  Strength training, yoga, walking, running, swimming and just moving your body can all help women preserve lean body mass.

 3.  Stress:  Managing your stress becomes very important in midlife. Whether carting around teenagers, caring for aging parents or trying to balance work and home has you frazzled, midlife can be a stressful time.  Cortisol, the hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy.  It also stimulates another hormone, insulin, for maintenance of blood sugar levels.  Increases in cortisol can increase in appetite and lead to cravings for sweet, high-fat, and salty foods.  Elevated cortisol is also linked to increased fat storage around our organs.  Many find meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques can be useful to minimize your stress response and decreasing cortisol levels. Connecting with loved ones and friends helps too!

 3. Sleep:  During peri-menopause, sleep quality can be affected by hot flashes and insomnia.  Sleep loss increases the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreases the hormone leptin, which regulates satiety. Feeling hungrier and less satisfied can be part of the overall picture of weight gain.  Read more about this here

4.  Microbiome:  In addition to bodies and hormones changing, the flora diversity in our gut is changing too. This can lead to weight gain as we know a less diverse biome can lead to increase fat storage and insulin resistance. If you are interested, here is some light reading on the microbiome and aging.

5 Dieting:  Skipping breakfast and “saving calories” for lunch and dinner can set your body up for feeling deprived and overeating later in the day. This is particularly difficult when trying to juggle afternoon activities and dinner prep. Dieting leads to more efficient fat storage and more weight gain in the long run.  Evenly distributing protein at all meals and snacks will help keep your metabolism up, preserve lean muscle tissue and leave you feeling nourished and satisfied.

So, what is a middle aged woman to do?  Practice some self-love for starters.  Media messages about what a mid-life body SHOULD look like can contribute to negative self-image, shame and poorer self-care habits. Phrases like “Fifty is the new forty” or images of celebrities with seemingly flawless bodies, carefully airbrushed to erase any lines and wrinkles can set us up for unrealistic expectations. Keeping jeans you wore in your 30’s isn't helping either. Dress to feel comfortable and confident for your body now.  Put self-care and self-love high on your priority list.  Focus on feeling well and vibrant instead of what your body looks like.  Negative body image detracts from enjoying life.  There's little to no chance we'll ever feel completely satisfied with our body 100% of the time.  So, let's spend less time thinking about it and more time taking care of ourselves and enjoying activities we love!


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