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Why is it so hard for women over 50 to lose weight?

December 18, 2018

Stacy Weiss, M.D.

It’s a question women over age 50 frequently ask their doctors: Why am I gaining weight when I haven’t changed my eating or exercise? We asked OB/GYN Stacy Weiss, M.D. to “weigh in” on the problem. Here are her answers to frequently asked questions, plus some advice for middle-aged women.

Why do women over 50 have a slower metabolism?

As we age, we lose lean muscle mass, which slows our metabolism. We also tend to decrease our activity and burn fewer calories, which leads to weight gain.

Is this a common problem?

Yes, even from patients who are really fit. It’s gradual, but around age 40-50, that’s when women tend to notice the creeping weight gain. Maybe in the past, they could cut out a snack and lose weight. But now when they do that, the scale doesn’t budge.

Why does it seem easier for men to lose weight at this age?

Men’s metabolism slows as they age, too, and they lose muscle. But they don’t have the same hormonal changes that women undergo. During menopause, the lack of estrogen leads to a shift of fat to the midsection. This abdominal fat increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

In order to lose weight, do I have to eat half as much? If not, how many calories per day are acceptable?

At age 50, you need 200 fewer calories a day than you did when you were 20, assuming you are equally active. After age 60, you need 400-500 calories less. If you’re moderately active, up to age 50, around 2,000 calories a day is good. After 50, you need to decrease to 1,800 calories.

Do I have to work out twice as hard? If not, how often?

People who work out harder think they’re burning more calories than they’re actually burning. Even if your exercise is intense, you can’t exercise off a bad diet, and contrary to popular belief, exercise alone will not lead to substantial weight loss. Also, if you’re working out twice as hard, you can get pretty hungry and overeat. So I wouldn’t recommend working out twice as hard to eat twice as much. Thirty to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily is recommended along with cutting calories.

How can I boost my metabolism?

There are three ways:

  • Strength training. In the past, it was all cardio, cardio, cardio. But increasing your muscle mass helps you burn more calories at rest, and therefore, increases your metabolism. With the aging process, you lose muscle mass.
  • Eat breakfast. It fuels your body for your whole day. Skipping breakfast makes you hungrier later. It’s best to eat a large breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a light dinner.
  • Eat more lean protein, like fish, chicken, eggs and even tofu. That fills you for the day and helps you build muscle mass, and in turn, boosts your metabolism.

Are there specific foods that can boost metabolism?

Some studies say spicy foods can boost metabolism, like capsaicin, which is found in chili peppers. Drink plenty of water. Green tea may help boost metabolism as well.

Are there specific foods I should never eat?

There’s not a never-eat food. You shouldn’t feel like you’re depriving yourself. Obviously, heavily processed food, fried food and alcohol are things you shouldn’t have often. Just have it in small amounts. Processed foods, such as white flour and refined sugar, cause fluctuations in your blood sugar and contribute to food cravings. If you eat clean, meaning whole, unprocessed foods for six days a week, then enjoy a day off. Just get back to healthy eating the next day.

What are some helpful tools?

I like Weight Watchers because it teaches you portion control, which is key. Also, the My Fitness Pal app is a free food journal that lets you track what you eat. It holds you accountable and makes you more cognizant of what you’re eating. Fitbits that track your activity help, too, so you get in extra steps.

Does sleep affect my metabolism?

Sleep is extremely important regarding our weight. Studies show people who are sleep deprived consume more calories and tend to be more overweight. Lack of sleep causes hormonal dysregulation and leads to food cravings. We all need to go to bed earlier.

Does heredity play a role in metabolism?

Heredity plays a role in everything. For people who have a fast metabolism, part of that is genetic. Then there are people who look sideways at a doughnut and they gain weight. Some people will lose weight quicker, which is frustrating. You can only work with what you have. It’s sometimes hard not to get discouraged when you try hard to lose weight and it’s barely coming off. Stick to a healthy lifestyle and exercise regularly and the weight will come off.

Do certain medications slow metabolism?

There is a long list of medications that can cause weight gain, including anti-depressants, steroids, diabetes medications and anti-seizure medications. They can make you retain fluid, lower metabolism and feel hungrier so you consume more. Patients who say, “I just keep gaining weight, and I’m eating well and exercising” may want to ask their doctors about the meds they’re on. Don’t abruptly stop taking them, but talk to your doctor about whether your medications may be causing your weight gain.

Dr. Weiss practices at Womancare at NCH, which has offices in Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Schaumburg (two locations) and Palatine. To schedule an appointment, call 847-221-4900.