Being in my 40s means that conversations with friends often include someone woefully declaring, “None of my pants fit anymore!” or “I gained five pounds and have no idea why!” We all nod sympathetically because we can relate.
Weight gain in midlife is real. It’s also one of the biggest concerns that women have in the years around menopause, according to the new book The Menopause Diet Plan, by Hillary Wright, MEd, RDN, and Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD. “One of the mistakes we all make is not talking about menopause enough and not educating women about the changes their bodies will go through,” says Ward. “That results in women being taken by surprise when the number on the scale goes up and their clothes don't fit.”
Here are some common misconceptions about weight gain in midlife -- plus the facts, so you can understand what’s happening and take steps to feel better physically and emotionally.
Myth #1: Menopause weight gain is your fault.
Forget the insulting and time-worn accusation of “letting yourself go.” According to the book’s authors, it’s a simple fact that many women gain about 1.5 pounds a year in their 40s and 50s. That’s due to a few things: Metabolism naturally slows with age. You also lose muscle in midlife (and muscle burns more calories than fat). Plus, lower levels of estrogen can lead to more fat around your middle.
Myth #2: Weight gain doesn't happen until you hit menopause.
Weight gain actually starts in perimenopause, the years leading up to menopause (which is officially defined as 12 months in a row of no periods). That transition to menopause can take up to ten years.
Myth #3: Gaining extra pounds around menopause isn't a big deal.
Sure, some weight gain around menopause is about appearance -- and the inconvenience of going up a size in clothes. But the authors caution that too much extra weight can also increase your risk for conditions that occur more frequently with age, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Extra weight can also make hot flashes worse.
Myth #4: There's nothing you can do about menopause weight gain.
Though weight gain is normal in midlife, there are some steps you can take to slow it, stop it, or drop pounds that you’ve gained:
Add in (or step up) strength training: Metabolism slows with age largely because of muscle loss, says Ward. So preserving and even building muscle right now is key. All exercise can help burn calories, which helps with weight control. But Ward recommends challenging resistance exercise, such as weight training, at least twice a week (in addition to other activities like walking) to stay strong and help combat weight gain. Bonus: Exercise can also help with menopause side effects like sleep problems, moodiness, and a low energy level.
Be smarter about WHEN you eat: “Eating after sundown or approaching sundown is not in harmony with the way our body best processes food, which is earlier in the day,” says Ward. She adds that it’s common for women to not eat enough during the day, then become so hungry by dinner that they eat far more calories than they need -- which also contributes to weight control issues.
Avoid drastic diets: They may work in the short term, but most are way too low in calories and nutrients -- so they’re unsustainable. You end up feeling like you’ve failed when you gain back the weight (and often, then some). Making small changes in your eating habits is a much better approach to long-term health and happiness, says Ward.
Focus on protein and smarter carbs: There’s a misconception that you have to “cut out carbs” to lose weight in midlife. But carbohydrate foods include fruits, vegetables, dairy foods like plain yogurt, and whole grains like oatmeal. “Those foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber that women need for good health and we don’t want women cutting them out in the name of weight loss,” says Ward. Prioritizing those foods over low-nutrient carb foods like cookies, chips, and ice cream is a better approach. Including protein at meals and snacks is also key.
But the fact is, all bodies change throughout life. If your post-menopause body looks different than your 20-something body, that’s normal and OK! It’s natural to grapple with embracing the changes, but as Ward suggests, try to focus on how eating nutritious foods and being physically active are making you FEEL. In sharing her own experience, Ward says, though she lost most of the weight she gained around menopause, she’d rather enjoy chocolate every day and a glass or two of wine on the weekends than lose those last few pounds. “It's important to have balance in your life,” she says.