As poor food habits, stress, lack of physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle push the world towards an obesity epidemic, the economic burden of non-communicable diseases emerging out of this situation is highest in developing countries, which sometimes emerges as a ‘midlife crisis’.
Doctors and healthcare workers are worried about the rising health implications of being overweight and obese, as people, especially in urban centres, move away from traditional food practices towards unhealthy options that are high in sugar and saturated fat.
Women in their midlife (40-60 years) are at the centre of this crisis since they are also battling hormone imbalance-related problems at this stage of their lives. Being overweight or obese makes women in this age group vulnerable to non-communicable diseases.
The body mass index (BMI) of a person is body weight divided by square of the height. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US, describes a BMI of 25 to <30 as overweight, while a BMI of over 30 is considered obese.
How common is obesity in midlife?
According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, the global prevalence of obesity increased almost threefold between 1975 and 2016.
As much as 40 per cent of adult women were overweight in 2016. Overall, 15 per cent of the world’s population of women over the age of 18 years is obese. According to the data from the Office on Women’s Health under the US Department of Health and Human Services, two in three women in that country above 20 years of age are overweight or obese.
A 2014 study titled ‘Overweight and obesity among women by economic stratum in urban India’ by Gouda J and Prusty RK published in the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition pointed out that more than 30 per cent of women above the age of 35 from affluent backgrounds tend to be overweight, while about 14 per cent of poor women from this age group are overweight. The researchers said that national health programmes and government initiatives rarely focus on the health risks of being overweight and obese among women in urban areas.
“When women hit their 40s, the metabolic rate goes down, so eating the same quantity of food like when you were younger without the required physical activity can result in weight gain,” Dr Thejaswini J, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Motherhood Hospitals, Bengaluru, tells Happiest Health. “Hormonal imbalances during this time also contribute [to] slowing down metabolism further, which makes women prone to becoming overweight in their midlife.”
She says genetics also plays a part. “One of the major issues related to [becoming] overweight and obesity is the adding up of post-pregnancy weight gain and [that] the excess fat starts accumulating in the abdominal region,” says Dr Thejaswini. “When women are not able to shed the kilos post-pregnancy, it becomes more difficult to lose all that weight in the later years. Women need to be counselled about making the right food choices, fitness and the implications of obesity on [their] health early on.”
Work and weight in midlife
The stress of balancing work and home can also put pressure on the body. Sitting for long hours and working, erratic eating habits and little exercise cause weight gain and aggravates health issues for women in the 40-60 age group, apart from making them vulnerable to mental health issues.
Studies have shown that obesity puts women in their midlife at a higher risk of gynaecological problems, high blood sugar, hypertension, heart problems, osteoarthritis, depression, even endometrial and breast cancer.
“The changes occurring at the perimenopausal and menopausal stages can lead to emotional stress that triggers comfort eating in middle-aged women,” says Dr Thejaswini. “As they put on weight, there may be insulin resistance, causing high blood sugar and cholesterol levels, hypertension and menstrual irregularities. They are already losing bone mass at this stage and being overweight puts pressure on the weight-bearing joints, causing osteoarthritis. This, in turn, leads to decreased mobility and exercise, which may cause obesity. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be addressed. Prevention is always better, so being mindful of what one eats and how much physical activity one gets is important.”
For midlife women, the tips given by experts for better health and for prevent obesity include:
- Include fresh and local fruits, vegetables and leafy greens in your food intake. Eat whole grains, pulses and foods with unsaturated fat.
- Drinks lots of water and keep yourself hydrated.
- Decrease your intake of sugary and salty foods, and food high in saturated fat. All junk and packaged, ready-to-eat foods are loaded with unhealthy fats, sugar and salt.
- Take up some form of physical activity regularly such as walking, running, playing a sport or doing yoga. Focus on exercises that build muscle and bone strength.
- Go for regular health check-ups to test sugar and cholesterol levels. Do tests to check for breast, endometrial and cervical cancer at least once a year.
- Take up activities that keep you meaningfully occupied.
- Focus on your mental health; do breathing exercises and meditation to keep calm.