You’ve lost weight before – but the same tactics aren’t working for you this time around. So what’s going on?
Georgia Rickard explores some of the factors that can jeopardise your weight at different stages of your life – and how to tackle them.
Your weight is influenced by changing factors in both your body and your lifestyle as you age, which means the weight-loss tactics of your 20s won’t necessarily work in your 40s. The good news is that, with these simple solutions, your approach to weight management can change as your needs do – so you can get maximum results from your efforts at every stage of life.
Children are continuously going through growth spurts, so they are in need of lots of nutrients to set them up for later life and to lay the foundations for all the elements of a healthy body, like strong bones and muscles. However, if the right balance isn’t struck between energy in (food and drink) and energy out (activity levels), then weight management can become an issue early in life.
Here’s a scary fact: up to one-third of kids’ daily kilojoules comes from snacks, according to a study in Circulation. The CSIRO Preventative Health Flagship report also found that one-sixth of kids’ daily kilojoules come from their after-school snack – often a nutrient-poor, energy-rich food such as biscuits, sugary cereal bars or confectionery. Why? “Because they’re easily prepared and eaten without argument,” says dietitian Trudy Williams. Plus, even when you think you’re feeding your kids the right thing, “unhealthy snacks are also often cleverly marketed as ‘healthy’”, she adds.
There’s no need to give up snacks – they can be a great way to bump up kids’ nutrition. Plus, ‘healthy’ doesn’t have to mean ‘inconvenient’. Williams suggests boiled eggs (“keep them ready to go in the fridge”), tinned fruit in natural juice, small dried fruit packs, single-serve cereal packs, cheese sticks and reduced-fat yoghurt.
Our kids spend an average of seven and a half hours a day sitting, according to the Heart Foundation. “Inactivity is a major factor in the rise in childhood obesity rates in Australia,” says Associate Lecturer Courtney Hargrave, exercise physiologist at the Health Faculty of University of Queensland. Computers, gaming consoles and TV are a big contributing factor to this, he explains. A West Australian study found only one in five boys and one in six girls used electronic media for less than two hours a day.
Increasing kids’ activity levels is easier than you’d think, says Hargrave: “Physical activity equals play time! It can be as simple as kicking a ball around the backyard, or something more structured, such as enrolling your child in social soccer.” And kids don’t have to give up their electronic games. “Recent research has found physical-activity-promoting video games (such as Nintendo Wii) have the potential to increase physical activity levels and energy expenditure in children,” explains Hargrave. “A child burns up to 2000 calories playing eight hours of activity-promoting video games each week, as opposed to approximately 650 calories playing traditional video games.”
Soft drink and juice
The healthiest choice of drink is, of course, water. But our kids drink more soft drink than any other kind of beverage, including water, according to the Medical Journal of Australia – and while juice does help increase kids’ fruit intake, it’s very easy to over-consume (a 250ml glass of orange juice can contain up to 500kJ but without the fibre in fresh fruit) – potentially leading to weight gain.
“Soft drink doesn’t have to be off-limits, but it is a ‘sometimes’ food,” says accredited practising dietitian Duncan Hunter. “To reduce your kids’ intake, start by keeping it in the pantry, so it’s only there for pre-planned, special occasions.” He suggests alternatives such as plain or soda water sweetened with diet cordial. “But your end goal is to make water the kids’ main drink, so keep reducing the availability of these options in your household. Slow and steady does it!”
The onset of puberty brings a host of hormonal changes that mean growth happens faster than ever. In fact, during adolesence the body will grow by up to 15 per cent. With this growth, the need for most nutrients increases too. As appetite is also likely to grow, it is important that food choices are made carefully to help your teens through this often difficult body phase.
Teenagers, both boys and girls, are especially impressionable when it comes to both positive and negative health messages attached to certain foods, thanks to factors like peer pressure and increasing awareness of body image. They can thus be quick to cut out entire food groups in a bid to avoid fat, sugar, protein or carbohydrates, which they associate directly with weight gain. This means missing out on a host of essential nutrients. A Deakin University study found only one third of teenagers ate at least one food from each of the five food groups every day.
Teach your teen that all foods are okay in moderation and that in order to be healthy, they need to eat from a wide range of foods. “Fight fear with facts”, suggests HFG advisor and dietitian Catherine Saxelby. “Educating them on why, for example, good fats are important for a healthy diet will make them much more likely to eat them!”
Being either underweight or overweight can be a concern. Teens’ nutrient needs must be met without providing too many, or too few, kilojoules. Fad diets are never recommended, but teens can be drawn into trying them. “Often, someone will be discussing diets at school and that’s where their information comes from,” says HFG advisor Dr Helen O’Connor. Recent papers in three respected journals – European Review of Social Psychology, American Psychologist, and the Journal of Nutrition – have all concluded that diets cause weight gain in the long term.
Teens might be thinking for themselves, but they still live under your roof! Help positively influence their eating habits with simple actions – like making sure they eat breakfast, says Saxelby. “Numerous studies have proven that this helps with weight management.” And “if they’re overweight and are genuinely looking to make a change, a dietitian can help”, suggests Saxelby.
Going vego is common during teenage years, either for ethical or health reasons, and it can be a healthy diet to follow – “but at this age, they might not know enough about what a balanced vegetarian diet looks like, and end up omitting meat without eating replacement proteins,” says O’Connor. This can increase the risk of omitting nutrients such as iron and zinc, she says, and their intake of protein (a pillar of weight management) may be markedly lower.
Focus on adding protein. “Add low-GI, higher-protein foods such as eggs, legumes and tofu to each meal”, suggests O’Connor. “According to a large European study, ‘The DIOGENES Project’, this was the most successful strategy for weight control.” This higher-protein, lower-GI approach was found to be most satisfying and easiest to stick to long term.
Easy breakfast ideas for teens:
Healthy homemade muffins
Up & Go and a piece of toast
Peanut butter toast ‘sandwich’
Your 20s mean the end of growth spurts, and so your body’s energy requirements begin to stabilise. For most people, it’s their lifestyle that can change quite dramatically and have the biggest impact on weight management.
Fast life, fast food
Your 20s are all about enjoying your independence – but it’s also a prime time for weight gain. In fact, women aged 18–30 are the age group experiencing the biggest growth rate in obesity, says O’Connor. Why? “You’re moving out of home, you don’t necessarily have cooking or shopping skills, research shows we often stop exercising at this age… while at the same time we start working in an office, or studying,” she says. “You’re also socially busy at this stage, and socially busy people tend to eat out more, eat more fast food, and drink alcohol.”
Embrace the art of healthy convenience. “Carry healthy snacks such as fruit, nuts and muesli bars (under 600kJ per serve) in your handbag, stick a list of quick and easy recipes on your fridge; and pre-make some frozen pizzas to stick in your freezer, so you’ve always got something ready to go,” suggests Saxelby. “Also, work out what the healthiest meals are at your local takeaway – it’s good to have things like vegie-filled Thai stir-fries, sushi and thin-crust vegetarian pizza as stand-by options.”
Despite the saying, pregnancy isn’t an opportunity to ‘eat for two’, and by your third trimester your body generally only requires an extra 1250kJ per day. But many of us make the mistake of eating extra kilojoules and then struggling to lose the weight when baby arrives. What we really should be doing is focusing on adding extra nutrients to our diet – in the form of fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrains, low-fat dairy and lean protein.
If you gained a little extra weight when pregnant, fear not – having a baby is an excellent time to create new habits, thanks to the huge life adjustments you’re undergoing. Rather than trying to overhaul your diet and exercise regime all at once, make small changes one step at a time. “Eat a fun-sized chocolate, not the king-size. Choose the lower-fat milk. Eat just ten per cent less at dinner. It all adds up,” says Saxelby. Don’t fret if weight doesn’t shift immediately after the baby is born – according to 2009 research conducted by Germany’s Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, it’s meant to take up to six months for a woman to lose pregnancy weight.
Easy meal ideas:
2 salmon sushi rolls
Bean and rice salad: 4 bean mix, 1 cup microwave rice and vegies
From a sandwich bar: chicken and salad sandwich on wholegrain bread
The growth spurts stopped long ago and your metabolism is now starting to slow down. But for most people, their 30s are a frantic time of balancing work, young families and socialising. Healthy eating and exercise can get pushed down your priority list – in fact, the average adult gains almost half a kilo a year, according to a 2006 study.
You’re working, socialising, and dealing with big financial commitments. Maybe you’ve got kids. Your 30s are a juggling act – and with sleep, exercise, and ‘you’ time taking a backseat to other priorities, your stress levels can skyrocket. Stress increases your cortisol levels, a hormone linked to increased appetite, cravings for sugar, and you guessed it – weight gain.
While it may seem impossible, you must make time to take care of your own health. Get up an hour earlier to exercise in the morning if you are running out of time during the day. Exercise has been proven to alleviate stress levels and release feel-good endorphins and serotonin, which is the hormone that helps you sleep. Eating a balanced, nutritious diet helps your body cope with stress more effectively, so it’s important to eat well, no matter how busy you are. You could also try a vitamin B supplement. Study participants who took a B supplement for three months experienced almost 20 per cent less stress, according to a new Australian study – that’s significant enough to potentially impact your waistline, says Saxelby.
Kids come first
“Parents of infants are often excellent at lovingly preparing healthy, nutritious snacks and meals for their baby – but not for themselves,” says Williams. Instead, parents will grab unhealthy options for themselves on the run. The same goes for exercise routines –“you stand on the sidelines, watching the kids play, but forget about your own exercise needs”.
Being in good health is a vital part of being able to care for (and keep up with!) your kids. Learn some go-to healthy recipes that take less than 20 minutes; and try not to skip meals – that will just lead to eating more later. Williams recommends packing yourself the same lunch you’re making for the kids, “even if you work at home”. Plus, she says, aim to prepare only one family meal each night. “If everyone is dining at different times, try a slow-pot that simmers for several hours. If the kids have a late sporting event, maybe it’s a portable meal of chicken, salad and bread.”
Every decade after age 20 slows your metabolic rate by about 200–300kJ each day – “so by the time you hit 40, you’re burning around 400–600 fewer kJ daily than you once did,” says Williams. Our pace of life also tends to slow down a little in our 40s as the kids get older or work settles into a more stable phase – but we often don’t downsize our diet accordingly, resulting in – surprise! – weight gain.
You’re eating the same amount of food as you were five years ago, and doing the same amount of exercise – but you’re putting on weight more easily. Thanks to a slowing metabolism, weight creep can become a real issue in your 40s. But without drastically cutting your food intake every day, what can you do to ensure the weight doesn’t pile on?
Higher-protein, high-fibre and low-GI foods (eg. lean meat, legumes, reduced-fat dairy, wholegrain breads and cereals, and fruit and veg) have all been proven to keep you feeling fuller for longer and to satisfy you with smaller amounts – helping you reduce the amount of energy you eat over the day. Another way to feel full for less is with high-water, low-energy foods like salads, vegetables, stock-based soups, and low-fat yoghurt. “These foods are filling because they have a high water content and, in the case of plant-based foods, good fibre content, too – which means you can eat larger portion sizes but still keep your kilojoule intake in check,” says Saxelby. You’ll be more satisfied with your meals, too: research at Pennsylvania State University in the US found women on a low-fat diet including foods with a high-water content lost around 25 per cent more weight – and felt more satisfied – than those on a typical weight-loss diet.
Six hours’ shut-eye… or less
Sleeping less than you used to is pretty normal, says Professor Leon Lack, a sleep expert at the School of Psychology at Flinders University, South Australia. Your sleep requirements actually decline as you age. “By your 40s and 50s you’re sleeping an hour or so less each night,” he says. This in itself is not a health issue, but many of us worry anyway. “Often we see sleeping less as a concern, which causes anxiety, and that can actually stop us from getting enough sleep”, he says. Not enough sleep means increased hunger hormones, which can lead to eating more.
Exercise, a balanced diet, sleeping in total darkness and minimising ‘screen-time’ prior to bed can all help, but if you’re still not sleeping well, Lack suggests taking a look at your caffeine intake. “Caffeine has a half-life of six to eight hours, which means a 3pm coffee is still having half the effect at 11pm that night.” So stick to morning coffees only, switch to decaf, or try giving it up all together – you’ll save 405kJ for every small skinny latte you don’t drink.
Foods to keep you full for longer
Fill half your plate with vegies or salad
Baked beans on multigrain toast
Tomato-based, vegie-packed chicken pasta
50 & over
Hormonal changes during and after menopause can lead to weight gain in women, while men can gain weight as they become less active. For those over 65, the upper BMI limit for a healthy weight increases two points to 27, to help your body cope with illness. However, as always, being too overweight increases your risk of certain diseases.
“It’s estimated we lose 0.5–1 per cent of our muscles each year after the age of 25,” says Hargrave. “This slow deterioration is a natural process, known as sarcopenia.” Unfortunately, by the time we hit our 50s, some of us have lost up to one quarter of our muscle, meaning a slower metabolism, and have often had an increase in body fat, he says.
Add some gentle weight training to your day – “many studies have shown it’s possible for older adults to gain muscle strength and mass from regular resistance training,” says Hargrave. Try simple, easy things like body weight exercises, pilates or resistance bands. And make sure your snacks contain protein – these not only help build muscle, but help keep you feeling full for longer. A slice of cheese, a tub of low-fat yoghurt, a boiled egg and some carrot sticks, or a handful of almonds are all good options. Plus, dairy gives you the benefit of calcium for healthy bones.
The kids have flown the coop – and though you’ve adjusted emotionally, your eating habits haven’t! Maybe you’re still cooking enough to feed four – or prefer the convenience of takeaway over cooking for one or two. With newfound time to yourself, boredom eating can become an issue too, says Williams.
“Turn your extra ‘me’ time into something that doesn’t involve food or drink, and socialise away from food,” advises Williams. She also recommends introducing a new ingredient to your kitchen: indulgence. “Instead of choosing takeaway or dining at restaurants, buy quality produce to dine on at home. Prawns instead of snags; lean, premium tender meats instead of bulk cuts; fine vinegars and fresh spices instead of quick, salty bottled sauces... you’ll be more inclined to savour your food in smaller quantities, and cooking it yourself allows you to know exactly what you’re eating.”
Several common medications can affect your weight – “especially beta-blockers (used to treat hypertension),” says Dr Krishna Sura, GP and spokesperson for the Holdsworth House group of medical centres. Diuretics (also for hypertension) can prompt night-time visits to the bathroom, he says, while prescription drugs for cholesterol-control can result in achy muscles – both of which can affect your sleep and motivation to exercise, resulting in higher levels of hunger hormones, a larger appetite and less energy expenditure.
“Talk to your doctor about taking your meds in the morning, instead of the evening”, advises Sura, to make them less likely to interrupt your sleep patterns. “The side-effects of some medications can also be drug-specific, not class- dependent, meanings you can change from one to another and completely resolve side effects – so explore that possibility with your doctor too.”