A midlife perspective on weight and why it is so easy to diet when life gets rough, especially for middle-aged women.
Middle-aged women* are often put into caregiving roles — for children, spouses, aging parents, relatives, and more.
What does being a caregiver mean? We all know the literal definition, but what does it really mean for you and your body? Are you ignoring your own needs and wants in order to better care for everyone else? Are you listening when your body tells you it needs rest, it wants more food, it wants more pleasure?
I remember when I was the ultimate caregiver. It also happened to coincide with the last diet I was ever on.
I went on my last diet 10 years ago, when I was 50. I just wanted to make life simpler, while helping to care for my mother after a difficult surgery and my mother-in-law while she was receiving chemotherapy. I found myself driving from one hospital to the next on most days.
My last diet was super easy – it was portable and came in little pre-portioned packages for all meals and snacks. And the bonus – I would lose weight!
Looking back on this time now, I cannot imagine what I was thinking! Why in the world was I thinking about weight loss? What were the thoughts that were going through my head that I was hoping to resolve by changing my perfectly adequate, fully-functioning body?
How did I not see that I wasn’t sleeping adequately due to hot flashes and stress, had no time to exercise, or really do anything to care for myself?
All my free time was spent working. Yes, the packaged diet was the perfect solution to “control” my complicated, middle-aged life.
Welcome to middle-aged — the “sandwich generation,” if you will.
Taking care of or worrying about aging parents, while simultaneously trying to care for our partners, kids and/or pets, our homes, and our neighbors, are typical markers of middle-age.
Being pulled in so many directions, it is easy to make our bodies the “target” of our emotions.
Additional midlife concerns that have affected some of my peers include:
- Facing their own mortality
- Death or serious illness in a loved one
- Empty nest syndrome
- Shifting priorities in work-life balance
- Watching adolescent children grow into adulthood and struggle with issues like mental health, gender identity, religion, career, or other life choices
Middle-aged female bodies become a target of the diet industry with many women falling prey to chronic dieting and body dissatisfaction, particularly as they go through peri-menopause and menopause.
Diet Culture is Harsh on Middle-Aged Women
Diet culture would have us all believe we should be one body shape – thin. And for older women, anti-aging culture sends the message we should all dye our hair and have smooth, wrinkle-free skin. The overarching message that our bodies should stay the same through all of life’s transitions is truly preposterous and has a direct effect on our self-esteem.
Women’s bodies change in all life stages: from puberty, through pregnancy, into midlife, and then as we age. Our bodies are meant to change.
Women generally gain an additional layer of body fat around the middle, which is directly related to reduced levels of estrogen leading up to and through menopause. Our bodies need this extra layer of body fat, as these cells produce additional estrogen for healthy functioning. This is perfectly normal and natural.
For some women, the stress of middle-age can contribute to emotional and/or binge eating, and resulting weight gain can affect much more than just body image. For some women, serious eating disorders that had resolved in earlier years resurface, and for others, brand new eating disorders develop.
How can Health at Every Size® and Intuitive Eating Ease the Stress of Middle Age?
Managing the stress of middle age is a challenge for so many reasons, and too many of us turn towards dieting and disordered eating to feel in control of something in our lives.
I am here to tell you that I did the same and I know that, in the long run, it does not help at all.
If anything, it only ends up adding MORE to our plate, filling our brains with anxiety and getting in the way of nourishing our relationships and working through conflicts that arise.
Instead, the better way is to consider a non-diet approach to take care of yourself while you’re also attempting to take care of those around you.
Too many women put themselves last, thinking that the care of others is more important.
Yes it is… but you are just as important as anyone else. If you do not take care of yourself, who will? Worse, if you are not at your best, who will be there to help the people you are caring for?
Try some of these ways to put yourself first:
- Let go of the idea that you need to look the same way you did in high school.
- Embrace the reality that any weight gain that might occur is actually a blessing for the oncoming biological shift in your body.
- Introduce flexibility into your life to allow you the space to navigate around and juggle your various responsibilities and emotional turmoil that you may be experiencing.
- Listen to yourself when your body tells you it’s time to rest, or time to eat.
- Remember that although you may have so much on your plate, you still, and always will, come first.
Practical Steps to Putting Yourself First in Midlife
All in all, it is no surprise that women at all ages feel the pull to diet and change their bodies when life is stressful. This will backfire, most of the time, however, and result in feeling more stressed out than before. But if we explore different ways of living that are rooted in compassion and intuition, we can continue to care for ourselves.
Try these 8 approaches to explore different ways of supporting your wellbeing:
- We must accept that our bodies change and get to know them again. Finding movement patterns that can make us feel better in our skin, such as walking or yoga, can be helpful.
- Be kind to ourselves. Self-care might seem frivolous, but it is essential. Downtime, adequate rest and sleep and connecting with our partners and friends is health-promoting
- Buy well-fitting clothing in your size, and if cost is an issue, consider a clothing swap or try thrift stores such as Thred-up, an online thrift shop.
- Seek the support of a mental health professional if you find yourself needing to talk.
- Let go of diets and eat a balanced meal pattern of foods that you enjoy both physically and mentally.
- Learn about the non-diet approach to Intuitive Eating. We have strong evidence that a healthy body can exist in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
- Get support from a nutrition professional if you feel the need for support on this journey, contact me to see how I can help.
- Take an online class You can find an alternative to individual counseling by taking the Intuitive Eating Essentials for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond, a self-study program.
The world is changing, and we are too… the question is, how are you coping with midlife and what can you do to overcome the challenges you face every day? How can you stay away from the Diet Trap?
Most importantly, realize that you are not alone with these challenges. Women everywhere are going through similar situations every day. Many seek help to overcome them. It is hard to do alone.
But we are making it happen. Women are speaking up about diet culture, embracing Intuitive Eating, believing in Health at Every Size®, and challenging the expectations of the past. We are teaching our children new ways of thinking when it comes to health, diet and food, and nutrition. We must continue and we must put ourselves first.
When life gets rough and you feel the pull to these old traps, stop, reach out to someone, even yourself, and make new changes happen that will benefit you! Because you are important too!
Where to start? Check out my ONLINE INTUITIVE EATING PROGRAM FOR MIDLIFE WOMEN:
Filled with a community of like-minded women going through the same struggles and stress as you are. ESPECIALLY now in this time of upheaval due to COVID-19.
Intuitive Eating Essentials for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond will help if you are overwhelmed with food and body image worries.
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
Erica is a highly sensitive nutrition therapist who takes the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, she will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!
Download our Free Intuitive Eating Guide and get off that Diet Roller Coaster for good!