Losing weight is never easy, but it gets a lot harder after you turn 50.
“When women go through menopause, our metabolism slows and we have lower levels of estrogen. Estrogen promotes muscle mass, and your ability to burn calories depends on muscle mass,” says Reshmi Srinath, MD, the director of the Weight and Metabolism Management Program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Men also see a decline in testosterone after their fourth decade, so hormonal changes are happening for both sexes, and that’s the main reason it’s harder to lose weight as we get older.”
But it’s not impossible.
A Mom on the Road and Jenny Craig
Loralee Coulter, a pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of two from Omaha, NE, began to notice that she was putting on weight in her late 40s. “I wasn’t eating enough fresh foods,” says Coulter, who at 5’10” had usually weighed no more than about 170. “I would grab a sub sandwich and then be hungry again soon after. Or I’d just not eat all day and then eat way too much at dinner.”
Making matters worse, a foot injury in 2016 made it hard for her to exercise. “By the time I turned 50 in 2017, I was up to 228 pounds,” Coulter says. “We took a family trip to Disney World, and when I saw the pictures, I knew I had to do something. So I decided to join Jenny Craig.”
Coulter says that what she needed from a weight loss plan was a better sense of portion control and how much she was really eating. “As I started following their plan, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I was eating a lot more than I thought I was,’” she says. She also downloaded a calorie tracking app called My Net Diary and started logging her food, so that she could gradually wean herself off the Jenny Craig-purchased meals and plan her own daily intake. “You can’t stay on a ‘diet’ forever,” she says.
By the end of 2017, Coulter had lost over 50 pounds and was at her goal weight of 176, where she’s stayed ever since. “The key is to learn how to eat in a balanced, more nutritious way for your health in the long haul,” she says.
Losing 100 Pounds Despite Disability
Living with rheumatoid arthritis for many years, Lynn Burgess had always struggled with her weight. But when her RA became so severe that she was forced to go on disability in her mid-40s, she was less and less active. “Being at home all the time, I also ate a lot more and didn’t cook healthy meals like I should,” says Burgess, now 60, who lives in the Chicago area. By 2017, Burgess realized she was well over 200 pounds and, at just 4’11”, had about 100 pounds to lose. “It was very daunting, but I had to try.”
She reenrolled with Weight Watchers, which had helped her lose smaller amounts of weight in the past. “I decided I was not going to give up if I didn’t lose or even if I gained sometimes, because that’s inevitable,” she says. “Weight Watchers worked for me, but I don’t think it’s the plan you use so much as the commitment to follow it.”
It took about a year and a half for Burgess to lose 100 pounds, and she’s kept it off for the past 2 years. “After about 20 or 30 pounds, once I started feeling it in my clothes and seeing it when I looked in the mirror, that made me feel great,” she says. “That helped me keep going.”
Ditching the Dad Bod
Todd Bentsen, a Washington, DC-based communications professional and father of two, never used to have much trouble with his weight. Just shy of 6 feet tall, he’s maintained a weight of around 175 pounds for most of his adult life.
Then came COVID. Bentsen, now 60, found himself at home a lot. “I was eating whatever my teenage son was eating and drinking whatever was put in front of me. Within 3 months, I was just shy of 200 pounds,” he says. “My clothes didn’t fit me anymore. And it’s no joke that your metabolism slows down when you age.”
In July 2020, he signed up for the app-based weight loss plan Noom. Although he appreciated Noom’s behavior-focused lessons and followed along with them, Bentsen says what really helped was tracking his eating habits. “Based on your weight loss goals, they tell you how many calories you get to eat per day. Mine was 1,400,” he says.
Soon he saw how much he had been taking in without even realizing it. “I knew certain things were caloric, but I don’t know that I realized how much,” he says. “I love baguette sandwiches from the French bakery in my neighborhood, but baguettes are off the charts with calories. I’m more conscious and intentional about my eating.”
In December of 2020, he reached his goal weight of 177. “I probably could have hit it much faster had I been stricter with myself, but I wanted an approach I could stick with,” he says.
Working With a Weight Loss Doctor
In her late 40s, Connecticut business owner Jamie Cohen was feeling very good about her health. “I had done an elimination diet where I figured out a bunch of foods I had sensitivities to,” says the mom of two high school students. “If I stayed away from those foods, I did well. I had dropped weight and was sleeping well and feeling great.”
Then, right as she turned 50, Cohen was hit with a number of stressors at once: family health problems, school difficulties for one of her children, and the onset of menopause. Soon, she found that her weight had crept up to 225 pounds. “I was going through every single menopause symptom, and I was also having a lot of digestive problems,” says the 5’6” Cohen. “I went to a gastroenterologist who sent me to a medical weight loss program.”
The program’s doctor recommended a specific number of calories per day or per week for Cohen’s weight and activity level. “I thought I wasn’t eating that much, but I soon realized I was letting a lot more refined carbs and sugar sneak back into my diet,” she says. “It was a lot of little things, like putting more milk and sugar into my tea. Then as I gained weight, I’d look in the mirror and not recognize myself, I’d feel bad and have another cup of tea with lots of milk and sugar.”
Cohen began using the Lose It! app to track her eating and exercise. “I’m finding that I’m not snacking anymore. I’m eating when I’m hungry. I’m listening to my body’s signals,” she says. So far, she’s lost 47 pounds and at least three sizes, with the help of virtual barre and Pilates classes. “I still weigh more than I would like to but my shape is so much different, and I’m stronger because I’m working on turning everything into muscle,” she says.
Tips From the Doctor
How can you get results like these folks did? Srinath has a few tips.
“Weight loss comes down to calories in, calories out,” she says. “To lose one pound a week, you have to create a daily 500-calorie deficit, which is hard to do with either food or exercise alone. You need both.”
- Monitor your meals. One thing that all four of our weight loss success stories have in common is that they just didn’t realize how much they were eating. “I recommend charting your food intake with an app like Lose It! or MyFitnessPal to get started,” Srinath says.
- Think long term, not fads. “You don’t want to be on a diet that restricts your food choices,” she advises. “Instead, make healthy food choices you can sustain. Moderate your carbohydrates and moderate your intake of things like sugar and alcohol.”
- Focus on healthy protein sources. “Protein keeps you fuller longer, and helps you avoid spikes in blood sugar that come from all-carbohydrate meals,” Srinath says. “For example, if you like oatmeal for breakfast, add some nuts or peanut butter to it for protein.”
- Watch when you eat. “Try to finish eating by 8 pm,” she says. “Ideally, there should be at least 3 hours between your final meal of the day and bedtime.”
- Move your body. “Do some physical activity that raises your heart rate every day, ideally for at least 30 minutes,” Srinath says. “That can be whatever appeals to you: walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or working out to YouTube videos.”
- Build, or at least keep, muscle. We tend to lose muscle mass as we age, and muscle burns more calories while at rest than fat does. “At least 2 days a week you should incorporate strengthening exercise into your routine,” Srinath says.
If you have been trying to lose weight for at least 6 months without success, it may be time to get help from a weight loss professional, Srinath says.