For many people, when they notice their clothes are getting tighter, their initial response is a vow to rein things in—to go on a diet or go for a run. After all, the advice to “eat less and exercise more” is something that is ingrained in so many of us from a young age.
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Yet this age-old advice often fails us. Why? Essentially, it’s because the calorie equation (calories in versus calories burned) fails to consider a whole host of factors that impact our metabolic rate. So what should you do instead? Dr Libby Weaver author of Women’s Wellness Wisdom shares how you stop gaining weight when your metabolism has slowed down.
Stop dieting and start nourishing
Many women have been dieting (restricting!) for years, decades even. Yet we tend to forget that when we’re restricting calories, we may also be inadvertently restricting the essential nutrients that drive the biochemical processes in our body—the very nutrients that drive cellular metabolism and maintain proper functioning of our body systems.
Instead of waging a war against your body, support it—focus on health, not weight. Begin to incorporate more nutrient-rich whole foods and the processed or “diet” foods will naturally start to fall away. Eating too little for an extended period can down regulate thyroid function, which will only slow your metabolic rate further. It’s time to stop dieting and start nourishing.
Could it be your thyroid?
If you’re experiencing unexplained weight gain, in addition to other symptoms such as deep fatigue, often feeling cold, menstrual problems/infertility, brain fog and a tendency to constipation, you may be suffering the effects of an under-active thyroid.
The thyroid gland is a little butterfly-shaped gland that sits in your throat area. It makes hormones that play an enormous role in your metabolic rate as well as temperature regulation.
There are a number of nutrients essential to optimal levels of thyroid hormones. These include iodine, iron and selenium. Iodine is found in seafood, seaweed and iodised salt. Foods that contain iron include red meat, eggs, green leafy vegetables and legumes, and the best dietary source of selenium is brazil nuts.
However, the thyroid gland is also susceptible to autoimmune diseases which can cause thyroid dysfunction, so consuming more of these nutrients won’t be beneficial for all thyroid problems. If you suspect you have an under-active thyroid, visit your doctor to discuss having your thyroid hormone (and perhaps also antibody) levels tested.
Rushing around at a frantic pace has become the norm, whether we have two or two hundred things on our to-do list, and stress hormones are produced in response to this perception of pressure and urgency. Cortisol, our chronic stress hormone, is a catabolic hormone which means it can break down muscle tissue. If chronic stress leads to a loss of muscle mass this will slow our metabolic rate, and body fat can start to creep on even if we haven’t changed our eating and moving habits.
One of the most effective ways to minimise stress hormone production is diaphragmatic breathing, so breath-focused practices such as meditation, tai chi and restorative yoga can be highly beneficial. If these don’t appeal, simply take 20 long, slow breaths at regular intervals across each day, that move your belly out and in, rather than short, shallow breaths that move your chest.
Muscle up your metabolic rate
Muscle mass typically accounts for around a third of total body weight and a quarter of your body’s metabolic activity. In contrast, body fat usually accounts for at least twenty percent of your body weight (and more for many people these days) but only five percent of metabolic activity. Your ratio of muscle to fat mass therefore greatly impacts your metabolic rate. This means that if you have a higher proportion of muscle mass, your body uses more energy (calories) simply to sustain these muscles—ultimately, this can lead to less body fat being stored.
Ditching restrictive diets and managing stress can help to prevent muscle breakdown, however we also lose muscle mass gradually as we age (from about the age of 30 onwards) unless we do something to maintain or build it. Embrace some kind of resistance training. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to the gym. Pilates is a great form of resistance training and yoga uses your own body weight as resistance. Above all, don’t avoid movement—look for more opportunities to move throughout your day.
Watch Dr Libby explain why iron deficiency could be linked to adrenal fatigue below.