We don’t have to tell you that trying to lose weight in your twenties is not the same as it is in your forties, but the reason why isn’t as simple as a slowing metabolism.
“There are so many reasons we gain weight throughout our lives,” says Karen Ansel, R.D., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging. Our bodies and our lifestyles are constantly changing. “To keep up, you need to know how, exactly, your habits and your body change over the years so you can avoid falling into a few common weight loss traps.”
Check out these surprising factors that can affect your weight as you age.
IN YOUR 20S: YOU AVOID COOKING FOR YOURSELF
The problem: Your twenties may be the first time in your life you have to buy and make your own food—which may mean you resort to eating out all the time.
“At a restaurant, you’re not in charge of how much oil is used to grill your chicken, how much dressing is in your salad, or portion sizes,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., creator of BetterThanDieting.com.
The solution: Take charge when you can. Order dressing on the side, share dishes with friends, or set half of your meal aside in a takeout box for lunch the next day. For lunch, scout out a spot near your office that serves up big, protein-packed salads. Try an easy-to-follow 28-day program like the Metashred Diet.
“All of these tweaks help you save money, time, and calories,” says Taub-Dix.
IN YOUR 20S: YOU GET SUCKED INTO DIETS
The problem: Low-calorie diets and elimination diets don’t work in the long-term because you often end up binging once the diet or “cleanse” is over, says Ansel. “It’s one extreme or the other,” says Ansel, and you’ll end up re-gaining everything you lost. (Here’s why you should never go on a detox diet.)
Plus, when you’re not feeding your body the calories it needs, it turns to muscle mass in addition to fat for energy, so you lose both. That results in a loss of muscle definition and a slower metabolism, says Ansel.
The solution: Skip extreme diets and juice cleanses, and don’t cut out whole food groups like carbs.
“If you eat right, you won’t need extreme diets,” says Ansel. Start by having fruit or veggies with every meal and snack. Vegetables take a lot of room on your plate for fewer calories, so you’ll eat less overall, says Ansel.
Dip raw peppers and carrots in hummus for a quick snack, or have a giant salad for lunch to get four of your five daily vegetable servings in one sitting.
The problem: Between work and kids, you’re probably not catching enough sleep. And, just like being drunk, being tired leads to a poor attitude about what’s going in your mouth, says Taub-Dix.
The solution: Make it a priority to clock at least seven hours a night when you can—and when that’s not happening, prepare yourself for healthy eats. Shop and prepare the week’s meals on Sundays, so you can grab your lunch and go.
Throw ingredients for a morning smoothie (try one of these tasty recipes) in a bag and stick it in your freezer at night, so it’s ready first thing when you wake up, and stash a jar of mixed nuts in your car for healthy snacks when hunger strikes. (Hit the reset button—and burn fat like crazy with The Body Clock Diet!)
IN YOUR 30S: YOU SKIP MEALS
The problem: “Not eating as much seems like a no-brainer for weight loss,” says Ansel. But your body requires a certain amount of calories to function, and if you don’t get them your hunger hormones go crazy. “People end up overcompensating for what they didn’t eat by snacking late at night,” says Ansel.
The solution: Aim for three meals and a snack every day so that by the time night rolls around you won’t stuff your face. Be sure each fueling sesssion includes some healthy fat, like nuts, avocado, and full-fat hard cheese, to keep you full.
Breakfast is usually the biggest challenge, so don’t make it a bigger deal than it has to be: A serving of plain Greek yogurt with nut butter stirred in and topped with your favorite fruit will do the trick, says Ansel.
IN YOUR 30S: YOU DON’T WORK OUT ANYMORE
The problem: Work + kids = no time to work out.
The solution: Keep your fitness goals realistic by trying to hit 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity twice a week.
In that time you can fit in at least two major strength moves (think squats, deadlifts, or pullups) and finish with interval training (30- to 60-second sprints on a treadmill or stationary bike, for example), says Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. The rest of the week, aim to go for a walk, swim, or bike ride at least twice.
IN YOUR 40S: YOU LOSE MUSCLE MASS
The problem: All of us start losing muscle in our forties. Muscle burns calories while keeping our metabolisms stable, which means if you’re eating the same number of calories you’ll gain weight, says Ansel.
The solution: Unlike fat and carbs, protein gets stored in your muscles. Most of us don’t get enough protein at breakfast and lunch—at which point your body will take the protein it needs from your muscles, slowing down your metabolism, explains Ansel. So space your protein out throughout the day, aiming for 30 grams at every meal.
IN YOUR 40S: YOU DON’T WORK OUT AS HARD AS YOU USED TO
The problem: If you don’t keep up your lifting routine as you age, you’re missing out on muscle-building that keeps your metabolism stoked, says Suter. (Check out the best weightlifting advice for men over 40.)
The solution: Aim to lift weights two to four times per week for 45 minutes to an hour, suggests Suter. Focus on exercises that work multiple muscle groups, like pullups, pushups, and lunges. If you’re starting out, aim for two to three sets of eight to 12 reps each.
Build up to two to three sets of three to six reps with heavier weights. In a time crunch? Do 30 minutes of 30- to 60-second high-intensity intervals.
IN YOUR 40S: YOU’RE PACKING BELLY FAT
The problem: “Even if you had flat abs your whole life, that starts to change in your forties,” says Ansel.
The solution: A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight weighed less and had smaller waists than people who ate less protein.
But not all protein is created equally, says Ansel. So skip the fatty cheeseburgers and go for lean protein like chicken, fish, sliced turkey, turkey burger, dairy, and eggs. If all else fails, just drink a glass of milk. “One eight-ouce glass of milk has eight grams of the high-quality protein,” says Ansel.