Weight gain is a common concern among women approaching and passing into menopause. It can feel like the whole world is conspiring against you, and no diet seems to be making a dent. What’s going on?
What we’re up against
For decades, government agencies, medical associations and industry groups have perpetuated misconceptions, or outright lies, about the causes of weight gain and strategies to lose it. Much of that widely touted information was either based on a failure to take an honest look at the relevant research or self-interest due to potential financial gain. If the misguided advice failed, patients were usually blamed.
If you’re frustrated by your futile efforts to keep extra weight off, the conventional thinking of “calories in, calories out,” translated into eating less and exercising more to lose weight, is probably the underlying cause. Because regulating your body’s weight is a very complex process, restricting calories is largely ineffective to regain and maintain a healthy weight. Lots of clinical research has firmly established this.
The leading characters
The central player in weight gain (and loss) is not the number of calories you ingest but your body’s production and regulation of the hormones insulin as well as cortisol. There’s a supporting cast of other important hormones, and shifts of these such as during perimenopause can also contribute. Genetic predisposition plays a role, too.
Insulin is produced by cells of the pancreas (an organ located next to your stomach) and responsible for moving glucose into cells. Cortisol is made by cells in the adrenal cortex (part of a gland attached to your kidneys) and involved in our stress response and circadian rhythm.
Our modern lifestyle contributes to profound changes in our production and regulation of these hormones. Our modern diet (i.e. the Standard American Diet, also called SAD) and our persistent levels of psychological stress alter their cycles and levels. Weight gain and diabetes often follow when elevated insulin levels, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome have persisted for some time. The onset is generally insidious, not something that comes out of the blue.
What to do?
Working with people struggling with these challenges is a central part of my work. Fortunately, those who seek me out have already put considerable effort into achieving healthy weight and are very motivated. I often have to begin by dispelling many of the myths the weight loss industry is spreading. There’s really no magic cure, ultimate diet, or pill that’s both effective and safe. It’s not easy to make the profound lifestyle changes necessary to reverse course, but it’s a worthwhile effort because it can literally save your life.
Since the two main players in weight gain are insulin and cortisol, our strategies aim at normalizing the levels of these hormones. Insulin production is affected largely by what and how you eat, and cortisol can be affected by a range of different approaches to stress management.
Entire books could be (and have been) written to explain these strategies in much more detail, including recipes and exercises, but I will limit myself here to a brief overview and invite you to read more on your own or to reach out to me to discuss your options.
The most important step you can take right out of the gate is to stop eating processed foods. This is really harder than you might think. Not only are processed foods ubiquitous, they’re also more convenient for busy people and designed to be addictive. The reasons why processed foods are evil are too many to list here. I will give you just one: We did not evolve over tens of thousands of years to deal with the artificial foods now available everywhere and stay healthy. So, the solution is not to follow one diet or another but to generally return to a style of eating and nourishing ourselves that our ancestors followed and is still practiced by traditional societies around the world. There are many ways to describe this approach, commonly referred to as Mediterranean or paleo diets. I prefer to call them ancestral diets. This very flexible and varied approach is focused on foods from the animal and vegetable kingdoms that are in their natural, unadulterated state. You could also say it’s focused on home-cooking meals from scratch. What it is not is a constant obsession with counting calories.
It’s not just what you eat
Complementing this focus on natural, traditional foods and cooking styles is cultivating awareness that we need to slow down. Life stress negatively affects our ability to digest and assimilate what we eat, so our priorities need to shift. Just say no to overscheduling and make time for nutritious meals in the company of your friends and family. One way to get started with this is to stop watching TV or using your electronic devices for unnecessary tasks. You’ll be surprised how many hours the day actually has.
Stress is also generated by our exposure to harmful chemicals in the air, water and food, by electromagnetic fields, and by noise and unnatural light exposure. These can all interfere with your ability to get sufficient quality sleep and feel rested when you rise in the morning. One of the most potent antidotes to stress is regular time spent in nature. You can learn more about forest bathing in an article I wrote a while back.
Practices like yoga and tai chi, regular massage and acupuncture treatments, as well as botanical therapy, can be powerful tools to create more balance and a sense of well-being in your life. These sensations are signs of a healthy stress response and will benefit your hormonal regulation which, in turn, will help you balance your weight in the long term.
Don’t give up!
The moral of the story is that weight gain in midlife is a complex challenge requiring a multi-pronged and sustainable approach to help you regain and retain your good health.
© 2021 Christiane Siebert