Why You Gain Weight in Your 20s, 30s, 40s, and Beyond...and What to Do About It
Hard truth: We’re all likely to gain weight as we get older. While we don’t always have control over everything that can cause weight gain, there are lifestyle choices that you can make to better manage the scale and stay strong and healthy as you age.
Read on to learn which obstacles Mother Nature may throw your way with each passing decade and tips to combat them.
Why You Gain Weight In Your 20s
Hello, Freshman 15
The scale creep for this decade actually begins in your late teens. For the millions of new students heading off to college in the U.S., the dining hall is one of the first sources of significant weight gain. “Many students do not have any understanding of food, nutrition, and cooking, and yet they have an array of wonderful foods to choose from at a college dining hall,” says Heli J. Roy, RD.
In addition to cafeterias, many campuses have separate on-site eateries, vending machines, and snack bars (not to mention the alcohol) that “help” you gain the infamous freshman (or sophomore/junior/senior) 15.
You move less
For many young people, this decade ushers in their very first nine-to-five job. While not all jobs require sitting at a desk all day, most do. In fact, the number of sedentary jobs has increased 83 percent since the 1950s, and work weeks often last longer than the typical 40 hours, as technology continues to blur the line between work and non-work hours.
In your teens, you probably spent your free time playing sports or doing some kind of physical activity. But with 40+ hours per week parked at a desk, there’s probably a major drop in your daily activity level — even if you do manage to get a workout or two in during the week.
Adulting is hard. Living on your own, paying bills, and other responsibilities that you’ve never had to deal with before are now part of your daily routine. Newfound independence can trigger major stress, another notable culprit when to comes to gaining weight.
“In your 20s, the main culprit to weight gain is stress, which causes high cortisol, one of your body’s key fat-storage hormones,” says Dr. Sara Gottfried, bestselling author of “The Hormone Cure” and “The Hormone Reset Diet.”
Cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can wreak havoc on our bodies, she adds. Help reset your cortisol levels by weaning yourself off alcohol for three days, which can help your sleep and stress levels, Gottfried suggests.
Lack of sleep
Speaking of, everyone needs more sleep, period. But this is when the lack of it begins to have a serious impact on your life and health as a whole.
Sleep goes hand in hand with weight maintenance for a number of reasons. First off, plenty of quality sleep can help you power through tough workouts. Lack of sleep can decrease your endurance, which can make it harder to give it your all.
Not racking up enough zzs can mess with your hunger hormones, which can lead to weight gain — even if you eat clean and work out regularly. Your stomach produces ghrelin, a hormone that tells the brain we’re hungry, and production of ghrelin can ramp up when we’re continually not getting enough sleep. In addition, your body may ramp up cortisol production if you don’t get enough sleep.
If you’re having trouble getting quality sleep, try some natural remedies before you reach for the quick-fix over-the-counter stuff.
Feeding yourself is also part of your new adulting role. But at this point in your life, you may not have a ton of healthy recipes or proper nutrition information under your belt. And with an endless array of food-delivery services at your fingertips, it’s easy for your eating habits to run amok.
Tips to maintain your weight in your 20s:
- Try to make cheesy fries, chips, and pizza the occasional treat, not on the reg.
- Ditch coffee after 12 p.m. or if you’re legally drinking alcohol, ahem, then try taking a break for a few days.
- Stick to a regular bedtime and skip screen time in the bedroom.
- Learn how to cook and prep balanced meals in proper portions and pack your own lunch to bring to work to stay on track.
Why You Gain Weight In Your 30s
You start to lose muscle and gain fat
In your 30s, you start to lose lean tissue. While muscle decline may not be noticeable at first, the average person loses around five pounds of muscle every decade after 30, according to Gottfried. At the same time, body fat creeps up steadily after you hit the big 3-0.
Your hormones start to change
In terms of hormonal changes, women face “estrogen dominance” during this decade, which means they have more estrogen than progesterone.
“One reason estrogen dominance is connected to fat-loss resistance is because of the cross-talk between two important hormones of metabolism: insulin and estrogen,” Gottfried says. This increase in estrogen may cause you to gain more total body fat and abdominal fat.
You have kids
“As young parents raise their children in sometimes chaotic homes with many activities and needs, regular mealtimes and home-cooked meals may be in short supply,” Roy says. Even the most well-intentioned families can default to fast food between soccer practice, play dates, homework, and piano lessons.
But convenience meals — fast food, take-out, pre-packaged meals — are usually highly processed and filled with fat, sodium, and/or sugar.
Tips to maintain your weight in your 30s:
- Planning healthy recipes ahead of time and get your meal prep on point.
- Plan active family outings like post-dinner walks, weekend hikes, and bike rides.
- Kill two birds with one stone by doing fitness + nutrition programs that help you build muscle, burn fat and get your diet and nutrition in order.
Why You Gain Weight In Your 40s
Women may enter menopause
For women, this decade may include a major life change: menopause. While everyone is different, women experience menopause between 40 and 58 years old (though some women can experience it as early as their 30s or as late as their 60s).
Hormonal changes brought on by menopause can add extra weight around the midsection. In addition, irritability, hot flashes, and other symptoms of menopause may have you feeling a whole lot less motivated to work out.
While men and women both produce testosterone, a decline in this hormone is a factor in age-related weight-gain for men. This decline occurs gradually from ages 40 to 65, according to Gottfried. Lower testosterone can increase fat levels, reduce strength, and negatively affect sleep.
Tips to maintain your weight in your 40s:
- Plan ahead by laying out your workout clothes the night before. Or stash them in your car so you can workout after work, or wake up a little earlier to squeeze in a home workout.
- Prioritize sleep to help keep cortisol in check.
- Increase resistance training to help bump up testosterone levels, recommends Gottfried.
Why You Gain Weight In Your 50s and Beyond
Insulin resistance can go down the drain
“Once you hit 50, low testosterone, plus rising blood sugar and insulin levels cause weight gain,” Gottfried says. If you have insulin resistance, that means your cells can’t absorb the extra blood glucose the body generates from the food you eat. Consequently, the liver converts that glucose into fat, which can lead to weight gain.
Your body may not work like it used to
Physical limitations — from osteoporosis and arthritis to hip, knee, and other joint problems— can limit movement, Roy says. While some age-related conditions won’t make it impossible to get in a good workout, achy joints can make it harder to run, jump, or lift like you used to.
Weight gain can turn into weight loss
Men often gain weight until they’re around 55 and then start to lose weight as they age further. Women, on the other hand, tend to gain weight until they turn 65. This shift from weight gain to loss usually happens because fat replaces lean muscle tissue, and muscle weighs more than fat by volume.
Tips to maintain your weight in your 50s and beyond:
- If you’re unable to be as active as you were in your 30s and 40s, adjust your meal portions to avoid overeating.
- Continue to do resistance training to help keep your bones strong, and eat plenty of high-quality protein.
- Continue to manage stress — yoga, meditate, practice breathing exercises, take long baths — whatever helps you relax.
- Feeling creaky? Focus on low-impact workouts and other types of exercise that are easier on your joints.
The Good News
Gaining weight as you get older isn’t inevitable; everyone’s body is different and you may not experience all of the factors mentioned above. While your activity levels, hormones, and body composition do change with age, a consistently healthy lifestyle — balanced diet and regular exercise — can help keep your weight under control. “Aging can be beautiful, healthy, and strong,” says Gottfried.