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Top Diet Strategies for Mid-Life Weight Plateaus

weight loss, weight management, weight plateaus, women, menopause

It’s not just your imagination. As we age, it gets harder and harder to lose weight. Women find it particularly hard at mid-life to shed those extra pounds that could be compromising their health. A new report from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center offers ladies specific diet strategies that work both short-term and long-term for losing weight after menopause.

The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than one in three American women are obese. Being overweight or obese increases the risk for conditions such as diabetes and coronary artier disease. Obese women are at higher risk for many cancers, including endometrial cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer, and possibly ovarian cancer. Excess weight is also associated with low back pain and knee osteoarthritis.

Younger folk tend to have more muscle, keeping metabolism high thus burning more calories at rest. But as we age, the weight we gain as fat is less metabolically active, so we burn fewer calories during the typical day. In addition, women going through menopause are undergoing hormonal changes that disrupt body functions that make weight loss even harder.

Bethany Barone Gibbs PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Physical Activity, and colleagues analyzed data from a study of more than 500 overweight women in their 50s and 60s who had been randomly assigned to either an intensive nutrition and exercise program or to a more general, less-focused program. The women kept food diaries for four years.

As expected, the women with more intensive counseling lost more weight. These women tended to eat less fried foods, avoid sweets, and eat out in restaurants less often – typical diet advice given from physicians and nutritionists. “Short term, people are still motivated when they start a weight loss program,” said Dr. Gibbs. “They are never going to eat another French fry, eat another piece of pie, so you see the pounds coming off.”

But most of us can’t keep up a strict diet long-term, so the weight eventually returns. What were the most successful strategies the researchers found that would help women lose weight and keep it off?

Avoiding sugar definitely was key – less desserts, less sugar-sweetened beverages. But the best change that the women made was to replace higher-calorie meats and cheese with more fruits and vegetables. “That small change can give you a big, long-term result,” Dr. Gibbs said, “because it's not as hard to do as giving up French fries forever."

The study also revealed some good news for women who like to eat out. Avoiding restaurants may have helped with short-term weight loss, but it didn’t seem to make a difference over the long haul. This is likely because the women who were successful with weight loss were more likely to change their eating habits (ie: smaller portions, less fatty foods) rather than go on a short-term restrictive diet.

“It’s so hard counting calories and keeping food diaries for years and years and years,” agrees Dr. Gibbs.

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Although exercise was not considered in this particular study, it is still a crucial component to being healthy as we age. Even if you don’t lose a pound, fit 50-year-olds are less likely to get a chronic disease than those who are sedentary.

A separate study this week from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas analyzed data from more than 18,600 healthy men and women over about 26 years. Women who were very active had a 20% reduced risk of developing a chronic disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, colon or lung cancers, chronic kidney disease, COPD, stroke, ischemic heart disease, diabetes and congestive heart failure.

Even moderate improvements in fitness during age were found to reduce the risk of developing chronic conditions later on. And it’s never too late to start.

If you are just beginning an exercise program for the first time after hitting 50, check in with your doctor, especially if you have a chronic condition already or risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.

Build a program around these basic exercise tips from Cedric Bryant PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise:

Basic Exercise Tips

A complete fitness program must include aerobic exercise, muscle strength conditioning, and stretching for flexibility, Bryant advises.

1. Aerobic exercise: Walking, jogging, and dance-exercise are good forms of aerobic exercise. They work the large muscles in your body, which benefits your cardiovascular system -- and your weight. Work up to getting 20 or more minutes per session, three or four days a week. Exercise at a pace that lets you carry on a conversation -- what's known as the "talk test."

2. Strength training: Lifting hand weights improves your strength and posture, reduces the risk of lower back injury, and also helps you tone. Start with a hand weight that you can comfortably handle for 8 repetitions. Gradually add more until you can complete 12 reps.

3. Stretching: Stretching exercises help maintain flexibility and range of motion in joints. They also reduce the risk of injury and muscle soreness. Yoga and Pilates are good forms of stretching exercise; they build core body strength and increase stability.

Journal references:
Barone Gibbs B, et al "Short- and long-term eating habit modification predicts weight change in overweight postmenopausal women: Results from the WOMAN study" J Acad Nutr Diet 2012; 112: 1347-1355.
Willis B, et al "Midlife fitness and the development of chronic conditions in later life" Arch Intern Med 2012; DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3400.
Bild D "Thriving of the fittest" Arch Intern Med 2012; DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3406.

Additional Resource:
WebMD – Exercise Tips for Women Over 50