At VegFit, I coach working professionals to lose weight, become stronger and lead a healthy lifestyle. Though I coach men and women ranging from age 26 to 55, I have come across a lot of women who start gaining weight in their 40s.
Last year I met Shalini. She was working as a software engineer at one of India’s biggest startups. Despite being very successful in her career, Shalini was dealing with a new problem that had never been an issue for her in the past. At 47, she weighed 80Kgs with 33% body fat.
Shalini had been a very active person all her life. Till her 30s, Shalini was lean and looked younger than most women her age. But 5 years down the line, with premenopause kicking in, she had gained excess fat without making any major changes in her lifestyle.
Being an excellent software engineer and a leader of her team, Shalini had a lot of responsibilities. But since she had gained weight, her energy levels, concentration, and productivity took a hit. She started feeling less confident and anxious most of the time. Managing family, work, and personal health had become an uphill task for her.
This article is about how I helped Shalini lose excess fat and regain her lost strength in a year. Now Shalini is physically stronger and mentally more resilient than she was in her 30s or even 20s. Understanding the impact of pre-menopause and aging on women’s health played a big role in how I helped Shalini get fit.
Let’s understand why women gain weight in their 40s and how we can manage to avoid this sudden weight gain.
Reasons for women gaining weight in their 40s
There are multiple reasons why women gain weight in their 40s. But all reasons are related to hormonal changes that occur during pre-menopause. Production of estrogen severely fluctuates during pre-menopause. Symptoms of menopause include hot flashes which are very common among women approaching menopause. Apart from estrogen, the levels of testosterone and progesterone also fluctuate. These changes lead to a decrease in bone density, muscle mass, and resting metabolic rate. Also, this fluctuation changes the adipose (fat) distribution pattern in women. You can read this study What Does Estrogen Have To Do With Belly Fat for more information.
Let’s see why this happens and what we can do to avoid it.
Drop in Estrogen levels
Most women experience premenopause in their 40s. Estrogen levels start fluctuating as you approach menopause. Women’s bodies go through many hormonal changes in their 40s. One significant change is the drop in Estrogen levels.
Estrogen is a very important hormone because it controls the distribution of fat in women. Estrogen levels are highest in women in their mid and late 20s. But these levels decline by about 50% in their late 40s and early 50s.
There are 3 forms of estrogen – Estrone (E1), Estradiol (E2), and Estriol (E3). All these forms of Estrogen perform a specific purpose and have different levels of potency. But E2 is the most potent form of estrogen. E2 levels are higher before premenopause. After menopause the levels of E1 rise in women’s bodies which is less potent than E2. The least potent of all is E3 which plays a major role during pregnancy.
E2 is produced by the ovaries and its measurement is considered sufficient to check ovarian function. That means if you have a normal amount of E2 in your body then your ovaries are working fine. After menopause, your ovaries stop making E2. And during premenopause, the production of E2 keeps fluctuating as does the function of your ovaries. This means the level of most potent estrogen drops as women enter their 40s.
After menopause, you mostly have E1 in your bloodstream. The increased production of E1 means that you might put on weight because E1 is less biologically active. So, even if you eat the same amount of food and do the same amount of activity daily, you can still put on weight during pre or post-menopause.
Decreased Muscle Mass
Loss of muscle mass as you age is known as Sarcopenia. Until the age of 30, we can put on muscle and gain strength. But sometime during the late 30s and early 40s, you’ll notice that your strength has declined. You might face issues doing the same chores you could do before without putting in much effort.
This is natural and happens to all of us. Depending on your activity level, lifestyle, diet, and body type the rate at which you lose muscle might be different from person to person. But all women find it hard to put on muscle in their late 30s or 40s and most women lose muscle mass as they age.
The reason for this too is decreased estrogen levels. A study on how Estrogen Regulates Satellite Cell Compartment in Females has revealed that decreased estrogen levels lead to muscle loss. In this study, two groups of mice were picked. Mice in the first group had their ovaries removed and the mice in the second group had their estrogen receptors removed. Researchers observed that muscle stem cells in both of these groups declined by a steep 30-60%. The remaining cells didn’t multiply quickly to form muscle fibers.
This shows that the decrease in Estrogen levels or the number of estrogen receptors can result in muscle loss and the inability to build muscle quickly. And women’s estrogen levels start fluctuating in their 40s and this leads to a decrease in muscle mass.
And since muscle is more metabolically active than fat, the decrease in muscle mass also means a decrease in resting metabolic rate. You will burn fewer calories at rest than before which in turn decreases your maintenance calories. So even if you eat the same amount of food, you still might gain weight because of a calorie surplus.
Decreased Bone Density
Osteoporosis is a common problem among middle-aged women. There are many products available that claim to give women healthier bones during their 40s. But why are women more prone to osteoporosis as they age than men? This is because of the hormonal changes happening during pre-menopause and menopause.
A study done on mice found that Estrogen prevents bone loss via estrogen receptor alpha.
The most ignored reason for this is the drop in testosterone and estrogen levels. Testosterone is produced in the ovaries, adrenal gland, fat cells, and skin cells in women. Testosterone is called the male sex hormone but it plays a very important role in maintaining bone health in women. The amount of testosterone produced in women’s bodies is just about 5% to 10% of what is produced in men’s bodies.
The normal range for testosterone in women is considered to be between 15-70 nanograms per decilitre. But this decreases with age and anything below 15 ng/dl can lead to a decrease in bone density. While estrogen regulates bone metabolism in both men and women. Estrogen impacts the three bone cells namely osteocytes, osteoblasts, and osteoclasts.
Oestocytes are the longest-living bone cells and amount to 90-95% of cells in the bone tissue. The drop in estrogen levels makes these cells produce insufficient new bones or fail to maintain the bone structure. Bones are very metabolically active. A decrease in bone mass initially means a decrease in overall body weight but because of decreased metabolism, women gain fat over time.
Midlife is associated with crisis for more than one reason. Most women go through the stress of ageing parents, caring for young adolescent children, and managing different hurdles related to their careers. These factors contribute to some stress amongst most middle-aged women and symptoms of it range from increased irritability, inability to focus, overthinking, and more.
But the fluctuations in levels of progesterone and estradiol during pre-menopause aggravate these symptoms. Most women experience mood swings during their periods which range from mild to severe. These are also an effect of different temporary hormonal changes that take place in women’s bodies. A lot of women go for comfort foods and leisurely lifestyles when faced with period-induced mood swings.
Also, mood swings caused by hormonal fluctuations can cause insomnia. Sleep is a very important factor in weight management. Lack of sleep not only increases the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body but also hampers proper digestion and usage of foods you eat.
These psychological issues compound when women fare through their 40s. Unintentional overeating, stress, anxiety, and even depression are the results of these compounded mental health issues. Taking care of your mental health should be the first priority for women entering their 40s.
How women can avoid weight gain in their 40s?
Nutrition and dietary solutions to avoid fat gain
A well-balanced diet can reduce the effects of pre-menopausal transition by a long shot. To put it simply – Eat seasonal fruits, high-protein foods, calcium-rich dairy products, whole grains, healthy fats from nuts and egg yolks, etc. Foods to avoid are – processed foods. sugary drinks or foods, and fried and spicy food. This also aids disease prevention.
You can also cut down on your alcohol and caffeine intake if you’re facing some mental health issues. Try consulting your physician about it.
We have curated for you a supplement-free high protein vegetarian diet plan. Get your Free High Protein Vegetarian Diet Plan now. You can start following it right away.
How exercises help in maintaining healthy hormone levels in women?
There’s an old saying – “You work out to fix your hormones and sleep to build your body.” Workouts help a lot in managing hormonal changes while also releasing feel-good endorphins that alleviate your mood. Everyone must have an exercise plan.
Here is a short Fat Burning Workout for beginners from VegFit
Regular exercise helps burn a few extra calories while also ensuring that your bones stay healthy because of resistance training. Thus increased lean muscle mass and bone health will help you maintain or increase your metabolism and avoid severe weight gain. This will also help prevent heart disease and maintain a healthy weight.
Accepting some changes as natural in middle age
Aging is a natural phenomenon and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Lifestyle changes help in slowing down the ageing process but you’ll notice some changes in your body anyway. With a healthy diet and consistent exercise routine, you can stay fit as you age. Accepting some changes while fighting to stay fit should be your goal.
Joining a community of women in their 40s
Being a part of a community of your age group who face similar issues as you do is very comforting. To combat the middle-age crisis and deal with mental health issues it brings into your life, a community can be very helpful. Go for an online community on Facebook or Discord if you don’t have any such clubs or communities in your locality.
Why am I putting on weight in my 40s?
Women gain weight in their 40s mainly because of pre-menopausal hormonal fluctuations. Other contributing factors can be a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits.
Why am I getting belly fat in my 40s?
Fat distribution pattern changes in women during their 40s because of decreased estrogen levels. This is why women start collecting more fat around their bellies rather than their thighs and hips.
How can women in their 40s lose weight?
It is possible to lose weight at any age but because of hormonal changes, it can be slightly more difficult to lose weight for women in their 40s. But with a consistently healthy diet, regular workout, and sound sleep most women can lose weight in their 40s.
What is the best exercise to lose weight for women over 40?
There is no one best exercise that can help you lose weight. But doing weight training 3 times a week paired with cardio 3 times a week can help you get started with weight loss. There’s no magic exercise, it’s all about consistency.
How do I stop gaining weight at 40?
Try shifting to healthier lifestyle choices. This will slow down the rate of weight gain and eventually stop it. Prioritize sleep, mental health, a high protein diet, and regular workouts.
How can I speed up my metabolism after 40?
Of course, you can. You need to increase the amount of protein in your diet, work out regularly, and sleep for 7-8 hours at fixed times. Your metabolism will improve as you put on more muscle and do more physical activity.
What exercise burns the most belly fat?
Spot reduction is a myth. You can’t burn fat from only one part of your body. It’s about staying in a calorie deficit for a consistent period of time to lose weight.