BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
“I used to be skinny when I was a runner in college. Look at me now. My BMI says I am “obese.”
“Despite exercising regularly, I’ve gained weight with menopause … frustrating!!!
“I’ve always been able to manage my weight by eating a little less and exercising a little more. Since I turned 50, that’s not working for me anymore.”
If any of the above comments sound familiar to you—or your parents or friends, keep reading. I counsel too many mid-life athletes who express frustration about undesired weight gain. Women blame increased belly fat on menopause. Men blame only themselves for letting the pounds creep on. So, what’s the story with midlife weight gain? And how can younger athletes avoid it?
Women, Weight, and Menopause
Menopause, defined as 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period, happens around age 51. Peri-menopause, defined as the run-up to menopause, is vague. No single event signals the start of peri-menopause other than women in their late 40’s start experiencing irregular periods, mood swings, hot flashes, and poor sleep. Fat often appears around the mid-section, and previously-lean female athletes start complaining about their muffin tops.
Despite popular belief, women are not doomed to gain weight due to hormonal shifts related to menopause. In their book, The Menopause Diet Plan registered dietitians Hilary Wright and Elizabeth Ward explain weight changes are related more to midlife than to menopause. That is, during the years spanning ages 45 to 55, many women experience major life changes: an empty nest, concern about aging parents, and illnesses that may reduce physical activity and encourage weight gain. Add the COVID lifestyle with a home office and closed gyms— and inactivity can take a bigger toll. Genetics also plays a role.
Weight gain commonly is associated with sleep deprivation. An estimated 90% of peri-menopausal women report having hot flashes and night sweats that disrupt sleep and contribute to chronic fatigue. In a study with sleep-deprived subjects who slept an extra 1.5 hours a night, their cravings for sweet and salty snacks dropped by 66% and appetite by 14%. Maybe the sleep more, lose weight diet is key to weight management success?
If you are sleep deprived due to night sweats, seek professional advice from your MD or gynecologist on how to control them based on your personal medical history. In The Menopause Diet Plan, authors Wright and Ward report that researchers have yet to identify any dietary supplements proven to alleviate hot flashes. Black cohosh and dong quai might help some women, but well-controlled studies deem them and other touted hot flash cures to be a waste of money for most women.
Men and mid-life weight gain
While men do not experience the hormonal changes that confront women, they do deal with similar midlife changes and career demands that can lead to eating more and exercising less. Hence, men also gain weight with aging. I’ve seen many male athletes grab their love handles and say “This is what I want to get rid of.” Belly fat can get the better of males and females alike!
Despite their fat gains, men tend to escape the social pressure that drives women to obsess about expanded waistlines and perceived loss of beauty. Society seems more forgiving of men. Regardless, the translation of “I feel fat” is “I feel imperfect.” Given many athletes tend to be perfectionists, midlife might be a good time to practice being just “human”—and grateful for our excellent bodies and all the wonderful things they allow us to do.
Managing midlife weight gain
The best way to manage midlife weight gain is (obviously) to prevent it from happening in the first place. Young athletes take note: The “average person” gains one to two pounds a year during early-to-middle adulthood. This leads to creeping obesity over time, accompanied by increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer. Athletic people who exercise regularly gain less weight, so keep active!
The following five core principles from The Menopause Diet Plan offer a framework for both men and women to invest in your future well-being:
1. Eat according to your body clock. Pay attention to not just the number of calories you eat, but when you eat them. Every cell in your body, including the microbes in your gut, work differently according to the time of the day. For example, cells respond better to insulin earlier in the day. By front-loading your calories into breakfast and lunch, you’ll not only refuel better from morning workouts or have better afternoon workouts, you’ll be nourishing your body when it is expecting to be fed.
2. Choose a plant-based diet. You need not become a vegan or vegetarian, but you do want to lean in that direction. Two-thirds of your plate should be covered with grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. These quality carbs fuel your muscles and brain. Fill the remaining third with some protein (tofu, yogurt, nuts, fish, chicken, eggs, etc.) to repair and build your muscles. Lean red meat can be included if desired, but follow the American Cancer Society recommendations for less than 12 ounces (two servings) per week.
3. Eat fewer processed and refined grains. As bodies get older and become less fit, they can have trouble metabolizing sweets and refined carbohydrates (crackers, cookies). You want your carbohydrate-based sports diet to focus on nutrient-dense carbs: whole grains (brown rice, quinoa), beans, lentils, veggies, and fruits.
4. Pay attention to calories from alcohol. Alcohol calories can quickly add up—as can the calories from nibbles that accompany the beverages. If over-imbibing interferes with exercise, the skipped workouts can also take a toll…
5. Maintain regular physical activity. Cardio, plus lifting weights to maintain muscles, help curb weight gain so it doesn’t happen in the first place. And more important than vanity, exercise helps keep you out of the nursing home, adds years to your life, and life to your years.
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you optimize your eating. Visit www.NancyClarkRD.com for information about consults, books, and teaching materials.