Hale and hearty after 40
Why is it so hard to lose weight after 40? When diets no longer seem to work, LEAH HARDY reveals how to lose weight and feel fitter for ever
Dr Sally Norton knows more about obesity than almost anyone. She’s an NHS consultant who became the first female weight-loss surgeon in the UK. But these days, she spends most of her time coaching people to lose weight without going under the knife. “Every day, I am contacted by women in their 40s and beyond asking why weight loss seems to be so hard now,” she says. “The quick diet that shifted the pounds when you were in your 20s no longer seems to work. Waistbands, in particular, seem to be getting tighter and women are in despair.” So, is this struggle just a sad fact of getting older, is it the menopause, or have you just run out of willpower? “The first thing to say is it’s not your fault,” says Dr Norton. “The fact is, we hit a perfect storm around this age – stress, hormones and lifestyle all play a part – and it’s hard to fight back.” But, she says, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Simple, easy, science-based lifestyle changes will naturally help you to reach a healthy weight and stay there for ever. Here’s how it works.
Q. WHAT HAPPENS TO OUR BODY THAT MAKES THE POUNDS PILE ON?
A. “Men and women naturally gain weight as we age at a rate of around one and a half pounds a year through our 50s and 60s,” says Dr Norton. “We also lose eight per cent of muscle each decade after 40. As muscle burns more calories than fat, this reduces our metabolic rate. Hormonal changes, stress and poor nutrition and exercise habits also contribute.”
Q. CAN ANYTHING BE DONE TO REVERSE THIS?
A. Yes. Studies show that almost any exercise can help you to maintain and even build muscle as you age. One University of Birmingham study showed that cyclists aged 55-79 had the same muscle mass as much younger people. As well as exercise, eating good quality protein throughout the day can also help you to maintain muscle. Try eating a portion at every meal. Try yoghurt or peanut butter at breakfast and a small portion of meat, fish or beans at lunch. Taking HRT is associated with having slightly more lean muscle mass in menopausal women.
Q. WHY DON’T DIETS THAT WORKED IN OUR 20S AND 30S STILL WORK?
A. If you’ve yo-yo-dieted, this causes loss of muscle and an increase in fat. That affects your metabolism, making future diets less successful. You also need fewer calories as you age due to changes in your metabolism. The US Department of Health suggests women aged 20-24 eat 2,000 calories a day, but this drops to 1,800 by age 25 and 1,600 between the ages of 50 and 80. However, your nutritional needs don’t change, so the best approach is to improve the quality of your diet, reducing or removing processed food, rather than simply eating less.
Q. HOW DO OUR HORMONES AFFECT OUR WEIGHT?
A. “Falls in oestrogen levels around the menopause cause an increase in body fat and a decrease in bone and bone muscle mass. Even if your weight on the scales stays the same, your body can look and feel different. Around one in 100 people will suffer from an underactive thyroid, which causes weight gain. It’s more common in women, and the risk rises with age. Cortisol is a hormone produced when we are under physical or mental stress. It interferes with the way our body regulates blood sugar and is associated with weight gain, especially around the middle. Low oestrogen levels can cause a rise in cortisol.”
Q. MY SHAPE IS CHANGING AFTER THE MENOPAUSE. WHY?
A.“Oestrogen affects where we store our fat, and after the menopause, we accumulate fat in a more ‘male’ way. Our legs and bottoms may get thinner, but we have more fat around our middles. This includes visceral fat stored internally, including in and around our organs. This toxic fat can put us at risk of fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems.”
Q. CAN I HAVE A DRINK AND LOSE WEIGHT?
A. You can drink the odd glass of wine and lose weight but remember that alcohol makes sleep quality worse and reduces your willpower too. Everyone should have several alcohol-free days a week.
Q. WHY AM I HUNGRIER THAN I USED TO BE?
A “More insulin in your blood from stress or excess carbohydrates can ramp up your appetite. But being hungrier can also be connected to poor sleep,” says Dr Norton.
Q. HANG ON, WHAT’S SLEEP GOT TO DO WITH IT?
A. “Sleep is crucial,” says Dr Norton. Lack of sleep lowers the levels of leptin, which suppresses appetite, and increases ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite. “Getting enough sleep helps you to lose fat and protects you from losing muscle when shedding weight. One night of poor sleep can raise cortisol levels by up to 40 per cent, making it harder to burn off fat during the day.”
Q. BUT WHAT CAN I DO IF THE MENOPAUSE IS MAKING ME TIRED?
A. “Hot flushes can disturb your sleep,” says Dr Norton. “But what women often don’t realise is that during the menopause, you also become prone to tiny periods of wakefulness at night.” What’s the solution? “It’s worth considering HRT,” says Dr Norton. “People worry about health risks, but bad sleep and excess weight can be even more of a risk.” Alternatively, yoga and meditation have been shown to reduce hot flushes and improve sleep. Try Clarity, a meditation app for menopausal women.
Q. DOES IT MATTER WHEN I EAT?
A. “Fasting can increase your metabolism and help you to burn more fat,” says Dr Norton. “Try having dinner a maximum of 12 hours after breakfast, so you fast for 12 hours overnight – it’s easier when you are asleep!
Q. AND WHAT ABOUT SNACKS?
A. “You will find it easier to control your weight if you eat less frequently,” says Dr Norton.
Q. WHAT ABOUT SUGAR?
A. Added sugar – that’s sugar in sweets, cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks and added to tea and coffee – is associated with weight gain. One study found that a protein on fat cells prevents fat being burnt for energy. This protein is switched on by high sugar and stress. Get your sweet fix from fruit instead. Don’t swap sugar for artificial sweeteners. “Some are toxic to our gut bacteria,” says Dr Norton. “We all have millions of bacteria living in our intestines, and overweight people have different strains from people of normal weight. Eating fermented food such as live yoghurt and sauerkraut plus plenty of fresh, high-fibre foods such as vegetables and fruit helps these vital bugs to help us.”
Q. HOW CAN I COPE WITH CRAVINGS?
A. “Processed food is often full of sugar and chemicals that are actually addictive,” says Dr Norton. “However, studies show we can retrain our brains to prefer healthier foods in around three months.” Taking care of our stress levels, exercising, getting enough sleep and nourishing our bodies with healthy, natural food also helps.