Females, Fit or Fat: The Challenges after Forty Part 2

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc. Pharm.

As previously discussed in Fit or Fat Part 1, a woman entering her forties faces a critical period of physical change or metamorphosis. These turbulent shifts in a woman’s reproductive cycle often are accompanied by a noticeable amount of weight gain, especially around the belly. This type of weight gain is often the cause of the apple-shaped figure in middle-aged women. Women are especially susceptible to this seemingly sudden “around-the-middle” type of weight gain in their forties.

Why are women especially prone to weight gain in their forties?

During the menopausal transition, a woman’s fat cells start to store fat and even divide in order to store more fat so that when estrogen levels decline to a certain point, these fat cells can become the woman’s main estrogen producing center.

Also, statistics verify that women are more likely than men to experience imbalances in the brain center (hypothalamus) controlling appetite. This means that no matter how great your willpower, the desire for food (usually sugary, fatty foods) will often win out. These hypothalamus imbalances can be caused from chronic stress setting up a series of hormonal imbalances and creating prolonged high cortisol levels, which stimulate the appetite center (discussed in detail in Fit or Fat Part 1) as well as metabolic changes that women undergo during perimenopause.

Next, a look at the role of metabolism and why is it different in women. The ability to burn calories and create energy (know as metabolism) decreases markedly for women entering their forties. The speed at which the body burns up calories is called metabolic rate. An average forty-year-old woman’s resting metabolic rate is 400 calories lower than a man’s. This means that if a man consumes 2,000 calories a day, a comparably active woman could consume no more than 1,600 calories just to remain the same weight.

Also, a female has 8% more body fat and her muscle mass is smaller than a man’s. Proper hormonal production in a female requires about 16 – 20 percent body fat; this is most likely the reason for the difference in muscle-to-fat ratio. Yet, since muscle is the main site of fat burning, this leaves females at a disadvantage when it comes to losing weight.

Starting at around age 40 (later for men because they start with more muscle mass), women begin to slowly lose muscle mass, possibly losing up to 8 percent of muscle mass every 10 years. On average, by a woman’s 40th birthday, she will have lost 2.5 lbs of muscle, and gained 7.5 lbs of adipose tissue, and will need 100 calories less per day just to stay the same! After age 40, it’s simply harder to lose weight.

What can help and what to do?

Do not skip breakfast. When breakfast is skipped, the body turns down the metabolism to store energy. By eating a balanced breakfast, the body will create an active metabolism that can burn fat efficiently and build lean body mass. Many studies have shown that fat-burning, muscle-building potential is highest in the morning.

Also, the early morning daylight stimulates the pineal gland to produce serotonin. Serotonin regulates the appetite center, mood, sexual desire and sleep. All of these functions can be retarded by a deficiency in serotonin. The body needs a meal with high quality protein to provide the amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan is the essential building block for the production of serotonin. It occurs naturally in foods such as meat (especially chicken, turkey, pheasant, beef), cottage cheese, milk, whey, eggs, nuts, and legumes (beans). Omega-3 essential fatty acids (flaxseed oil), vitamin C, the B vitamins, enzymes and trace minerals are all required for tryptophan to be made into serotonin.

Having a nutritious shake for breakfast, made from whole-food fermented soy powder or a whey protein powder, will provide the right type and amount of protein needed to produce an ample supply of serotonin. Adding 1/2-1 cup fruit or berries and a tablespoonful of flax seed oil to this nutritious shake will satisfy the body’s need for sugar in the form of complex carbohydrates and omega-3 fatty acids.

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) extracted from Griffonia Simplicifolia, a small African bean, can be very beneficial for people who struggle with food cravings, weight loss and depression due to low levels of serotonin. 5-HTP, an amino acid one step from the amino acid tryptophan, crosses the blood-brain barrier more easily than tryptophan and is converted into serotonin. Griffonia supplements can help curb hunger, particularly for carbohydrates. Yet, no product, be it a drug or herb, will keep the weight off if it is not used in conjunction with exercise and a willingness to alter what you eat and when you eat.

Some more useful tips on what to eat, and when to eat:

1. Replace breakfast with a low-calorie, nutritious shake containing 20 grams of high quality protein (whey protein powder, fermented soy powder)
2. Eat at least three meals a day and two high protein snacks. Have equal proportions of calories from proteins, dietary fats and carbohydrates
3. Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids (good sources of dietary fat) from flaxseed, walnuts, wild pacific salmon, hempseed, omega-3 eggs and supplements containing oils extracted from these sources
4. The main meal (slightly higher in calories) should be lunch. At noon, the body’s natural enzyme production is at a maximum
5. Do not eat the dinner meal past 7 p.m., or when unavoidable, supplement your meal with plant-based digestive enzymes
6. Eat carbohydrates (rice, bread, pasta, potatoes or sweets) no later than 5 p.m.

1. Vliet E., Women, Weight and Hormones, M.Evans & Co., NY, 2002
2. Peeke P., Fight Fat After Forty, Penguin Books, NY, 2000
3. Jenkins D. et al. Metabolic Effects of a Low-Glycemic Index Diet, Am J Clin Nutr 1987; 46:968-975
4. Council on Scientific Affairs, AMA, Report 4: Women’s Health: sex and gender-based differences in health and disease. www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/article/2036-4946.html

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc.Pharm, earned her degree in Pharmacy from Dalhousie University in 1972. After extensive studies in herbal and nutritional medicine, RoseMarie integrated these disciplinary practices with her pharmacy education to become Canada’s first Holistic Pharmacist.