Your Hormones and Metabolism aren’t holding you back

by Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, Chief Physician | Sep 06, 2021

As we age, many of us start putting on weight. When this happens, we often blame it on a slowing metabolism or some sort of hormonal imbalance or both. It’s easier to put the blame on an external and somewhat uncontrollable force as opposed to something in our own control. It can also seem as if we have no control when diets are tried and we fail; but is it true that we have no control of our weight as we age because our metabolisms slow and our hormones become out of balance? What if we have more control than we think? Wouldn’t that be empowering? The truth is, we do have quite a bit of control!

Metabolism and Age

The idea that our metabolisms slow as we age, which means we start to gain weight, is not a new one. Magazine covers in the checkout line in the grocery stores have pushed this idea for years in order to sell some sort of plan or supplement. The truth is that unless we lose a substantial amount of lean tissue (e.g. muscle and bone) as we age, we can actually keep our metabolisms stable! A new study shows that between the ages of 20-60, our metabolisms don’t actually change much. This is actually fantastic news because it implies that it’s likely more of our daily eating and movement that contributes to weight gain as opposed to an inevitably slowing metabolism. If we can keep our muscle and bone over the years, we can keep our youthful metabolism!

Hormones and Age 

There are multiple hormones in our bodies that play a role in body composition and weight. Though most people think about testosterone, estrogen, thyroid, insulin, and cortisol; what likely matters most are the hormones related to our appetites like leptin, ghrelin, and GLP-1. In order to gain tissue weight (not water weight), we must be in what is called a caloric surplus. This means we are eating more calories than we are burning. The study mentioned above shows that we do not start burning fewer calories as we age unless we start moving less. This means that we start to eat more than we think and maybe move less than we think. What controls how much we eat has to do with our appetites and surrounding environment of easily overeaten foods. This means we should probably focus on what helps control our appetites more than other factors.

  • Appetite Hormones

While we can’t directly control our appetite hormones, we can eat foods that support more satiety––possibly via indirect effect on some of these appetite hormones. High volume low calorie foods like non-starchy vegetables and lean proteins are a good place to start––these foods tend to make us feel more full for less calories, making it easier to achieve a calorie deficit. This is why RP focuses on these types of foods in our app and templates. 

  • Insulin

Carbohydrate-containing foods have been demonized on social media––gurus and others claim that carbs cause insulin release leading to weight gain regardless of calories. This is not only incorrect, but can lead to people missing out on the satiating benefits of some of these carby foods. Whole boiled potatoes for example are actually among the most satiating and therefore helpful for weight loss!

  • Menopause  

When women go through menopause and estrogen levels decline, there are some changes in body composition. There is a slight increase in visceral fat storage (the fat surrounding your organs) but this is more a change in distribution rather than an increase in fat storage totals. Even still, substantial weight gain does not happen unless there is a caloric surplus over long periods of time. The menopausal changes in hormones don’t directly cause weight gain. The major issue during menopause is that symptoms like hot flashes and sleep disruption can cause changes in our daily habits––leading to less calories burned because we are moving less. Again, this is something we can control! Making a conscious effort to move more can eliminate such changes to daily calorie needs. In addition, hormone replacement therapy (if recommended by your physician) can alleviate or reverse increases in visceral fat storage. The good news is that weight gain is not inevitable when going through menopause!

  • Thyroid Hormones

Maybe it’s your thyroid? Well likely not, luckily. Thyroid hormones do regulate our metabolism and people with hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormone) can experience weight gain due to metabolic changes but this is not the most likely cause of weight gain and can be easily treated with hormone replacement therapy. In fact, many people with obesity have higher levels of thyroid hormone and completely normal metabolisms. It is always worth checking (blood tests are required for diagnosis) if you are experiencing other symptoms of hypothyroidism but tif you have been gaining as you age the more likely scenario is that you have stopped moving as much without changing your eating habits, and or lost some muscle mass––luckily both of these are easily remedied with conscious effort to move more, choose satiating foods, and start lifting some weights!

In the end, most of our weight gain may indeed be unconscious, but we can take action to control it. Metabolisms don’t mysteriously decrease and unless you have something pathological going on, your hormones aren’t likely the reason you’re gaining weight. This should be very good news because it means you can do something about it! If you aren’t sure where to start, RP can help! We have many different diet templates, a diet app, as well as 1:1 coaching with experts. Take this quiz to see what might be the best choice for you to get started!