The beginning of every year prompts people to make New Year’s Resolutions, goals, and intentions, usually related to self-improvement. Still, for many women, the plan to lose weight reemerges at this time, sometimes associated with valid health and emotional reasons, sometimes not.
I’ve been a nutritionist for over two decades, but I developed an interest on women over 40 within the last 5 years, just because I could identify myself with their struggles and experiences. I then started to note common mistakes among most of them who have a history of failed weight-loss attempts.
To narrow it down to one common characteristic I've observed: women over 40 were trying to lose weight using the same techniques that once worked for them decades ago. The problem was that, this time, it wasn’t working.
So let’s dive deeper into some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen and why they actually can do more harm than good for perimenopausal and menopausal women.
MISTAKE # 1: BEING ON A VERY LOW CALORIC DEFICIT
First, let me define the scenario here – a woman gets her calorie counter app and uses the app’s algorithm to set a caloric goal (this is already a risk because usually these apps are overly restrictive in determining caloric needs). Then, she doesn’t have a way to add her exercise calories. If the app allows for pairing itself with a device, the calories are usually off. Either way, there’s a tendency to be on an EXTREME caloric deficit. This presents a big problem: having low energy availability. This problem is magnified with excessive exercise in the pursuit of “burning” more calories.
Bottom line, if it’s from food caloric restriction AND / OR extreme exercising, the main consequence will be an extremely low caloric deficit.
THE PROBLEM OF BEING ON A LOW-CALORIC DEFICIT
Although there’s a lack of research on low-calorie diets among perimenopausal and menopausal populations, we can resort on what we know about the physiological changes occurring in women during the menopause transition and additional studies to determine the consequences of a low-calorie diet on women over 40. When we talk about a low caloric deficit, there is somewhat of a range here. Generally speaking, a 40-yr old woman might need between 1400-2400 depending on her height, weight, and physical activity. For simplicity’s sake, I’m considering a deficit of over 500 calories per day; for example, a woman who needs 2000 calories per day but is restricting her calories to 1200 calories per day. That would put her on a low energy availability state.
#1 - Nutrient deficiency
In particular, calcium and other essential minerals and vitamins decrease when food intake decreases. This has serious consequences such as reducing bone density and further increasing osteoporosis risk after menopause. The same applies to other nutrients, particularly protein needed in slightly higher amounts as women age.
#2- Decrease of Resting Metabolic Rate
Since most of the calories from foods are used to provide energy for literally all the body’s basic functions (such as breathing, pumping blood, brain activity, etc), having the body run on “low fuel” forces it to conserve energy so it can keep functioning, the body will do this by increasing fatigue or slowing you down. The brain also slows down, and irritability and mood swings are common side effects.
#3 - Muscle Loss.
With a very low caloric intake, the body will try to go for storages of energy, and, sorry to say, it won’t choose fat first. The reason behind this is because fat is nature's resource for preventing death from starvation, it's the “survival-emergency-only” source of energy. The body will select the energy stored in your muscles instead. leading to muscle catabolism (or breakdown). As women after the age of 40 already have a potential decrease of muscle mass with aging, this add an extra risk for muscle loss.
#4 - Increased risks of gallstones.
Rapid weight loss is a risk factor for the production of gallstones, and many times, gallbladder removal is the only remedy.
MISTAKE # 2: SKIPPING BREAKFAST
In the U.S., over 60% of women over 30 have tried or are trying to lose weight through dieting. Skipping breakfast is commonly used as one of the strategies to consume fewer calories during the day. Unfortunately, it may not be the best strategy.
Some research shows that skipping breakfast leads to overconsumption of calories later in the day, in particular in women. Other research has observed that fasting over 12 hours for over three months in female athletes has led to increased fatigue, decreased physical performance and decreased resting metabolic rates.
In terms of macronutrients, protein intake may be affected if an entire meal opportunity is missed since there’s a window of 3-4 hours for a maximum of 30-40g protein to be completely absorbed in women. Missing one meal results in fewer opportunities later in the day.
MISTAKE # 3: LIMITING CARBOHYDRATES
When keto diets came around again (since their last appearance in the ’80s with Dr. Atkins's Diet), let me ask you a question: whose stories of successful weight loss did we hear about most? Answer: Men’s. Women did not do well on keto. Or if they did, most of them did not maintain themselves on “ketosis” for years. Why? Because it would drive them mad! Or utterly depressed.
Women need carbohydrates (and estrogen) to produce serotonin.
Serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone, is a natural tranquilizer. Women produce less serotonin than men. That’s why many women during PMS get irritable and crave carbs because of the decline in estrogen, which further decreases serotonin production, and carbs come to save the day.
It’s known that women are more prone to depression and mood swings after menopause because of the decline in estrogen.
So when talking about perimenopausal women who experience fluctuations of hormones, we can understand why there might be increased cravings at this stage of life.
What do you think happens if a perimenopausal woman tries to go on a keto or even low-carb diet? Let’s say I don’t want to be around her. But if I can give her some advice, I’d say don’t do it.
Now, this all shouldn’t give you a free card to eat all the Oreos you want at 10 pm watching your favorite Netflix show. If done right, you can distribute some great sources of carbs (starchy and non-starchy) throughout the day in moderation and still get the benefits of feeling good. Yes!
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
The weight loss journey can be difficult. It requires much more than willpower and caloric counting. It’s a journey that comes with self-discovery and mental struggles.
If you’re trying to lose weight, but feeling terrible about the process, maybe pause to see what the issue might be. If you’re in perimenopause, try to be gentle with yourself because it’s already a difficult time for many of us, and be sure to give yourself a break.
At best, I hope that you will fend off these three most common mistakes and succeed in your pursuit of a healthier life.
Compensation in response to energy deficits induced by exercise or diet. É. Doucet,K. McInis,S. Mahmoodianfard First published: December 2018 https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12783
4 Ways Low-Calorie Diets Can Sabotage Your HealthContributors: Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN Published January 7, 2021Reviewed April 2021 https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/your-overall-health/4-ways-low-calorie-diets-can-sabotage-your-health
Carbs are essential for effective dieting and good mood, Wurtman says Elizabeth A. Thomson, News Office Publication Date:February 20, 2004 https://news.mit.edu/2004/carbs
Schreiber DR & Dautovich ND. Depressive symptoms and weight in midlife women: the role of stress eating and menopause status. Menopause. October 2017; 24(10):190-99.
Jacobowicz D, et al. High caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women. Obesity. December 2013:21(12):2504-12.
De Bond JA, Smith JT. Kisspeptin and energy balance in reproduction. Reproduction. 2014 Feb 3;147(3):R53-63.