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Eat Less, Exercise More -- Gain Weight?

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Elizabeth Lyster: Everybody "knows" how to lose weight: diet and exercise, right? Well, what we eat and our activity levels do make a big difference in whether we achieve and maintain a healthy weight, size, and condition.

woman eating a small salad

However, human metabolism changes over our lifetimes. When we're young (teenage and adult in our 20s), relatively minor changes in diet and exercise can produce weight loss. When I was in high school, when my jeans felt too tight, I just stopped eating cookies for a couple of weeks, and that did the trick! As we get older, our metabolism slows down. This slow-down in metabolism is like a hill that gets steeper as it goes down. That is, your metabolism is slower in your 30s than in your 20s, and it gets even slower in your 40s, your 50s, and so on. There are three major mistakes that women make when trying to lose weight. Because of slowing metabolism, these mistakes are especially costly for women over 40.

Here are my Top Three Women's Weight-Loss Mistakes, not necessarily in order of importance:

1. NOT ENOUGH FOOD! How counterintuitive! These days, people are learning quickly about this mistake. All the "trainers-to-the-stars" are writing books promoting the importance of healthy snacking and eating five to six times per day.

Think of your metabolism like a furnace -- if you don't keep fuel in the furnace, the fire will die down and go out.

Here is the heart of why diets don't work -- when you don't eat enough, your metabolism goes into "save" mode. Human bodies are designed this way, to withstand and survive starvation conditions. Feeling hungry may mean you are in this kind of counter-productive metabolic state.

So, it's not your fault -- eating less in this way will not lead to weight loss!

2. TOO MUCH EXERCISE: Exercise is an essential part of maintaining long-term health and weight control. However, there is in fact such a thing as doing too much exercise, or exercising too intensely. Exercise is hormonally depleting, especially for women over 40.

If exercise is experienced as stressful, this can stress the adrenal glands. Adrenal glands make cortisol in response to stress. When there is too much cortisol release, the body goes into the "save" mode I mentioned earlier, and will retain weight, especially around the midsection. This is one of the most tricky subjects for me to discuss with my patients who are over 40, are healthy eaters, exercise intensely, and are frustrated by lack of weight loss or even weight gain despite all their efforts.

You have to exercise smarter, not harder. For example, exercise programs that include weight-lifting will build muscle mass, which in turn raises the overall metabolic rate. This makes a person burn more calories, even at rest! In other words, it's not just about burning calories by exercising harder. If your best efforts at weight loss are not working well, you may be over-exercising.

3. NOT ENOUGH SLEEP! When you understand the work done by the adrenal glands, it becomes clear why not getting enough sleep, or good enough sleep quality, can cause weight retention or weight gain.

We talked in the last section about excess cortisol release caused by stress. Cortisol is released when we are tired and don't rest -- it's what keeps tired women from falling asleep at the wheel while they are ignoring their fatigue and running around doing all the things they have to do every day. Perimenopause and menopause-related symptoms can also interfere with good sleep quality. Depression (which is not a "natural" part of menopause) can also disrupt sleep. Stressful life events, such as the loss of a loved one, also cause cortisol release (both by interfering with sleep and from the stress itself).

Chronic lack of sleep leads to cortisol release, which also leads to craving junk food -- all of which of course leads to weight gain. Because this kind of weight gain is mostly around the abdominal area, we feel "bloated" and uncomfortable.

Poor eating habits related to fatigue and stress make this a vicious cycle that prevents reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

So, what everybody "knows" about how to lose weight leaves out some crucial information. These top three mistakes that people make in trying to lose weight are especially costly for women over 40. Yes, you have to eat well and keep fit, but you have to keep a balance, and you have to get enough rest!

Here's to your health!

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326 comments so far | Post a comment now
Sarah June 19, 2009, 5:48 PM

Thank you very much for this article. I am 30 and have been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue brought on by overexercise. One of the side effects of adrenal fatigue is weight gain, especially in my abdominal area. I have cut back on my exercise, but am still gaining weight. I am trying to get a lot of healthy fats in my diet. Is it possible that I am exercising too much AND eating too much? Would this cause weight gain?

Abbey June 22, 2009, 5:57 PM

I really relate because I have been watching what I eat and exercising for over a year now and have not lost any weight (I’ve actually gained inches!). I’ve battled with my weight most of my life and, although I’m 25, I think my metabolism is slower than a woman in her 50s. It’s very depressing because I work so hard and eat all the right things but I get no results, but if I splurge and eat a piece of birthday cake I gain 5lbs immediately. I know I probably don’t eat enough on a day-to-day basis and a lot of my problems do have to do with having eating disorders, which I’ve also dealt with most of my life. On the plus side if North America ever suffered a famine or new ice age, i’d be fine.

John772 July 23, 2009, 4:19 AM

Very nice site!

Amanda July 25, 2009, 1:01 AM

I have done research on sleep and weight issues. Longituinal studies show that people that sleep less eat less and weigh more. This is because when you don’t sleep your resting metabolism rate BMR slows down. It’s not because someone is eating junk food. I don’t sleep and I eat healthy.

Tracy August 22, 2009, 6:44 AM

I have been trying to find out if this starvation mode is true or not…so much conflicting advice out there. It goes against my laws of physics upbringing!
I’ve been on a diet for a few months now, been so very good, but only lost 6lbs. They say I’m not eating enough but when you cut out the rubbish it’s really hard to eat enough calories. I struggle to eat a 1000 yet I feel stuffed!

Kathy September 6, 2009, 12:23 PM

This article is 100 percent true! I love this site. I tend to over exercise and not eat enough and sure enough, I put on weight over night. Listen to this doctor as she completely knows what she’s talking about. There are no conflicting messages about starvation mode — don’t eat enough and skip sleep and you’ll gain weight. It’s that simple.

Kathy September 6, 2009, 12:27 PM

This article is 100 percent true! I love this site. I tend to over exercise and not eat enough and sure enough, I put on weight over night. Listen to this doctor as she completely knows what she’s talking about. There are no conflicting messages about starvation mode — don’t eat enough and skip sleep and you’ll gain weight. It’s that simple.

Lorenzo Stone October 22, 2009, 11:58 PM

Very true!Weight loss should be holistically addressed not just by mereley watching your diet and exercise. :D got this from christopher guerriero

Roe November 1, 2009, 5:38 PM

I have been recording my excerise and my food intake. I lowered by food intake by 200 calories a day and excerise 1 and half hours a 5 to 7 days a week. I started to loss weight the first couple of weeks, but then this week actually put on weight. Should I reduce my excerise?

Todd29 January 9, 2010, 12:42 PM

Keep a daily food journal to know exactly what you consume each day. The major reason so many people in America are overweight is because we eat too much for comfort! It does not hurt to treat ourselves with something special once in a while, what is necessary is that we limit our portions and do not overeat! It is also necessary to keep our body properly hydrated, so drink a full glass of water with each meal or snack. Being overweight sucked, but after reading a book, I lost 85 pounds! Words can not express how good I feel! This is a comment which I recently received about the book Lose Weight Using Four Easy Steps

Amanda February 20, 2010, 7:40 AM

Great article! Thanks so much for this info!

crystal February 28, 2010, 5:34 PM

I barely can eat anymore. When I do eat I gain 5lb. I’ve been trying to lose weight and nothing works. 10 years ago I had this bright idea to eat 1 meal a day which worked. I lost 30lb. in a month but now I’m paying for it.

Nina Alviar March 22, 2010, 12:06 PM

Thank you so much! I am studying to become certified as a personal trainer and let me tell you, the organization I am studying nutrition with left this part out! It’s not as simple as “eat less, burn more.” As a sleepless mother and also a marathoner, I know that I have to eat many times a day to keep my metabolic “fire” stoked, and that when I feel hungry, I know that I’m down to cinders. These last 15 pounds have been stuck like glue, and now I know for sure why! Thanks again!

maureen March 22, 2010, 9:13 PM

Am 23 years.i have been exercising 4 the past month and a half for an hour a day 4-5 days a week.i have no sleep problems and sleep 8hours.i eat healthily n dnt deprive myself of food.but am nt losing weight.i have a large abdominal area.thts my only problem.any advice

Dr. J March 23, 2010, 5:45 PM

I’m afraid that many of the statements in this article have been proved by this time to be incorrect.

Celebrity Diets June 3, 2010, 1:43 AM

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sallie July 16, 2010, 8:04 AM

thanks for all the advice, i recommend using ive been using them for 6 weeks now and lost 25 pounds so far they work with you and your lifestyle they have a lot of different weight loss programs

Diet Solution August 6, 2010, 2:16 AM

Your tips are nice and
I wanna use your program but i am skeptical about results because i have used many programs and they helped me in starting but not permanent results there,please help….

JC | FitMarker August 20, 2010, 2:12 AM

too bad that number 1 is not backed by research. There’s no such thing as your body going into “save mode” from not eating frequently.

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