One of the main culprits for weight gain is, of course, our hormones, which start to change right around the mid-30s and into the 40s. This change in hormones, less estrogen for women and less testosterone for men, cause the fat in our bodies fat to shift to the middle of the body while abandoning other areas of the body you could care less about. That's one reason you may get a little fluffier around the middle while other parts of you actually get smaller.
"One of the reasons that it's difficult to lose weight in your 40s is that you are beginning to lose muscle mass, so the composition of your body tissue changes," explains Keri Peterson, MD, Women's Health advisor. "Having higher muscle mass raises your metabolism, so your body burns more calories." So when you're dealing with the opposite—less muscle mass—that means a slower metabolism. Argh.
There appears to be a connection between estrogen and body weight regulation. With lower estrogen levels, lab animals tend to eat more and be less physically active. Levels that are too high or too low appear to lead to fat storage. And, lower estrogen levels may also slow down your metabolic rate (the speed at your body converts stored energy into working energy).
To jumpstart your weight loss, the biggest focus should be to develop habits that will help you build or maintain your muscle mass. "The most effective way that women over 40 can boost their metabolism is by building muscle through weight-lifting and resistance training," says Dr. Peterson (more on that to come). But nutrition and sleep habits also play a role here.
Alcohol adds unnecessary calories and sugar to your diet. Drinking alcohol may also increase your appetite, leading you to consume more calories.30 When you’re under the influence of alcohol, you may also be tempted to choose less nutritious options, such as processed junk foods. I recommend reducing your alcohol consumption to an occasional glass of wine or eliminating it completely.
If you are taking the appropriate measures (e.g., eating enough of a calorie deficit for your age and body composition, stressing less, and working on strength training) and still not losing weight, and you also have other symptoms of hypothyroidism (such as constipation, fatigue, dry hair and nails), then it may be worth considering getting your thyroid levels checked," advises Dr. Peterson.
Even if you’re eating reasonably well, you can still be in a calorie surplus. Whether you’re eating oversized portions, taking mindless bites while prepping family meals or grazing as part of a new work-from-home norm, all that noshing adds up. Tracking your food intake can be helpful. In one 24-week study, researchers found that time spent logging food intake was significantly linked to weight loss. If tracking your food (even with an app) sounds daunting, consider that by the end of the study, those who were still committed to tracking spent just 15 minutes a day doing it — about what you might spend scrolling through Facebook or Instagram.
Soda and other sugary soft drinks are all empty calories that may result in weight gain and health problems. Don’t be fooled—diet soda is not better. It’s full of artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and often caffeine that can disrupt your health.31,32 It can interfere with your hunger hormones, increase your appetite, and lead to weight gain.33,34 Herbal teas and green juices are a good option.
When you’re under-rested, your appetite-regulating hormones get short-circuited, so your appetite goes into overdrive, but the hormones that tell you you’re full don’t kick in promptly. Studies also suggest that when you’re sleep-deprived, it alters the way you think about food, so you have stronger cravings for sweets and other less healthful eats.
It’s usually not just due to losing muscle mass over time (more on that later). "It's multifactorial," says Fatima Stanford, MD, MPH, obesity medicine physician scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Numerous factors can sneak up on you and help you gain or hold onto weight, including your lifestyle, your food, your biology, and your sleep habits. The good news in that is that there are also numerous ways to tackle getting your weight to where you want it—you don't have to force yourself into one approach, and you get to choose what works for you.
Before you try anything else, make sure there isn’t an underlying factor interfering with your weight loss, like a thyroid condition. Did you know that nearly 1 in 5 adults over 40 suffer from thyroid problems that can interfere with weight loss? Your thyroid is the main regulator of your body’s metabolism, so having an over or under-active thyroid gland (hyper or hypothyroidism) can truly interfere with weight loss. Talk to your doctor if you’re having trouble losing weight and also experiencing any of the following symptoms of a thyroid disorder:
In your forties, your body may have an increasingly difficult time digesting carbohydrates, which may lead to weight gain. Living a stressful life can lead to an increase in the stress-hormone called cortisol, which can make you more prone to gaining belly fat. Estrogen loss may also lead to fat redistribution in your body and cause belly fat gain.11
It's a myth that eating at night leads to weight gain, Palinksi-Wade points out; it's more about what you're eating at night that can be an issue when it comes to weight management. "Since most of us don’t have a salad for a midnight snack, if you find you tend to eat calorie-dense, high-sugar foods in the evening (like a bowl of ice cream) setting guidelines as to when to stop eating may help you to lose weight faster."
“To achieve and maintain a healthy weight as we age, it’s imperative that we incorporate a ‘movement portfolio’ into our daily lives,” said Kushner. He explained that your portfolio should include activities of daily living (like walking, using the stairs and house cleaning), active fitness activities (like bike riding and using the elliptical machine) and resistance-training exercises. Kushner also recommended trying to reduce the time you spend doing sedentary activities like watching TV. “These targeted action steps will boost metabolism and help maintain muscle mass,” he said.
While quality zzz’s can become ever-elusive as you age from busy schedules, back pain, or menopausal symptoms like hot flashes or insomnia, getting enough sleep is an essential component to weight loss. A good night’s sleep actually burns calories! Plus, studies have shown a strong link between lack of sleep and over-eating the following day. This is because the hormones ghrelin and leptin are thrown out of whack when you don’t get enough sleep, leaving you feeling more hungry but less satiated at every meal, which leads to overeating.
If you're genetically predisposed to gain weight easily, that may be another strike against you. Even if you don't actually gain weight, you may still gain inches around the waist. This weight gain can be so frustrating, it's easy to become obsessed with losing it, starving yourself or exercising too much or maybe even looking into the latest plastic surgery procedure.