It is commonly said that about 80% of women gain weight around menopause, the average being 1 – 2kilos,[i] though some gain much more. A study of women aged 50+ in the US found over 70% were trying to lose weight.[ii] According to a UK 2020 study, only 6% of women were very happy with their bodies.[iii] I don’t expect many of these would have been menopausal.
Dieting in some way still largely remains the ‘go-to’ answer for most women. The global diet industry earnt $192 billion in 2019 [iv], even the Government encourages us to diet, yet numerous studies show anything up to 95% of diets don’t work long-term. Isn’t this extraordinary. Would you buy a mobile or computer that worked only 5% of the time? How can we explain this?
I think it has a lot to do with brainwashing and a diet mindset.
Women have been told by society for decades to shrink their bodies, to take up less space in the world, albeit recently under the banner of ‘health’. Many of us grew up watching mothers/sisters/aunts etc. struggle with various (failed) diets. Diet culture is ingrained in us, pervasive and persistent. Putting on weight = bad, so we ‘need’ to diet = ‘good’.
By the time we reach menopause, we might think we should know better, that we would have grown out of old bad habits around food and eating. Yet when our hormones take over and weight gain feels out of control, it is hard to think of another way to tackle this. Add to this some of the other key menopausal symptoms such as anxiety and low mood, this creates a pretty toxic combination – weight gain, menopause, low mood & anxiety.
So what really happens when we embark on another diet? We hand over responsibility to that diet. We can’t hear our own appetites anymore. We are told, and so believe, that diets are the answer, and we are the problem, if we fail it is our fault.
Not only does dieting usually involve spending, and is pretty much doomed to fail, it is usually utterly miserable too. (Again – why do we do it?) Diets mean deprivation in some shape or form, dressed up by clever marketing. It isn’t that diets don’t work, it is more they are not sustainable in the long run. I expect we all know someone, maybe ourselves, who lives a life ‘on’ or ‘off a diet. This is not the answer to life-long weight loss, nor content and healthy way to live.
A different mindset
First of all, we need to distinguish between weight loss and dieting. And please beware of attempts by the Wellness industry to hide dieting behind ‘it isn’t a diet’. Anything that feels like deprivation is a diet in some ways (in this article I am excluding food allergies, sensitivities, or NHS medical recommended diets). There are other ways, and the key is with the brain.
If your brain feels deprived of food, it sends messages to the body to slow metabolism, and store fat, so you burn calories slower. We all have a set point weight, unfortunately, easy to push up, yet the body will fight back attempts to lower it. Ever found that weight loss from dieting seems easy at first, then plateaus? You try harder, lose a little more, then get stuck again, and so it goes on - all the while growing increasingly fed up, hungry, and tired. You are fighting your biology here, the biology that kept us safe through famines/wars as humans evolved. The brain thinks deprivation (dieting) = storing fat.
Sustainable non-dieting weight loss happens through a mindset (and lifestyle) shift, so the brain remains calm and sends out the right messages to the body.
A few suggestions on how to start making the mindset shift in menopause: -
- Starting from a positive place of having something to gain, rather than negatively having something to lose. Weight loss without dieting will mean gaining health, and get excited about the positives for your body.
- These can start NOW. Dieting promises future weight loss, healthier can start now. With your next meal choice. Your body will thank you quickly – perhaps with more energy, better sleep, or a clearer head.
- The idea of being ‘good’ has to go. It implies if you aren’t being ‘good’ you are ‘bad’, and it labels food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. These are associations in our minds, and they stick, perhaps resulting in yo-yo dieting for years. What if you were just ‘ok’, as in ‘I am doing ok with my eating. How much easier would that be to sustain?
- Because sustaining this is the crucial bit. The only way to make changes to your size forever is to keep these changes up forever. This HAS to fit in with your lifestyle, your budget, your tastes/preferences, and increasingly important, your ethics. What can you start now, that you can maintain, most of the time?
- This brings me to not being perfect. Diet mentality demands perfectionism. How many diets have been ruined through the ‘sod it’ overeating after 1 ‘wrong’ food? Be deliberately imperfect, now and again, when the need arises. Flexibility is crucial. It is what you do most (but not all) of the time that counts.
- This brings us back to not depriving the brain, so no foods or drinks are banned. We have parts of the brain that ‘want’, and parts that ‘need’, we aim to keep them both happy. And when you do have them occasionally, buy the best quality you can afford, and savour them.
- Because we CAN trust ourselves (despite dieting talk telling us otherwise). We can understand that, over time, if we listen to our appetites, and think beyond our taste buds, we can take back responsibility.
- Be aware of when food and eating patterns become a problem. Overeating disorders, such as binge / compulsive/emotional eating, rarely start without dieting and restriction first, and these are much more common in menopause than is widely known. The sooner help is sought the more likely the chance of recovery.
- It is also helpful to know willpower is like a muscle, it needs to be built up gradually, and can easily be worn out. Pick your battles, direct your willpower, and focus on one area at a time.
- Self-compassion. The most important element and particularly relevant around midlife is when hormones can send so much out of kilter. Use the words you would use with your closest friends and say them to yourself. Eat as you love yourself.
No doubt about it weight loss, forever, can seem challenging, particularly during menopause when the odds seem to be stacked higher. However, the right mindset can help this be an enjoyable journey, with numerous other benefits for mind and body along the way.