Eating for Weight Management
Some changes that accompany age are linked to hormonal loss, while others appear to be linked to other natural processes of aging. Though medical science continues to study the causes and effects of the changes women experience in middle age, some facts remain clear and indisputable:
As women age, they tend to lose muscle tissue and gain fat tissue.
As women age, their metabolism slows down.
As women age, their body fat is redistributed to their abdomen and midsection, unless they take estrogen replacement therapy, which helps maintain the traditional female fat distribution; in other words, keeping you looking pear shaped instead of apple shaped.
These facts don't mean that women are doomed to become fat and dumpy in middle age. However, as you consider how to construct a healthy diet for your midlife transition, you need to keep these realities in mind.
The Facts about Midlife Weight
Gain As your metabolism slows, you burn fewer calories; as your percentage of muscle tissue decreases and fat tissue increases, your body consumes fewer calories. These facts together mean that, all other things remaining equal, if you continue to consume the same number of calories through perimenopause and menopause that you consumed when you were premenopausal, you can expect to gain weight.
In one study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, women gained an average of 2 kilograms (about 4.4 pounds) over three years of their menopausal transition. By eight years after menopause, the women gained an average of 5.5 kilograms (a little over 12 pounds). Though all women won't gain this much weight during menopause, many will — and some will gain even more. Without question, exercise is a must for controlling midlife weight gain (see Chapter 17). But eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is your other weapon to fight off this potentially deadly problem.
To calculate how many calories you burn every day, multiply your weight by fifteen (if you're moderately active) or thirteen (if you get little exercise). The answer represents the approximate number of calories you burn during an average day.
Don't misunderstand the message here; a slight weight gain at midlife isn't necessarily a health risk. Women's bodies change during their transition, and the addition of one or two pounds is an expected part of that change. But overweight and obesity — as determined by a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher — are conditions associated with all sorts of health risks for men and women alike, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and some cancers. The heavier you are, the harder you must work to move, and the less you feel like exercising. Being overweight can make you feel lethargic, depressed, and powerless — feelings no woman needs during her transition through menopause. There is some truth to the ironic observation that “the more you exercise, the more you feel like exercising; the less you exercise, the less you feel like exercising.”
And the redistribution of body fat to your abdomen and midsection has dangerous implications. A large amount of abdominal fat is considered a high-risk factor for the development of diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Though slowing hormone production contributes to all of these (and many other) facts of life for most women over the age of forty, just beginning an HRT regimen without making any other adjustments is not going to solve all your problems. Make lifestyle changes — a healthy diet and ample exercise — part of any health management plan.
Temporary or Fad Diet Plans Aren't the Answer
Remember, when you read the word “diet” in this book, don't think about “the incredible all banana and cabbage weight-loss miracle” you read about on the Internet. Adopting and maintaining a healthy diet does not mean starving yourself or combining certain foods to magically block fat from being absorbed into your system. Long-term weight loss requires that you change your eating habits for good — not just until you drop that extra five or ten pounds. A healthy diet for long-term weight loss involves common sense: lowering your fat intake, lowering your simple sugar intake, and decreasing your portion size. In general, you must eliminate 3,500 calories from your system in order to lose a single pound of body fat. By lowering your calorie intake and increasing the number of calories you burn through a regular exercise program, you will lose weight. Stick to this program as a lifestyle change, and you will maintain a healthy weight.
When you find yourself turning to food for the wrong reasons — to alleviate loneliness, boredom, fatigue, and so on — stop and think of something that will really help. Call a friend, take a short walk around the block, pick up a book, go to a movie, work in the garden, or write in a journal. Food won't solve any problem other than physical (not emotional or spiritual) hunger.
Good Eating Habits Aid Weight Control
A key component of managing weight gain during menopause is to develop good eating habits. Again, it really doesn't matter what's always worked for you before; your body is changing, and your eating patterns have to change, too, if you want to avoid excess weight gain. The following suggestions may help you:
Avoid fast food. No matter how easy it is to grab a meal from the drive-through window or have it hustled to your door by a delivery person, fast food is packed with all of the things you don't need to eat, such as saturated fats, sugar, cholesterol, and salt. For the whopping 1,000 calories you may consume with that double bacon cheeseburger, you're getting precious little nourishment. Plan menus, shop for fresh produce, and learn to pack your lunch (with daytime snacks). If you have time on the weekend to prepare and bag fruit and vegetable salads, you can enjoy them through the week.
Try to enjoy your meals. Sit down at a table whenever possible, and put your food on a plate rather than eating it out of your hand. Do not eat standing over the kitchen sink, and do not walk down the street eating a breakfast burrito. Take your time; look at the food you're eating, smell it, and pay attention to each bite. Then, you're more likely to know when you're full. Shoveling food down while you stare at the television, drive to work, or read the paper by the kitchen sink is a sure ticket to overeating. If you really love to eat, do it with purpose.
Don't wait until you're starving to eat. Try to eat small meals spaced out throughout the day. Eat a light breakfast, have a piece of fruit or a cup of yogurt midmorning, eat a healthy lunch, have a mid-afternoon snack, then enjoy a light dinner. The hungrier you are when you eat, the more likely you are to wolf down more food than you need. And the less cause you give your fat cells to get ready to sock it away. However, if you aren't hungry, don't eat. One of the biggest diet myths is that one absolutely has to have at least three meals a day. If you are not normally hungry in the morning, do not force yourself to eat breakfast.
Avoid eating late at night or right before going to bed. Many people in the United States eat very little during the day, and then pack it away from the time they reach home until they go to bed at night — a very bad eating habit. You're active and at work during the day, so that's when you need your fuel. By the time you go to bed, your body should be ready to rest — not attempting to digest several pounds of recently consumed food.
Don't try to become a “food reformist” overnight. If you need a dramatic diet makeover, take it in small steps. Give up one or two of your worst food habits at a time, and introduce healthy substitutes slowly. Start small — buy thin-sliced whole-wheat bread instead of white, try a new squash recipe, declare a weekly salad night, or skip the cookies and have a handful of grapes. If you don't want to completely turn your back on your favorite junk food, try limiting your quantities — maybe even set up a timeline, with a planned withdrawal period. Don't punish yourself about your eating habits — just work to make them better.
Keep a food journal for two weeks, where you write down everything you eat — including quantities! It's essential that you know approximately how much you're eating. Many people think, “Oh, well, I had a spoonful of mashed potatoes, but that doesn't count.” The fact is that everything you eat counts and your spoonful might be one-half cup, a cup, or more. That crisp green salad takes on some hefty calories when you ladle on the dressing; get out the tablespoon and measure how much you use (and check the label for calorie count). Weigh it, measure it, write it down. Then, you have a better idea of the amount of diet reformation you need.
Pay attention to portion sizes. A protein serving should weigh about three ounces and be about the same size as a pack of cards. A serving of pasta is around one-half cup, not the plateful they bring you in most restaurants. One slice of bread or one cup of flaked cereal is one serving. A serving of fruit is one medium-sized fruit or one-half cup of fruit juice; vegetable serving sizes are one-half to one cup of raw or cooked vegetables.
If you aren't accustomed to eating raw fruit and vegetables, add them gradually to your diet. These foods are essential to maintaining good health, but your system has to have time to adjust to digesting them. If you suddenly load your system up with an unusually high level of raw fruit and vegetables, you can have stomach pains, gas, and other gastrointestinal complaints.