What To Do When Midlife Weight Gain Kicks In


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

With aging comes various challenges to our health, like weight gain during midlife (age 40 - 60).

According to a recent study, women gain around 1.5 pounds per year during midlife (in their 50s and 60s) despite initial body size or race/ethnicity.

“In the United States, nearly two-thirds of women aged 40 to 59 years and about three-fourths of women 60 years and older are overweight,” the study reports. “Furthermore, almost half of the women in these age groups are obese.”

Postmenopausal women are more likely to gain weight in the belly area (visceral fat). Visceral fat is one of the most dangerous types of fat a person can have. Fat concentrated in the stomach area may increase your risk for fatty liver disease and more.

“Obesity and increased central body fat, particularly visceral fat, are associated with adverse metabolic consequences and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in postmenopausal women,” according to study notes.

“In fact, visceral fat deposits may increase to 15% to 20% of the total body fat, compared with 5% to 8% in the premenopausal state.”

Doctors are now encouraged to offer weight management advice to middle aged women even if it is not asked for.

So what may be causing this weight gain in midlife?

  • Loss of estrogen. Decreasing estrogen levels after menopause may lead to an increase in total body fat and may also cause a decrease in lean body mass. In addition to this, the process of aging itself  may cause certain physiological changes that may cause weight gain.
  • Mood disorders and sleep disturbances. “In a study of more than 68,000 women, those who slept 5 hours or less gained more weight than those sleeping more than 7 hours every night. Mood changes, which affect up to one-fourth of perimenopausal and postmenopausal women, can also interfere with the adoption of healthy lifestyle habits and contribute to weight gain,” the study says.
  • Less physical activity. The study reports, “[a]ging is also associated with a decrease in physical activity (PA), which may be subtle and therefore not easily perceived by the individual.” A decrease in physical activity may also contribute to the decrease in lean body mass. And some women do not take their caloric intake into account when they are not exercising as much. The study recommends about 1,200 to 1,500 calories for women in midlife. This may fluctuate, depending on the amount of exercise per day.

Everything is intertwined. If you are not sleeping well, you may be less likely to workout because of fatigue. And if you are not working out and sleeping well, you may be more likely to have a mood disorder and not lead a healthy lifestyle.

How is obesity or being overweight determined?

Generally, a BMI of 25 to 30 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.

But Body Mass Index (BMI) should never be the sole basis for determining whether you are healthy, overweight or obese. BMI is simply your weight (kg) divided by your height (meters) squared.

Your weight, however, in pounds just does not simply tell you enough. Looking at how much muscle, fat and water is in those pounds tells you much more about your health. You could be at a healthy weight but still have 40 to 50 percent body fat, which is not healthy at all.

More accurate methods of determining obesity is observing how your clothes fit, how damaged your joints are from supporting excess weight or measuring your waist circumference.

In addition, you can get a more comprehensive body composition test that measures intra-abdominal fat and more.

How can we be proactive about midlife weight gain?

Nutrition. Nutrition. Nutrition.

Exercise, both strength training and cardio, are important for a healthy heart, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. But my experience has been that  weight management is 80% nutrition and 20% physical activity.

Remember, it is difficult to out-train a bad diet.

In addition to eating a healthy diet, devoid of refined sugar and processed carbohydrates, there are certain minerals you can make sure you are getting enough of that may help with weight management.

  • Magnesium. There is some evidence that  low magnesium levels can slow down growth of lean body mass (muscle and bone building) and promote an increase in body fat. Foods containing magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dark chocolate and bananas.
  • Phosphorus. In a study of almost 40,000 women in Korea, phosphorus deficiency correlated with weight gain from oral contraceptives. Even more exciting is a study from Lebanon showing that phosphorus supplements in a small group (63 people) for 12 weeks significantly decreased body weight, BMI, waist circumference and subjective appetite scores. Dietary sources of phosphorus include salmon, halibut, yogurt, milk, turkey, chicken, beef, lentils, almonds, peanuts, eggs and bread.
  • Iron. There’s a lot of research on the link between obesity and iron deficiency. Basically, excess weight seems related to iron deficiency. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on a study involving obese and non-obese women who ate a meal “rigged” to test their iron absorption. In overweight and obese women, iron absorption was two-thirds than in normal-weight women. Iron-rich foods include red meat, pork, poultry, seafoods, beans, spinach (and other leafy greens), peas, cherimoyas and iron-fortified cereals.
  • Zinc. A compelling amount of evidence suggests that zinc helps to block the bad effects of obesity in the body. This may be due to zinc’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Foods like lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass fed beef, mushrooms, chickpeas and spinach are rich in zinc.

It is also important to make sure you are drinking plenty of water. Water may be important for burning fat and may increase your metabolism. One study suggests drinking 500 ml of water increased metabolic rate by 30%.

As you age, it may be more challenging for your body to absorb certain nutrients. Getting a nutritional test is key in ensuring your body has adequate amounts of essential vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients. Deficiencies in critical nutrients may hinder weight loss despite your good efforts. If you have any deficiencies, you can work with your healthcare provider on tweaking your diet and maybe even taking good quality supplements.

What else can you do?

If you are a middle aged woman, perimenopausal or postmenopausal, and are really struggling with weight gain (despite leading a healthy lifestyle), talk to a competent healthcare professional. Have an open communication with that professional. Discussing your weight is not about judgement. It’s really no different than discussing your cholesterol levels or anything else critical to your health with your doctor.

Some people say we should age gracefully. However, I think they really mean to say we should age healthily. Without health, grace is difficult to achieve.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.