Women over 40: Has your metabolism slowed?

Published on: 04/26/2024

Today, let’s discuss a topic that’s often overlooked but affects many of us: the changes our bodies undergo in midlife. It’s a time of transition, both physically and emotionally, and understanding these changes can empower us to embrace them rather than fight against them.

One common concern many women have during this period is weight gain. It’s easy to blame it on a slowing metabolism, but the truth is often more complex. While metabolism does gradually decrease with age, the shift in body composition that many women experience during midlife is largely influenced by changes in estrogen levels.

Estrogen, the hormone most commonly associated with the female reproductive system, plays a crucial role in regulating where our bodies store fat. As estrogen levels decline during perimenopause and menopause, there’s a tendency for fat to redistribute from the hips and thighs to the waistline. This shift in body adiposity can lead to an increase in abdominal fat, which not only affects our appearance but also our health.

But here’s the important thing to remember: these changes are natural and normal. Our bodies are simply adapting to a new phase of life, and it’s crucial to approach this transition with understanding and self-compassion.

Is weight loss possible at this stage?

Your weight is based on several factors; some are controllable, and others are not. For example, your genetics, family history, and hormones can impact your weight, but there’s not too much you can do to change these particular factors significantly. On the other hand, how much and what you eat, the medications you’re taking, the amount of stress you’re under, and how much sleep and physical activity you get also contribute to weight and are a bit more controllable.

Understanding Metabolism

There are so many things that your body does at rest: breathing, pumping blood, adjusting hormone levels, maintaining your body temperature, and growing and repairing cells. The amount of energy (calories) your body uses to perform these essential functions is called your “basal metabolic rate.” Overall, your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or metabolism, accounts for about two-thirds of the calories your body burns each and every day.

Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Your metabolism is influenced mostly by your body size and composition (amount of bone, muscle, tissue and water). This means that people who are bigger and/or have heavier bones and more muscle mass burn more calories at rest. Because men tend to be bigger and have more muscle, they naturally have a higher metabolism than women. This also goes for younger people. Because bone and muscle mass naturally tend to decrease (and fat mass naturally tends to increase) with age, if you don’t take steps to maintain bone and muscle mass, your metabolism likely will decrease, which results in increased weight.

Certain medical conditions can also affect your metabolism. For example, the hormonal conditions of Cushing syndrome (a rare disease affecting the adrenal glands producing too much cortisol), polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can slow your metabolism down. These conditions often come with many other symptoms beyond just weight gain. If you suspect an underlying medical condition speak with your doctor or healthcare professional about tests to confirm these diagnoses.

A slower metabolism may be one factor that influences your weight, but it’s not the only one. How your body processes what you eat or drink and how active you are also affect your weight. The process of digesting food burns calories. Although a smaller percentage, about 10 percent of food calories are used to digest them. This is called the thermic effect of food (TEF). Plus, the amount of physical activity you do also accounts for some of the calories you burn daily.

While some people may gain or lose weight more easily than others, in general, the balance of your “energy equation” counts for your weight. That is, the amount of energy (calories) you take in minus the amount of energy (calories) you burn can determine whether you gain or lose weight. 

Strategies for increasing your metabolism in menopause

It can never be overstated that many weight-loss products or programs can be harmful depending on your health and goals. Be wary of products or programs that promise quick, long-lasting, or effortless weight loss. There is always a trade-off. 

Your behaviors and habits have a huge influence on your weight, and you are empowered to adjust them as you see fit. It’s recommended that if you are overweight or obese and want to lose weight, try cutting 500 calories per day from what you eat. And, if you can add in some of these other strategies (including adding physical activity), you may be able to reach your weight-loss goals even faster.

Here are my top six strategies for weight maintenance in your 40s:

1 – Set specific, realistic, forgiving goals

Instead of a goal to “lose weight,” try smaller and more specific goals you can attain and be proud of.

  • Daily or weekly goals could be to cook a vegetable-rich meal on the weekend, to decrease food cues (hide cookies out of sight or disregard food ads and don’t purchase them), or to walk at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days a week.
  • Try to stick with a new habit for at least a week or two to start making it routine. Then, when one habit becomes consistent, add another one.
  • Remember, it’s not uncommon to take 6 months to lose 5% of your body weight, so that may be a more realistic goal.

2 – Ditch the “diet” mentality and focus on making lasting improvements for sustainable health

Focus on improving your food choices for overall health rather than “dieting” for weight loss.

  •  Enjoy fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
  •  Replace saturated and trans fats with healthier choices such as olive oil, nut butter, and avocados.

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3 – Try eating a different way and see what works for you

  • Ideally, each meal should take at least 20 minutes to consume, so eat slower. Enjoy your food more and listen for fullness cues that subtly signal when you’re getting satisfied and it’s time to stop eating. 
  • Eat more mindfully by focusing on and enjoying what you’re eating while you’re eating it. Pay attention to your food’s smell, taste, and texture as you’re eating it.
  • Try putting your fork down or sipping water between bites and thoroughly chewing before swallowing.
  • If you have a habit of snacking in front of the TV or computer screen, try getting used to replacing that with a glass of water or unsweetened beverage instead.

4 – You don’t have to do exercise at a gym to be more physically active (but you can!)

Boost your activity; move for at least 30 minutes daily (even three 10-minute sessions can help); more movement can bring greater benefits.

  • Weight training (e.g., using weights or pushing your body against gravity) builds your muscles, which increases your metabolic rate even after the session.
    • Ideally, include at least two weight training sessions per week.
  • Aerobic activity (e.g., walking, bicycling, etc.) is the most efficient way to burn calories during exercise.
  • Don’t forget you don’t have to do “exercise” to be physically active, you can take the stairs more often, park further away, walk a bit faster, or do housework or gardening—they all count toward your physical activity.
  • Fidgeting counts, too. Your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), like shaking a leg, tapping a foot, or even twirling a pen, also burns some calories.
  • Remember that any physical activity is better for your health (and weight loss goals) than none.

 5 – Reward your successes

According to the National Institutes of Health, “frequent small rewards, earned for meeting smaller goals, are more effective than bigger rewards that require a long, difficult effort.”

  • Each time you reach a goal, however small, reward your success with a non-food activity or item.
  • For example, you may want to buy yourself that book, movie, music, or game you’ve wanted for a while. Or re-read, re-watch, or re-listen to an old favorite.
  • Perhaps you can put a small amount of money away to save up for a larger reward.
  • Rewards don’t have to be monetary. You can take some time for yourself like have a bath, do your nails, or enjoy a craft or hobby you love (or try a new one).
  • Maybe you’d prefer some time to watch comedy skits or funny animal videos online.

6 – Persevere

Losing weight is very hard and most people have to keep trying before they find a way that works for them. 

  • Every day is a new day. If you go off track, get back on track and try again.
  • Don’t give up. Seek out your reasons for wanting to stay healthy and let that be your guide as you work through your day and make decisions.

My favorite technique for staying active is to create bare minimums each day for myself. I make a pact to do these things that can be easily incorporated into my day, no matter how busy I am: go for a 30-minute walk, pick up the weights for 10 minutes, and drink water. Motivation doesn’t just come to us magically, although it would be nice! Relying on motivation itself will only leave us disappointed. Motivation comes from action. Understanding this helps me create a vision in my head of how I will feel after I go for a walk, take a class, or make healthy food.

Final thoughts on metabolism in our 40s

While weight is but one measure of health, it is a big concern for many people. Losing weight is not easy. Your metabolism is influenced by many different factors—some you can’t control (e.g., your genes) and others you can (e.g., what and how you eat).

The fundamentals of weight loss include enjoying healthier, nutritious foods more often and being more physically active, but there are so many approaches that help you make this happen for you. The way you approach dieting and eating, the way you set your goals and reward yourself, and the way you persevere are all totally customizable so you can try and see what works for you.

For a nutritious approach to metabolism and your weight, consult a Registered dietitian nutritionist and personal trainer who can work with your concerns and dietary restrictions. I can help. Here is my link to book a chat about meeting your dietary needs.

Is your metabolism causing issues? Looking for ways to lose weight beyond “eat less, move more”? Book an appointment with me to see if my program can help you.

References

Harvard Health. (2018, May). Burning calories without exercise. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/burning-calories-without-exercise

Harvard Health. (2018, July). Small tricks to help you shed pounds and keep them off. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/small-tricks-to-help-you-shed-pounds-and-keep-them-off

Harvard Health. (2019, March 19). The lowdown on thyroid slowdown. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-lowdown-on-thyroid-slowdown

Harvard Health. (2019, November 20). Building simple habits for healthy weight loss. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/building-simple-habits-for-healthy-weight-loss

Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Is a slow metabolism the reason I’m overweight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/slow-metabolism/faq-20058480

Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Can I boost my metabolism to lose weight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/metabolism/faq-20058346

Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2020, November 10). Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508

NIH Intramural Research Program. (2020, Dec 8). Attempting Weight Loss Linked to Reduced Risk of Death. Retrieved from https://irp.nih.gov/blog/post/2020/12/attempting-weight-loss-linked-to-reduced-risk-of-death

NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Healthy. (2017, September). Weight Control. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/weight-control

NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Aim for a healthy weight. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/index.htm

NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Guide to Behavior Change. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/behavior.htm

Palmer, A. K., & Jensen, M. D. (2022). Metabolic changes in aging humans: Current evidence and therapeutic strategies. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 132(16). https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI158451

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Nicole Roesch, RDN, LDN, CPT provides nutrition counseling services in-person and virtually in Palm Beach County, FL. She specializes in helping families create a positive relationship with real, wholesome food – through education, meal planning & behavioral changes that fit their lifestyle.

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