Don’t let life changes get in the way of healthy weight. Karen Fittall shows how to keep the scales in check — no matter what life stage you’re at!
Maintaining a healthy weight when life is gliding along smoothly is one thing. But how do you stick to your well-oiled healthy routine while coping with sometimes stressful lifestyle changes like moving out of home, starting a new job and hitting menopause.
These life changes can be challenging and may sometimes lead to weight gain — but the good news is they don’t have to. Here’s how to navigate six big life stages without going up a clothing size.
Moving out of home
Leaving the nest for the first time can cause weight gain — as much as 2kg during the first 12 weeks, according to a recent US study. “Tight budgets, a possible lack of cooking experience and the novelty of being able to make your own food decisions can play a role in weight gain,” says Accredited Practising Dietitian, Milly Smith.
Stock up on healthy, low-cost staples. “Canned fish and legumes, frozen vegetables and wholegrain bread that you can store in the freezer are vital,” says Smith. “They don’t cost a lot and won’t go off, so you can always pull a filling meal together quickly without relying on takeaways.”
+ Write down what you eat
Some studies have found keeping a food diary is an effective way to manage weight gain, because it draws attention to what you’re eating. There’s no need to meticulously weigh everything you eat every day — just jot down the basics.
Going on holiday
Taking a break from day-to-day life leads to weight gain for two out of three people. It’s not usually a lot of weight, but it’s the type that contributes to creeping obesity because it’s hard to shift. “The break in routine, combined with eating out more and wanting to enjoy yourself, all contribute to holiday weight gain,” says Smith.
Steer clear of deals offering ’breakfast buffet included’. When faced with a buffet selection you’ve already paid for, you’ll eat significantly more because it feels like the food is free. “Even with the strongest willpower in the world, buffets tempt you to eat more — and certainly more high-kilojoule foods — than you usually would,” says Smith. “A better option is to order a single meal from a menu.”
+ Order it before anyone else
A US study has discovered that we subconsciously follow other people’s leads when we’re ordering food. So, to improve your chances of sticking to a healthy salad for lunch rather than being tempted by a burger and fries, order first.
Moving in with a partner
Living with a significant other has some big health benefits, including increased longevity, but it can also send the scales higher. Studies show married men are 25 per cent more likely to be overweight than single men, and just one year of cohabitation is also enough for a woman’s weight to increase. Couples living together do less exercise, some surveys suggest, and are less concerned with maintaining their weight to attract a partner.
Cook at home. People who cook a larger percentage of their meals at home consume fewer kilojoules than those who cook less, but sharing meals pays off too, according to Professor Clare Collins from the University of Newcastle. “Our research shows that when you cook meals for someone other than just you, your diet will tend to contain a wider variety of healthier foods.”
+ Get healthy together
Research also confirms that people are more successful in taking up healthy habits if their partner makes positive changes as well. “The key to making the changes work is choosing things you can do together. It’s more about going for a walk together after dinner and a bit less about individual gym memberships,” says Professor Collins.
“Pregnancy is a time when life gets disrupted,” says Collins, “so it can be easy to gain weight.” In fact, almost one in two Australian women gain more than the healthy weight that’s recommended during pregnancy, which can put an expectant mum’s health at risk and can cause complications during birth. Plus, gaining too much weight when you’re pregnant means you’re three times more likely to retain it over the long term.
Know your numbers. Nearly 40 per cent of women are overweight or obese when they fall pregnant. “And those women should gain less weight during pregnancy,” says Collins. If you’re a healthy weight when you fall pregnant, you should gain 11.5–16kg during pregnancy; 7–11kg if you’re overweight; and 5–9kg if your weight level has been categorised as obese.
+ Stick to five food groups
The five core food groups are fruit; vegetables and legumes; whole grains; lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs and tofu; and dairy foods or alternatives. “You need to give both your body and your baby the nutrients that come from healthy foods — the same foods that can help you maintain a healthy weight,” says Collins.
Women tend to gain an average of 2kg during menopause, while the decline in oestrogen that this body change delivers also shifts fat storage from the hips and thighs to the abdomen. “Even if you don’t notice an increase on the scales, you will notice that it is harder to do up your jeans,” says Griffith University’s Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Lauren Williams. Fat stored around the stomach is linked to a variety of health problems, including heart disease — but you can take steps to avoid this weight gain, says Professor Williams.
Recognise that your daily energy needs are now lower. “The fall in oestrogen leads to a decrease in lean muscle mass, and when that starts to happen, you don’t need to eat as much to fuel your body,” says Williams. “So if you then continue to eat the same number of kilojoules as you previously did, weight gain can result.” The solution can be as simple as eliminating a few hundred kilojoules from your daily diet. “It doesn’t sound like much, but over time it can have a real impact.”
+ Move more
Research shows that women reduce the amount of exercise they perform during menopause by as much as 50 per cent. But women who maintain or increase their physical activity levels come out the other side of menopause without gaining any extra weight.
A stressful life event
It could be anything from changing jobs, moving house or going through a divorce — but more than 70 per cent of us will turn to food as a means of dealing with the stress. “But the problem with trying to seek comfort in food is that it can create feelings of guilt, which can then lead to further emotional eating, and so the cycle continues,” says Smith.
Make sure you can hear yourself eating. Food scientists have proved that when you can’t hear yourself eat, you consume up to 25 per cent more food. To benefit from the ‘crunch effect’, eat your meal without distractions such as loud TV and blaring music. You’ll be practising mindful eating. “It’s a technique that can help make you more aware of why and when you’re eating, so that you can start to notice if you’re eating to satisfy something other than hunger,” says Smith.
+ Put on your walking shoes
Physical activity not only builds up the brain’s buffers against stress, it can work as a healthy, in-the-moment distraction, says Collins. “Going outside for a walk when you feel your stress levels rising is a simple tactic to avoid heading to the fridge.” Plus, if you frame exercise as fun rather than a workout, you’ll eat less afterwards.
Never too busy!
Being ‘too busy’ is often cited as a reason when people ditch their healthy eating plans. Avoid the ‘too busy’ trap by:
Shopping for food online: This eliminates time spent gazing at food down at the supermarket. It’s also scientifically proven to reduce how much food winds up in your fridge, as well as how many high-fat foods you have access to.
Using your freezer: When you’re cooking your dinner, make more than you need and divide the leftovers into meal-sized portions. Choose the smallest container you can to pack each portion into. When you come to eat it, you’ll consume less than if you were serving yourself from a larger container with the same-sized serve.
Calling yourself a ‘healthy eater’: It’s a small self-talk trick that can make sticking to healthier food choices easier — and that can make all the difference when life gets busy (did someone say Christmas?).