You are bombarded by images of super skinny (and young) models in media and social media. If you are post menopausal, chances are you have gained a few pounds (or have a thickened waist). It is easy to be confused about what the best body shape is for you. If weight loss is your goal, then knowing what you should aim for to be healthy is important.
As someone who coaches menopausal women on weight loss, I want to make sure my clients and my followers understand when they are losing weight for looks and when it is for health reasons.
Understanding the health risks
There are known health risks associated with being overweight, but we have placed too much emphasis on the number on the scale. There are many other factors that contribute to health risks.
The insurance industry which likes to use numbers and statistics came up with Body Mass Index (BMI) as a measure of insurance risk. The health industry was quick to adopt this easy to use indication of health risk. BMI is defined as mass in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. You can find a BMI calculator here.
A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered a healthy range. 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight and 30 and over is considered obese. The main problem with BMI is that it does not take body composition into account. Added muscle mass is healthy. It is added fat that is considered a problem.
To put this in perspective, female actors and to an even greater extent fashion models tend to have BMIs under the 18.5 low end. Having a BMI under 18.5 also has health risks associated with it. So many of our role models are not at health weights even for younger adults.
People with a higher BMI are considered at risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoarthritis. Unfortunately many of these studies have been done on younger adults. The risks for older adults are at different BMIs.
Older adults with a BMI under 23 (not 18.5) are at higher risk. A study published in the American Journal of clinical nutrition found that adults over the age of 65 with a BMI from 24 to 31 had the lowest mortality rate.
Why should older adults carry more weight?
Older adults with a lower BMI have fewer reserves when they get sick. Already low muscle mass will deteriorate and fat stores are not high enough to keep up with energy demands.
A second reason is the risk of osteoporosis. One in three women in Canada will sustain a fracture caused by osteoporosis in their lifetimes. The statistics in the US and Europe are similar. Of those many will be hip fractures. Several studies have shown that the 1 year mortality rate after a hip fracture is at least 14%. Pretty scary statistics.
One of the main risk factors for osteoporosis is low body weight. At a low body weight, under normal use, the bones do not get enough stimulation to grow. Bones that are stimulated will maintain density better than bones that do not receive enough stimulation.
Another factor to consider is abdominal obesity (belly fat) rather than overall obesity. The best way to measure this is with a waist to hip ratio. Higher belly fat usually indicates that there is fat stored around the internal organs. This is called visceral fat rather than subcutaneous fat, which is fat stored under the skin. Excess visceral fat is associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Sarcopenic obesity (skinny fat) is another reason the number on the number on the scale may be lying. Sarcopenic obesity means you have low muscle mass and high relative fat mass. In fact your weight may not have changed, but your body shape likely has. This can also be associated with increased waist to hip ratio.
What can you do?
Instead of focusing on how you look, although I understand it is important to feel good about yourself, focus on how your weight affects your health.
Exercise, specifically weight training is beneficial in just about every way. Weight training helps you to put on muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you can potentially maintain the same weight, but have a smaller shape. Weight training also helps to strengthen the bones and speed up your metabolism.
High intensity training helps to lose the visceral belly fat which means a smaller waist. And remember that a lower waist to hip ratio is something you want.
You may also want to reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet, while increasing the amount of protein. Sugar and refined carbohydrates tend to help fat accumulate in the belly while having enough protein in your diet helps to maintain and grow muscle.
Set realistic goals for weight loss and don’t try to lose to much at once. Quick weight loss usually results in muscle loss as much as fat loss.
If you are looking to lose weight in a healthy way, then download this free guide for weight loss for menopausal women.