Many women who have spent decades on and off diets will wonder how to lose weight at 50. You may have had periods where you lost weight and kept it off in the past and may not understand why weight loss over 50 is so hard for women.
This article is for you if you now find yourself in a place where you’re constantly thinking about your weight and the impact food has on it, and struggle to make consistently healthy eating choices. You may recognize you are emotional eating, or believe your eating is out of habit of mindlessness, but either way you’re frustrated you can’t get your eating under control.
Before we dive in, it’s important you understand where this information is coming from because bias is rampant (and often harmful) in the weight loss industry. My biases include:
- Master’s-trained Registered Dietitian.
- Certificate of Training in Obesity in Pediatrics and Adults from the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
- Integrate work on shame, self-compassion and trauma by Drs. Brene Brown, Kristen Neff, Dan Siegel (respectively).
- Respect for non-diet, weight-neutral approaches to heal eating disorders like Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating, although I don’t believe weight loss is inherently harmful.
How to lose weight at 50: why females want to lose weight
Women over 50 often come to me with a variety of reasons they want to lose weight. Before deciding on the best path forward for you, I recommend you connect with your motivation to change.
Health: a primary reason for weight loss over 50 in women
Many women notice weight gain in midlife, and research supports this phenomenon. The Mayo Clinic reports women gain 1.5 lbs per year during their fifth and sixth decade of life.
The weight gain in midlife may be due to:
- Slowed metabolism due to aging or menopause
- Less physical activity
- Poor diet quality
- Sleep disturbance
- Other factors
Whatever the cause of weight gain, lowered-estrogen associated with menopause and increases in the stress hormone cortisol, increase the overall amount of fat and visceral fat storage. Visceral fat, the fat deposited around organs, rather than just under the skin, is associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease.
Does weight loss improve health for women over 50?
While not the only way to decrease risk of chronic diseases and treat specific conditions,according to the Obesity Action Coalition, losing 5-10% of body weight is associated with:
- Lower “bad” cholesterol and increased “good” cholesterol to optimize heart health
- Lower triglycerides, which when elevated are a risk factor for heart attack and stroke
- Decreased blood pressure, another risk factor for heart attack and stroke
- Better blood sugar control
- Improvement in sleep apnea symptoms
- A reduction in inflammation, which can improve blood vessel health
Elephant in the room: For many 5-10% of weight is less than they would like to lose. How does the fact that you can have health benefits at lower numbers impact your goal?
To feel attractive: another important reason women over 50 want to lose weight
A study by the Ohio State University illustrates the importance of feeling attractive to women in midlife. For women over 40, body image was based on how they believed other’s perceived their bodies, rather than their own beliefs about their body.
This isn’t surprising as women are socialized from a young age to fit the thin ideal.
Interestingly, a study that followed over 200 affluent middle-aged women living in the rural US with overweight or obesity, broke women’s motivation to lose weight into 3 categories:
- Health related reasons (for example: “to be healthier” or “to decrease my health risks”)
- Appearance in relation to others (for example: “so I will be accepted by society” or “so people will think better of me”)
- Appearance in relation to self (for example: “I want to like myself more”, “to feel more self-confident” and “I want to be more attractive”).
The study found the women who were motivated to lose weight to improve their appearance in relation to self were more likely to have gained weight over the course of a 30-month weight loss and maintenance intervention than women with other motivations.
Takeaway: If you want to lose weight to be more attractive, whether that be for yourself or others, these studies show that you aren’t alone, and that those motivations may actually work against you when it comes to weight loss.
Is it possible to feel attractive without losing weight?
A former client recently shared some photo-booth photos taken with her and various groups of friends at a high school reunion. My favorite part about the photos is pure joy radiating from her face. With oversized glasses and feather boas for props she clearly was having a great time.
She told me she was able to have a great time because of the internal work that is part of the Courage to Trust Method before the reunion of self-acceptance and unhooking her value as a human from her physical form.
Waaaaaayyy easier said than done, true. And this client did lose some weight and continues to pursue weight management, she just does it with more of an open-hand now.
Can losing weight be harmful to the physical and mental health of women over 50?
The reason an “open-handed” approach to weight loss is important is because for some, pursuing weight loss can be harmful, even when the trauma of All or Nothing Dieting is healed, and it can be more supportive for physical and mental health to focus on behaviors and non-weight goals.
All or Nothing Dieting stops you from trusting yourself
All or Nothing Dieting, where you feel you either need to “eat perfectly” or, “what’s the point?” causes you to stop trusting yourself. This lack of trust is responsible for the negative mental and physical effects of All or Nothing Dieting.
For example, a client shared with me a new experience dining at a buffet:
In the past, buffets would bring a lot of anxiety as she didn’t trust herself to make healthy choices and was afraid she would go overboard around such quantity and variety of food. Or conversely, she would shut the anxiety down by convincing herself she “didn’t care” and just go for it.
After working through the Courage to Trust Method her food anxiety was gone and she walked into the buffet trusting herself to eat well. She went through the food options with an equal eye towards grabbing her favorites and the high-nutrient foods she knew made her feel good.
Dangers of dieting
This lack of self-trust spurred on by decades of dieting can do harm in other ways as well:
- Increased risk of eating disorders
- Decreased metabolism and increased appetite
- Some women seem to have PTSD-like symptoms related to their diet history
- Perpetuating harmful weight stigma, discrimination against people in larger bodies, which is responsible for an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
Weight loss over 50 for females: the old way vs. the new way
Your personal experience and the research indicate that the old way of losing weight doesn’t work.
Old way: All or Nothing Dieting
The old way of dieting involved severe food restriction, losing a large amount of weight quickly, and then slowly gaining the weight back as the initial (unsustainable) restriction stopped and life returned to normal.
The unspoken assumption was that if you struggle with weight or gain the weight back, it’s your fault. You have some sort of moral or character ineptitude that results in more fat on your body.
Let’s get this out of the way: there is nothing wrong with you if you tend towards a larger body.
- 40-70% of the cause of obesity is due to genetics, another large portion is due to environmental factors outside of your control like public policy and whether you have access to sidewalks.
- Metabolism decreases and appetite increases after weight loss are a normal adaptation to weight loss (and frequently the cause of weight regain!) that need to be planned for or management for long-term maintenance.
New way: Weight Management
If weight loss over 50 is important to you, and a new approach to long-term weight management is needed.
You can think of weight management as occurring over 3 specific seasons of life:
- Season of intentional weight loss
- Season of monitoring weight loss (weight maintenance)
- Season of weight regain
All seasons are normal, not reflective of whether you are “good” or “bad” as a person and are periods where you may need professional support. You can find out more about how I can help you here.
Successful weight loss over 50 requires that you understand the following:
- Whatever behaviors you follow to lose the weight have to be more or less maintained in order to keep it off. That means very low calorie or super-restrictive patterns aren’t likely to be successful.
- You will be most successful if you continue to monitor intake and weight in some form for the long-term. This can be hard to hear for women who feel like they are already obsessed with food, more on that later.
- Normalizing plateaus, regain, periods of difficulty that cause you to abandon your new habits, and having plans and resource for support is important. For all the research done on weight loss, a general trend is greater support frequency and duration usually means more weight loss.
- It’s normal for appetite to increase and metabolism to slow by 60-120 calories over time, which puts you in a hard place! Having creative support for this is important.
The hard truth: weight loss over 50 may sound like a bummer
If you feel obsessed with food as it is, the idea that you’ll have to constantly be monitoring your weight and food in some form to be successful with weight maintenance probably feels like a bummer.
While I don’t yet have data to back up my claim, from my clinical experience I see that many of my clients have PTSD-like symptoms from repeated weight loss attempts. The desire and effort to be smaller has been experienced as trauma for many.
What women who struggle to make consistently healthy choices can expect when they try to lose weight over 50
After walking over 100 women through my proprietary methods first in the Stress Less Weight Mastery and now with my revamped Courage to Trust Method, I see the progression from struggling to make healthy choices to sustained weight loss look like this:
Phase 1: Cultivate the Courage to Trust
Decades of All or Nothing Dieting can do a number on your nervous system, and the way you think about food and yourself. The first step to creating a supportive relationship with food, your body and your health so you can eat with joy instead of eating to seek joy is to cultivate the Courage to Trust.
When you trust yourself around food you can make decisions in line with your values and based on what is best for you. For example, you may avoid foods that don’t make you feel good because you have set self-care boundaries, not because you are restricting and feeling deprived.
You think about food differently, and that is what allows you to make consistently healthy eating choices.
Jody illustrates this concept well when she says:
“I am able eat my ‘forbidden’ foods without feeling guilt and self-hatred because I know I can trust myself to slow down and pause before I jump in. There are no mistakes or ‘cheating’ because I expect there will be times when I overindulge. That’s okay, though, because it doesn’t mean that I have to keep overeating; it’s over, and I need to move on (a HUGE step for me).”
Part of trusting yourself also includes trusting that you are worthy of love and acceptance from yourself and others, no matter your size.
Cultivating the Courage to Trust includes working towards self-acceptance and self-compassion so you can smile at yourself in the mirror and appreciate yourself in photos, whether you lose a pound or not.
With decades of internalized weight bias and real trauma working against you, this is hard work to be sure. And yet, a newfound self-acceptance is one of the most common instigators of spontaneous gratitude emails we receive from Courage to Trust Method graduates 🥰
Phase 2: Experiment with weight management
Once you trust that you:
- Can set boundaries for food (rather than feel restricted or deprived when you choose not to eat something specific)
- Use tracking tools like the scale or food tracking as data sources (rather than measurements of your worth)
- Won’t be overly bothered by making an eating mistake and can quickly get back to eating as usual…
You are ready to experiment with weight management.
The question you are trying to answer with your experiment is whether you are willing to do what needs to be done for weight loss.
Being as weight loss may require more vigilance over food choices and the scale than you need to be physically and mentally healthy, a perfectly acceptable answer is: “No”.
And yet, the truth is you can’t really know how you will feel until you cultivate the Courage to Trust.
I am constantly surprised by the ease at which my clients can use tools that previously caused a lot of anxiety (like the scale or MyFitnessPal).
Having a knowledgeable guide, like a Registered Dietitian, (hello there…) during this phase is important because there are many tools you can use during your experiment including various dietary patterns, medications, and products.
Phase 3: Weight management or switch to behavior focus
Depending on the results of your Phase 2 experiment you will either keep on, keepin’ on with the various stages of weight management or you will have decided a focus on weight loss isn’t helpful and turned your attention to other health factors.
If you decide not to focus on weight loss over 50:
Sometimes the best decision for mental health, especially in the case of eating disorders, is to not focus on weight loss. And that’s OK.
You can receive plenty of health benefits, on par or even exceeding that of a 5-10% weight loss by focusing on certain behaviors:
- Medical Nutritional Therapy with a Registered Dietitian
- Routine care by your Primary Care Provider
- Stress Management
If you’d like help to cultivate the Courage to Trust, enact a weight management plan, and/or determine the most important non-weight related behaviors for you to implement you are welcome to book a free consult call to find out how I can help you.