Is midlife weight gain inevitable?

Weight gain doesn’t have to be a fact of midlife, but you’ll probably need to work a little harder to avoid excess kilos.

Ask women how ageing affects their weight, and most will say weight gain is another inevitable downside of midlife and menopause.

But midlife and menopause don’t actually cause weight gain, says Professor Susan Davis, Director of the Women’s Health Group at Monash University. Rather it’s ‘environmental factors and ageing’ that are to blame, such as having more children, leading an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, and choosing calorie-dense foods that are cheaper than healthier foods.

“Increasing inactivity means less muscle mass, thus slowing the metabolism and contributing to weight gain. At all ages, weight control is a matter of calories in and calories out. If you’re gaining weight it’s usually because more are going in than going out!”

Midlife super foods
Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella picks five healthy super foods for women at midlife.

1. Sardines
Excellent source of calcium – make sure you eat the bones – and omega 3 fatty acids.

2. Linseeds
Contain phytoestrogens (lignans) – two dessertspoons daily helps manage vaginal dryness. Add two dessertspoons of freshly ground linseeds to cereal or smoothies or added to bread. Only grind enough to last two weeks and store in an airtight container in the fridge. A good source of soluble fibre.

3. Prunes
Rich in antioxidants, a source of fibre and may be useful to help maintain bone density.

4. Low fat yoghurt with live cultures
Yoghurt is a good source of calcium and live cultures help gut health and oestrogen metabolism.

5. Broccoli
Vegetables in the broccoli family are linked with reduced risks of some cancers, including breast cancer.

Tips for preventing weight gain

  • Focus on preventing weight gain, rather than weight loss 
  • Set realistic health goals and find a supporting GP 
  • Fit in some physical activity in the morning when you have more energy
  • Eat breakfast every day 
  • Identify barriers and develop strategies to eat better and exercise more 
  • Monitor your weight and measure your waistline once or twice a month 
  • Choose lower fat versions of foods (but watch out for extra sugar) 
  • Eat regularly and only when hungry – not when tired, bored or upset

“This makes you more aware of what you put in your mouth and allows you to think ‘do I really want to eat this’?” Awareness is the first step. Dr Amanda Newman, GP at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, agrees that weight gain isn’t inevitable. “Simple changes, such as reducing portion size and giving up sweet biscuits with morning tea, can help avoid the average female weight gain of around half a kilo per year.” It’s important to recognise emotional reasons behind weight gain, such as eating in response to feelings of stress, boredom, frustration, loneliness or anger. Dr Newman recommends keeping a food diary, listing what you eat; when, where and why.

Physical changes
While weight gain isn’t inevitable at midlife, Professor Davis says menopause causes body fat to shift from the hips to the abdomen due to a fall in the hormone, oestrogen. “Abdominal fat is metabolically active – it’s a sort of unhealthy chemical factory,” explains Professor Davis.

“These chemicals block the action of insulin, increase blood pressure and increase blood fat. Having a greater amount of abdominal fat increases the risk of hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and some cancers, like breast cancer.”

Replacing oestrogen through HRT can help minimise abdominal fat, so it’s worth talking to a GP about whether oestrogen replacement is appropriate.

“HRT doesn’t cause weight gain and oestrogen prevents some of this shift of fat,” says Professor Davis. Women’s health experts believe preventing weight gain and maintaining a steady weight at midlife are vital steps in protecting women’s health.

“Losing weight is hard, so we sometimes go the other way, pay less attention to what we eat and so put on more weight. Instead, aim to avoid gaining weight,” advises Dr Newman.

Research into preventing weight gain 

Tip: Take responsibility for your own health. Make small changes, be proactive, and you will avoid age-related weight gain.

Women who took part in the Healthy Lifestyle Program (HeLP), funded by the Helen McPherson Smith Trust, also benefited from discussing how they could set and stick to weight-related goals, and how to overcome barriers to healthy eating and exercise. Monitoring their weight regularly also prevented weight gain. Dr Cate Lombard, Head of the Healthy Lifestyle Program (HELP), Women’s Public Health Research, Monash University (who conducted her initial research while head of the Healthy Lifestyle Program at Jean Hailes) found that women with school-age children prevented weight gain when they were part of a walking group.

“It can be easier to take part in a regular exercise program with other women – go for a walk instead of meeting for coffee,” suggests Dr Lombard.

“It’s an opportunity to encourage each other, share advice on how to manage weight, and make exercise enjoyable. It’s difficult to lose weight. Preventing weight gain is easier because the changes needed are tiny.”

“Take responsibility for your own health. Make small changes, be proactive, and you will avoid age-related weight gain,” says Prof Davis. “So many health issues of ageing are related to being overweight. Midlife is a time when women can change their future health.” 

Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health or call toll free 1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)