As a registered dietitian and a nutritionist whose career revolves around knowing the latest research, I somehow thought that I’d sail through midlife in my usual slim shape. Umm…wrong! My middle-aged body puts on weight more easily (#notakidanymore) and staying toned has become harder. The habits that worked in my 20s and 30s seem to be laughing at me, so I’ve had to do some rethinking about how I approach food and exercise—and consequently change what I tell my over-40 clients.
So here is what I’ve discovered: Five new rules that may sound counter-intuitive but that represent the secret sauce to staying slim at this life stage. I’m going to start with the one that’s vital to me, a person with a major sweet tooth.
DO Get Yourself an Extravagant Pastry
Provided they are 110 percent awesome and only an occasional occurrence, rewards are a good thing when done right. Do you know the difference between a Chips Ahoy! and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie that’s soft and gooey on the inside? I sure do! It’s fine to treat yourself every now and then—much better, in fact, than munching away every night on store-bought cookies or something else decidedly meh. When your food thrills are more memorable, you’ll find that you can be satisfied with them less often.
Go for something fantastic instead of a cheap and meaningless thrill.
I’d also argue that it’s a low-cost way to treat yourself well. It’s like the difference between a DIY manicure and one from the salon. Even if you’re wearing the same shade of red, you feel more pampered at the nail salon. The same goes for food. Go for something fantastic instead of a cheap and meaningless thrill and you can satisfy your cravings…sometimes.
DON’T Line Up for Green Juice…Or Any Juice
Though it may sound like it guarantees good health, that kale-pineapple-ginger concoction you’re slurping down is probably just a sugar and calorie bomb with a side of antioxidants. I’m fine with natural sugar from fruit when it’s in the whole package—complete with the fiber that fills you up. But these pricey juices often lack that important component. The other issue with these drinks is that your brain doesn’t compute calories you sip in the same way as calories you chew. As we age, it’s much better to get calories from foods that really satisfy you so you’re less likely to overeat. Liquid calories just don’t do that.
And while we’re on the subject, it’s time to rethink the rest of your drinks. Though you may have been able to get away with Cosmos with pals in your youth (how I miss those Sex and the City-style days!), my midlife advice is to take your alcohol without added sugar. Important research on sugar suggests that over time, it can impact the hormones that lead us to store more fat. Thanks but no thanks to that. Wine, beer, tequila, or any other spirit are all okay—in moderation, of course—but do your body a favor and skip the sugary mixers.
DON’T Ramp Up Your Yoga/Pilates/Boot Camp Schedule Too Much
My clients are often surprised when I give them permission to ease up on exercise, but the reality is that working out isn’t the most effective weight-loss tool. Science shows our bodies are exceptional at compensating for the energy we use while exercising. So if you just finished your favorite boot camp class, you might take the elevator instead of the stairs, or you may serve yourself a slightly bigger portion at dinner because you’re a little hungrier. You may not be aware of these adjustments, but they can be why you’re killing it at the gym and not seeing much in the way of results. Even more frustrating: The research suggests that when compared with those just starting off or those exercising moderately, the most ambitious exercisers get the fewest weight-control benefits.
Here’s why you may be killing it at the gym and not seeing much in the way of results.
There are tons of great health reasons to exercise, but here’s my advice: Rather than focus on which exercises burn the most calories, find ways to move that make you happy. If you love Zumba, fantastic. If walking is more your speed, that’s terrific, too. By working out in ways that bring a bit of joy, it makes it more likely you’ll stay active over time—a habit that will keep you healthy. Make sure you’re strengthening your muscles, too, whether with weight training, Pilates, yoga, or another activity.
DO Weigh Yourself and Often
Almost-daily weigh-ins are a routine for me. I’m not suggesting you obsess over the number, but consider all the feedback you’re missing if you aren’t weighing yourself regularly. Sure, there are other metrics to let you know when you’ve gained a few (say, your jeans feel like they accidentally went through the dryer), but your weight is an excellent data point that can give you a sense of the trends. After a business trip, vacation, or an especially social week, hop on the scale. What is it telling you? If you spot that you’re up five pounds, it’s a sign you’re loosening up on your wellness routines and can serve as a reminder that you need to make some adjustments.
Certainly, if regularly weighing brings up shame or any other negative feelings, you need a different checks-and-balances system. But for most of us, the research shows that regular dates with the scale is an effective way to manage your weight.
DO Find (Self) Love Later In Life
Too often we tend to think about weight loss in the context of being down on ourselves, of being inadequate, or “failing” at our diet. Let’s drop that: We’re old enough to know better. I’m not immune to my inner voices, but I do try to quiet them and keep things positive. Just as it’s no fun to compare myself to other people who make more money, nothing good comes out of comparing my body to the one I had at 35.
I want to cultivate kindness toward the body that has treated me pretty well all these years. Putting good lifestyle habits in place is not about torture, restriction, or deprivation. It’s something to embrace that lets you live in the moment and feel your best.
I made peace with the few extra pounds of padding I now carry.
When I realized it would be exceptionally tough to reach my pre-40 weight—and fit into the clothes I wore a decade ago—I made peace with the few extra pounds of padding I now carry. It’s part of life and part of aging, and as long as I’m treating myself well with good food and smart workouts, I can happily live with it!
Ditching the punitive vibe and appreciating your own awesomeness are vital components to good health on all front—body, mind, and soul. It sets you up for a wonderful midlife—and much later-life, too.
A nationally recognized food, nutrition, and wellness expert, Samantha Cassetty’s positive approach to healthy eating has influenced millions of Americans. She was the Nutrition Director for Good Housekeeping for six years and currently is a columnist for NBCNewsBETTER.
A version of this article was originally published in May 2018.