There are several amazing things that come with age: greater wisdom, deeper empathy, and a better sense of knowing who you are. But getting older also means greater risks for disease, and those health risks increase with weight gain.
Once you hit your 40s, it's easier than ever for the pounds to pile on—and tougher to take them off. That's because your metabolism slows down as you get older, making it harder to burn calories. What's more, falling estrogen levels during perimenopause and menopause (which can begin in your early 40s) can cause insulin sensitivity, which makes it harder for your body to control the amount of sugar in your blood, says Caroline Cederquist, MD, a board-certified bariatric surgeon and founder of the meal delivery service BistroMD. If your blood sugar levels constantly spike and crash, it can increase your cravings for unhealthy snacks, Dr. Cederquist says.
So it's no wonder why so many women over 40 end up hitting a weight-loss wall. But dropping the pounds isn't impossible. Here are a few ways you can outsmart your slowing metabolism and get lean—for good.
1. Create a list of reasons you want to lose weight
Those who are most successful at losing weight after 40 do it when they have a very clear reason why they want to do it. Maybe you've been watching the scale creep up a pound or two every year and are ready to nix bad habits, or you've been given a wake-up call by your doctor that it's time to get serious about how your weight is impacting your overall health. “You need to have a mental awakening that puts you in a state of readiness to change. If you’re not engaged mentally, it’s not happening,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of The Hunger Fix.
2. Re-think your nutrients
You already know that nutrition and fitness go hand-in-hand when it comes to weight loss, so evaluating your diet is a good place to begin your journey. Limiting refined carbs and processed foods from your diet can help combat age-related insulin resistance and promote steady blood sugar levels, Dr. Cederquist says. Incorporating more protein to your diet can also help curb hunger and keep you satiated so you're not tempted to load up on unhealthy foods. Not only does the macronutrient help stave off age-related muscle loss, but it also helps keep your metabolism revved because the body has to work harder to digest it than, say, a bagel. How much of each nutrient you consume each time you eat matters, too. In a perfect world each meal and snack should have:
- Vegetables: It goes without saying that half of your plate should be filled with veggies. They’re high in fiber and water, so they'll keep you satisfied and stave off hunger without contributing too many calories to your diet. Plus, they deliver ample amounts of disease-fighting antioxidants and nutrients that'll help you reduce risk of disease.
- Lean protein: At each meal, your plate should have a protein serving that’s about the size of your palm. Excellent sources of lean protein include Greek yogurt, eggs, chicken, and fish. Some plant-based sources of protein are quinoa, edamame, farro, and hemp seeds.
- Complex carbohydrates: Contrary to what most people think, carbs are essential in any type of weight-loss diet. Eating carbs leaves you with a more satisfied feeling with your meal, and eliminating them from your diet isn't sustainable long-term. Your plate should have a serving that’s the size of your closed fist. Whole grains, beans, fresh fruit, and starchy veggies, like sweet potatoes, are all good choices.
- Healthy fats: Not all fats are created equal. Healthy fats are essential for a strong heart, a sharp mind, and glowing skin. Foods, like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish, are all excellent sources of healthy fats. But it's important to note that these foods are also calorie-dense, so be mindful of how much you consume daily. Aim for 7 to 10 grams of fat every time you eat. That’s 1½ teaspoon of olive oil, a quarter of an avocado, or 2 tablespoons of nuts or seeds.
3. Remember to keep portion sizes in mind
“When it comes to losing weight, what actually moves the needle is always dietary change,” says Dr. Cederquist. It doesn't matter if all you eat is grilled chicken, brown rice, and broccoli. If you don't cut back on your portions, you won't lose weight. Everyone's calorie needs are different, but in general, a woman eating 2,000 calories per day should aim to cut back by 400 to 500 calories, recommends Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color.
4. Avoid skipping meals
There's a wrong and a right way to skip meals. When you skip meals to punish or restrict yourself, it tells your body to squirrel away calories instead of burning them. Skipping meals also increases the chances that your blood sugar will crash, leaving you ravenous for a quick energy hit in the form of sugary carbs, Dr. Cederquist says. But skipping meals the right way is called intermittent fasting. There are different methods for practicing intermittent fasting, including the 16:8 diet, which restricts eating to an 8-hour window and fasting for a 16-hour period. Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can not only be beneficial for weight loss, but it can also help you get prediabetes and diabetes under control.
5. Keep all types of carbs in check
When you're in your 40s and beyond, it's not just white bread, pasta, and sugar that you need to watch. You also need to control your intake of healthy carbs like fruits and whole grains, says Dr. Cederquist. Don’t eliminate healthy carbs completely, but stick to recommended serving sizes.
6. Eat fewer calories, more frequently
Increased insulin resistance might leave you feeling hungrier. Dividing up your food into three moderately sized meals and one to two small snacks will keep your blood sugar levels steady while combatting the urge to nibble on junk, Largeman-Roth says. Piling your plate with more low-calorie, high-volume foods—like fruits and vegetables—can help fill you up, too.
7. Be picky with dessert
Sadly, you can't scarf down burgers and chocolate shakes like you did in your 20s and expect to lose weight. But you can still enjoy your favorite foods. You just might need to save them for when you really have a hankering—and say goodbye to the treats that fall lower on your list of craveables. Instead of mindlessly dipping into that bag of chips just because it's there, think about what would truly satisfy you. Is it chips or are you actually craving something else? If you decide the chips are worth the calories, then help yourself to a small serving, and savor every bite. (That means no mindless munching in front of the TV.)
As for how often you should indulge? Everyone is different, and it really depends on your weight loss goals. So figure out what works for you. "Some women do great with a 100-to-150-calorie treat every day, but others find that they need to keep it to two to three times per week," says Dr. Cederquist.
8. Watch your alcohol intake
One thing to keep in mind? Alcohol counts as a treat, so don't let yourself go overboard, and try sticking to low-calorie alcoholic drinks. "You could fit two to four glasses of wine per week into a weight loss program," Largeman-Roth says. Just make a point to stick to the five-ounce recommended serving size, since it can be easy to over-pour when you don't pay attention. And yes, if you enjoy a glass with dinner, it means you should skip out on that piece of chocolate for dessert.
9. Move more
Losing weight through diet alone isn't possible, especially after 40, when hormones like testosterone tend to dip. As a result, calorie-torching muscle mass, along with the numbers of calories your body burns during exercise, starts to take a nosedive, says Dr. Cederquist.
Getting the recommended 30 minutes of daily activity is a good start, but now's the time to ramp things up even more by also working in at least 10,000 daily steps. Adding in four to five weekly resistance training sessions can help you maintain your muscle mass and burn even more calories, Largeman-Roth says.
But one common mistake to avoid is jumping straight into an intense exercise regimen, Dr. Peeke says. “That’s the worst thing you can do because it increases your risk of injury,” she says. Brisk walking, on the other hand, helps you shed pounds and keeps you pain-free. Be sure to talk to your doctor about recommending a workout routine that works best for you. Or, hire a personal trainer who can develop a fitness program that meets your weight-loss goals.
10. Know yourself, and be honest
Being over 40 doesn't automatically mean that you now have to cut out certain foods to get (or stay) slim—unless you know deep down that a food is truly getting in the way of your goals. "If having a square of chocolate leads to eating an entire bag of chocolate, having a square of chocolate does not work for you," Dr. Cederquist says.
In other words? If certain foods seem to open the floodgates for you without fail, it might be better to steer clear altogether and stick with treats that don't trigger a binge. It might feel tough at first. But instead of seeing it as deprivation, reframe your decision as a choice—and a positive one at that. "Acknowledge that these foods don't work for you and the health goals that are important to you," Dr. Cederquist says.
Lastly, keep in mind that the weight-loss strategies that work best for you could change down the road. "I find that for women over 40, myself included, it's vital to assess what you're doing each year," Largeman-Roth says. If your progress starts to stall, consider switching up parts of your diet or fitness plan. "Our bodies like a challenge," Largeman-Roth says.
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