If you’re like many women, you might feel like you’ve been waging a war against your weight that’s seeming less winnable the older you get. The reality is that for most women the number on the scale continues to creep up until around age 65. What’s worse, as we age, the extra weight we put on is more likely to be belly fat, which increases inflammation and can lead to chronic health problems.
But adding pounds every time you put another candle on your birthday cake doesn’t have to be a fact of life. One way to maintain a healthy size as you age is to be aware of the life stages and circumstances that tend to cause weight gain in women. Keeping extra weight off during these times can make a big difference in whether your weight stays within a healthy range over the course of your life. Even if the number you see on the scale isn’t your ideal, you’ll still be healthier for it.
Doctors recommend that most women gain a total of one to four pounds during the first trimester and two to four pounds per month after that, for a total weight gain, ideally, between 25 and 35 pounds; women who are obese are advised to gain just 11 to 20 pounds. But as many women know first-hand, becoming a mom often comes with lasting weight gain. One study found that most mothers weigh about four pounds more than their pre-baby weight six to 18 months after giving birth; for up to 20 percent of women, it’s closer to an extra 11 pounds. If you gained too much while expecting and weren’t able to drop those pounds, research shows you’re particularly at risk for being overweight later in life.
Keep It Off: If you’re eating for two, it might feel easier to justify bigger portions of your favorite foods and more trips to the snack drawer. That’s why it’s better to think of nourishing for two instead. If you’re pregnant, it’s fine to give in to cravings once in a while (mint chocolate chip ice cream, Mama?). But most of the extra 350 to 450 calories your body needs daily during the second and third trimesters should come from healthy foods loaded with important nutrients for you and your baby-to-be (note that most of us don’t need extra calories during the first trimester). Try to keep most of your choices focused on whole-food carbs (whole grains, legumes, veggies and fruits), lean protein and good fats—the same foods that help maintain a healthy weight throughout life. If you’ve been carrying around extra baby weight for years, consider talking to your doctor about a diet and exercise plan that can help you finally chip away at those excess pounds. “Even if you’ve been carrying that extra baby weight for some time, it’s never too late to readjust your calorie balance and exercise regimen,” says Patricia Murphy, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “Optimize your carbohydrate, protein and fat intake to adjust for your changing metabolism and refocus your weight loss.”
Our metabolism slows as we age and many of us become more sedentary the older we get. That means we’re burning fewer calories throughout the day than we used to, causing us to gain an average of one pound a year in midlife. Unfortunately, the hormonal shifts that happen during menopause cause this weight to accumulate around our abdomens—and belly fat is associated with dangerous health conditions such as high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Keep It Off: A healthy diet and regular exercise to manage weight are always important, but they’re especially crucial during and after the menopause transition, when the generous bowls of pasta we crave are more likely to add inches to our waistlines than when we were younger. That means you’ll need to pay more attention to portion sizes and even downsize from what you’re used to eating. “After menopause, depending on your exercise and activity level, you may need to consume fewer calories daily than you did in your 30s and 40s to adjust to your changing metabolism and aid in maintaining a healthy weight,” Murphy says.
You may also need to rebalance the macronutrients in your diet. Some women need to consume less fat and more protein, or more or less carbohydrates, for example. A nutritionist can help you determine how to adjust your diet to match your changing metabolism.
If your lifestyle has become increasingly sedentary there’s an antidote for that: plenty of exercise. Aim for strength training exercises at least twice a week and moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, for at least 150 minutes a week. (If you’re doing vigorous aerobic workouts, such as jogging, you may be able to scale that number back to 75 minutes a week.) Being less sedentary in little ways throughout the day can also help you maintain a healthy weight. Bike to work, take the stairs instead of the elevator or park your car in the spot farthest away from the door to the grocery store.
Injuries and Illness
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting sick or hurt and having your best exercise and healthy-eating intentions derailed. Whether you’ve had chronic back or neck pain for years or you’ve been sidelined by a sore elbow or knee due to a tennis injury, aches and pains that keep you from exercising are a common reason for extra pounds. A recent study found that back injuries often result in significant weight gain, even a year after an injury. And getting in a jog or making it to a yoga class is naturally less likely to happen when you’re under the weather. The biggest trouble may be that once you’re out of your routine, it can be hard to get back into it. Plus, medication for chronic conditions, like some antidepressants and migraine pills, can cause you to gain weight, too.
Keep It Off: Not only does an injury or illness prevent you from being physically active, but the stress that often results from these setbacks—everything from dealing with sky-high medical bills to the pure exhaustion that comes with managing pain—can easily lead to overeating. So be aware of times when you might be eating because of emotional needs rather than actual hunger, and keep portion sizes in check; the less physical activity you’re doing, the fewer calories your body needs. Also keep in mind that light, aerobic exercise—with your doctor’s OK—can actually speed the recovery of an injured muscle or joint by sending fresh, oxygenated blood to the area and helping to calm inflammation (which in turn eases pain). Docs also say that as long as you don’t have a fever, mild exercise can improve cold symptoms by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving congestion. The general rule of thumb is to exercise if your symptoms are above the neck (you’ve got a runny nose or sore throat), but not if you’re dealing with symptoms below the neck (say, chest congestion or an upset stomach).
Don’t get us wrong: Quitting smoking is, without question, one of the most important steps you can take to improve your health and prevent disease. But the fact is that many people experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, headaches, depression and an increased appetite when they work on kicking the habit—all of which might make you more likely to finish off a bag of chips for dinner and watch your weight go up as a result. Plus, cigarettes and food have something in common: They light up the brain’s pleasure center, making you feel like you’ve had a treat, so it’s easy to substitute one when you’re missing the other.
Keep It Off: Try to find other rewards when your old smoking triggers, such as driving or drinking alcohol, tempt you to reach for food instead of a cigarette. Chew a piece of gum, call a friend or do a minute-long meditation. It’s also smart to find ways to keep your hands busy during times when you’d usually smoke: Take up knitting so you’ve got something to do while you watch TV, for example.
Times of Transition
Adjusting to an empty nest, getting divorced, dealing with the loss of a loved one or moving into retirement—these and other big life changes can have a profound effect on your weight. It’s easy to use food as a way to cope with the sadness, uncertainty and even depression that can be part of these transitions. Unfortunately, turning to food for comfort often leads to mindless eating, which can make weight gain even more likely, particularly if you’re opting for more sweets and high-calorie meals.
Keep It Off: Murphy advises: “If you find yourself craving comfort foods, reassess what you’re eating during the day and make sure you’re getting a balanced intake of nutrients that provide energy throughout the day.” This will help stabilize your blood sugar and balance the neurotransmitters that can affect your mood and your food cravings. Stress management techniques, such as meditation and even just finding things that make you laugh, can be better ways to manage your feelings without turning to food (you don’t want your weight to be one more problem you have to deal with, of course). You might also consider talking to a therapist who can help you come up with healthier ways to cope with the changes in your life.
Our article, When the Terrain of Life Changes, offers more suggestions for moving forward from a transition in a positive way.