The older I get, the more I have wondered why gaining weight is so easy and getting rid of it such a struggle.
After I turned 40, the conversations with friends my age more frequently touched on the same frustration: Why can't I lose weight?
I decided to ask a doctor and a nutritionist, who often talk to patients about this very issue, what they wish they could tell people more bluntly about our collective weight struggles. Here’s what the internal medicine specialist said: 1. Diet 2. Diet 3. Diet.
“I think people really underestimate how much they’re actually eating,” she said. Some people eat too much “healthy food,” others overindulge if they’ve eaten healthy all week and may not realize how many extra calories those rewards add.
“I think people try to look for excuses like their jobs, which are usually sedentary. They also say, ’I have been under a lot of stress,’ so I have not been able to watch my diet,” she said. Of course, there may be underlying hereditary and metabolic causes that play a part, she added. “But, the big one is still diet.”
I would guess this is a pretty typical medical view of why many Americans are overweight. And, to be honest, it makes sense.
But, here’s some context I wish doctors would also consider. Metabolism does slow down in middle age, while responsibilities and stress seem to snowball. If humans have a finite amount of willpower and self discipline each day, more of that gets used up raising tweens and teens. It saps self-control reserves to stay calm and patient with children who are trying your very last nerve. This leaves less willpower to resist emotional and stress-related eating and drinking.
There is legitimately less time available to work out when you are working, raising children and driving them around from activity to activity. And when you are able to prioritize working out, that exercise makes you hungrier.
These aren’t meant to be excuses, but explanations that take into account many parents’ realities. Of course, people do lose weight successfully in middle age and later, but it’s also fair to say that it takes a great deal of effort to lose it and keep it off.
When I asked a nutritionist, she agreed that diet is the main culprit, but she also pointed out the things outside individual control.
“Our food system is obesogenic,” she said. Manufactured food is often designed to be addictive and make us fat. An abundance of cheap, processed food may often be the easiest option for harried parents. Surprisingly, she also takes issue with USDA guidelines that suggest Americans should get 45 to 65 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates. For some middle-aged women, that is way too high, she said.
Changing guidelines on how to eat, what to eat and when to eat can be confusing for the average person. Feeling stuck in a cycle of losing and gaining weight adds to an underlying chronic level of stress many of us carry around day to day.
One of the smartest things I did last year was to get rid of clothes that haven’t fit comfortably for years and made me feel guilty every time I looked in my closet. Having a better understanding of why a task is so challenging should help us feel more compassionate and forgiving towards ourselves.
I’ll still make goals to be healthier in the upcoming year -- to eat less sugar and to exercise and sleep more.
I’m definitely ditching the guilt.
Feeling a little lighter already.