Weight gain in the menopause transition is one of the most common complaints we hear about at Gennev.
And there’s good reason for concern.
According to an an article published by the North American Menopause Society, “about two-thirds of women ages 40 to 59 and nearly three-quarters of women older than 60 are overweight (body mass index [BMI] greater than 25 kg/m2). On average, midlife women gain 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) per year.” Menopause weight management is simply tougher.
Why does it matter? Honestly, we think you’re beautiful at any size, but there are health complications that can accompany weight gain, particularly when that weight accumulates around the midsection.
But managing weight – like so many things – is a real challenge in your transition. Fatigue in menopause makes it harder to exercise. Life complications and self-consciousness may keep us from going to the gym. And to make things harder, appetite often ramps up, making healthy eating harder.
For help, we turned to our doctors of physical therapy, Dr. Meagan Peeters-Gebler and Dr. Brianna Droessler-Aschliman. We asked: Diets are pretty universally horrible, it’s pretty hard to exercise the excess weight away – does anything work?
Yes, they said, but it’s a pretty different mindset and approach than most of us are used to when it comes to managing our weight: Practice mindfulness.
For the purposes of this conversation, “mindfulness” means paying attention. Not doing things distractedly while thinking of the eight other things you’ve got to do, but instead focusing fully on the moment.
Employing a mindful approach to every aspect of eating takes practice and effort, but the benefits are many.
When health issues interfered with life-as-usual, Meagan and her family got into a routine of planning an entire month’s worth of meals. They map out events, who’s home, who’s gone, etc., then fill in the blocks – an entire month’s worth of dinners, with leftovers for lunches.
And it really works. Seeing the whole month, they’re able to see if their diet is diverse, nutritionally complete, and satisfying. According to Meagan, “We can see we’re getting at least one fish, one turkey, one chicken, one red meat, one vegetarian, one meal out, maybe, and at least one new recipe.”
“When you map it out, it becomes non-negotiable,” Meagan says. “And when you make a plan, eating becomes a mindful choice, not a binging, emotional, blood-sugar-drop, had-a-bad-day-at-work-where-are-the-chocolate-chip-cookies impulse decision. We have all five years’ worth of meals with recipes and shopping lists; now it takes less than 15 minutes to plan for the whole month.”
It took a couple months of taking the time and being really mindful and attentive, but now it’s incredibly efficient, and they’ve reduced cost, waste, and stress. And of course, they’re eating more healthfully because they’re paying attention.
Brianna and her husband lead busy lives, so food and meals need to fit their lifestyle. Meal prep beforehand helps them control what they eat and also limits stress on hectic mornings.
“If we don’t have lunches prepped, we can tell the difference. We’re just grabbing things out of the refrigerator and hoping it’s good when lunchtime rolls around. But when it’s all laid out in advance, we can see if we have protein, if we have the right combination of veggies, if we’ve remembered to add in some fruit.”
Not being at the mercy of the cafeteria or local fast food offerings makes weight management and nutrition a whole lot easier.
And knowing what you’re going to prepare makes shopping exponentially easier, says Bri. They make a list and stick to it, meaning no impulse buys. They know exactly what to buy and how much, so they don’t spend extra money or buy food that ultimately gets wasted.
Being open to experimenting can also be a way to approach food more mindfully. Meagan says she was upset with her Brussels-sprouts hating mom when she discovered how delicious a sprout roasted with balsamic vinegar and olive oil could be!
While you’re being mindful of what you’re buying, you might also consider where. As we enter spring and summer in the US, farmers’ markets and produce stands fill up with awesome local fruits and veggies, Bri reminds us. Farm-fresh food often retains more nutrients than produce that’s been sitting in warehouses or travelling, so shopping at a market can boost the value of the foods you’re buying.
Finally, actually consuming food should be an act of mindfulness. I think most of us have experienced that feeling of sitting on the couch with some chips or crackers, only to find, when the show is over, that we’ve eaten the whole bag or tube.
First, be aware of what you’re putting in your mouth, food or liquid. If you have an impulse or habit, you may end up eating or drinking things that aren’t as nutritious. “If you have a soda in your hand, put it down,” Meagan says. “We tend to grab what’s convenient and handy, but give yourself a moment to think about it. Do I really want this sugary soda? That may be all the time you need to make a better choice.”
Tune into your body’s signals: are you really hungry at all? Meagan’s husband keeps an apple on his desk: if he’s hungry, he can eat the apple. If the apple isn’t all that tempting, he knows he’s not really hungry. Maybe you’re thirsty, Meagan says. “A lot of time people think they’re hungry when they’re really thirsty, so get a drink of water first, then decide about food.”
Pay attention. Smell all the gorgeous scents; really take in the rich array of colors; taste every bite in all its complexity. And chew. Like, really chew. The action of chewing your food thoroughly activates processes in the body that break down food better and make it more available to your body as nutrition.
Also, eating more slowly gives your body a chance to signal when it’s had enough. It takes time for satiety signals to get to your brain, Bri reminds us, so slow down. That can be hard if, like Bri, you grew up with siblings and eating fast was the only way to ensure you got your share, she says!
Now that you’re tuned in to what you’re eating, it’s time to make changes. But don’t try to make all the changes at once. Go down a size at Starbucks, from a vente to a grande (grande to vente? Whatever, you get it). Replace one soda a day with a flavored water. Do the apple trick to determine if you’re hungry or if the impulse is coming from somewhere else.
“Don’t get obsessed with perfection,” Bri reminds us. “That just sets you up for failure. If you made a less-healthy decision today, don’t beat yourself up, get over it. You’ll do better tomorrow.”
The biggest change may just be to be aware and present every time you make a decision about eating or drinking. Sometimes you may decide yes to the donut, and that’s fine! But if you take the time to think it through, you’ll likely make healthier choices more often, and you’ll probably feel better about your indulgent choices because you’re making them with the intention of thoroughly enjoying them.
Being mindful could mean making healthier choices, eating less, and enjoying our food more, so what's not to love? It certainly seems easier than logging food and tracking calories, so start tonight! Notice everything about your evening meal: be wholly there for the preparation and consumption, and notice the sights and smells and sounds and flavors.