Despite the bald head, goatee, and a “linebacker looking” body, I have developed a reputation as an expert in female metabolism, especially menopausal weight loss.
The reason for this was very simple. I was in the personal training world, and most of my clients were women. I quickly discovered a profound difference in how my female clients 40 and up responded to diet and exercise compared to the women I worked in their 30s and 20s.
At first, I thought these women were not compliant. I figured they had to be lying about what they were eating. But then I slowly figured out what was going on.
It was actually my mother who taught me this lesson.
My mom had always been fairly lean and tiny. But when she hit menopause, she started gaining weight. She thought she was in luck because she had my brother Keoni and me, two experts in weight loss.
We changed her diet by having her eat smarter, especially less carbs and more fat and protein. We had her start weight training. We even got her on several herbs to help with hormone balance like Black Cohosh, Don Quai, and Chaste Berry.
But that didn’t work.
So then we put her on bio-identical hormones and did several detoxes with her—still nothing.
Then one day, I happened to stop by her house in the morning. We sat, had coffee, and talked. I watched as she ate an entire cantaloupe.
Another day, at dinner, I watched her eat a salad that was basically 5 avocados with a few lettuce greens sprinkled over it.
So I asked her, “Mom, tell me what you have been eating? Is this typical?
She said, “Yes, I eat minimal carbs. I eat mostly ‘paleo’ like you told me. Plenty of fat, vegetables, fruit and protein.”
I said, “What do you eat most do you think?
She said, “Fruit.”
“What about exercise?” I said.
She replied that she was doing the metabolic conditioning workouts almost every day (workouts that are 30 minutes but pretty intense).
Keoni and I knew the problem. We made some adjustments. And she started losing weight fairly quickly. She lost about twenty-plus pounds over a few months.
Do you know the issue? Two words: cortisol and insulin.
Here is the thing to know. To lose weight, you need two things. First, you need to lower calories.
Second, you need to balance hormones.
The only problem with that is the menopausal metabolism is, by very definition, an imbalanced hormone state compared to what it was in a female’s younger years.
Insulin is a fat-storing and muscle-building hormone. Even if you achieve a calorie deficit, if you have too much insulin around, you may lose weight, but that weight will be far less likely to be fat.
Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it, along with insulin, causes fat storage around the middle. Even if you achieve calorie reduction, like insulin, cortisol makes it more likely you burn muscle along with fat.
And if you don’t succeed in lowering calories, both hormones almost assure those calories will store as fat and especially around the middle.
If you are menopausal, you know what I mean.
So here’s the deal. Estrogen is a hormone that works against insulin and cortisol. Progesterone has little impact on insulin but does fight against cortisol.
These two hormones are why women have an easier time staying leaner when they are young and have that hourglass shape physique.
At menopause, when these two hormones go away, the female metabolism:
- Slows down
- Is more carb-sensitive (due to insulin)
- Is more stress-reactive.
So my mom ran into problems due to the following reasons:
- She was eating too much fat, making it difficult for her to achieve calorie deficits
- Eating too much fruit, increasing her insulin levels
- Working out too often and too hard, throwing off her cortisol levels.
Ironically, in a younger woman, these changes would have worked beautifully. Trading protein, fat, fruits, and veggies for starchy carbs would have likely led to both calorie reduction and hormone balance along with fat loss.
For my mother, we had to get very specific. We made these changes:
- Fat is fine but focus on protein over fat. It is more satiating and has fewer calories
- Fruits are ok on occasion, but eat more vegetables than fruit and save fruit for an occasional dessert treat
- Don’t exercise too intensely or too often. Limit the hardcore exercise to 3-4 times per week
- Focus on relaxing walking, restorative yoga, tai chi or other relaxing activities instead.
That was the fix.
A Simple Formula: The 4S Model
I developed a simple formula to help you with the changes. I call it the 4S model:
Shake or Scramble: Start the day with a protein shake or egg & veggie scramble
Salad: Always have a huge salad with protein on top
Snack: Include one protein and veggie-based snack a day (i.e., celery, cucumbers, and salmon)
Starch: Include a healthy portion of starch at one meal only. Best after a workout or at night (since it helps with sleep and many menopausal women have difficulty sleeping)
Stress-reducing: This means focusing on rest & recovery exercises. At least 3 per week, but more is better (slow walking, massage, meditation, yoga, tai chi, physical affection, etc.)
Strides: Slow walking (5,000 to 10,000-steps on all or most days). Notice this shows up twice? It is critical! Now I realize many people who have the dieting mindset will get caught up on this walking thing. You should shoot for 1-2 hours daily, but many get by with less. The point is to make as much walking as is feasible for you a priority.
Strength: Weight training over cardio to keep the body tight (2 times per week).
Sprints: Intense activity that gets the body breathless and burning. Like interval training, metabolic workouts, and short, intense runs (1-2 times per week).
Do you understand why she and other menopausal women were having an issue? Can you see how the changes we implemented worked better to control calories and the hormone changes? Not too complicated, right?
By the way, you may be interested to know that younger women undergoing stress have the same issues. First, their stress hormones go up (cortisol). Then if the stress persists, progesterone drops. If it continues, estrogen falls next. And along with this, insulin issues begin to surface, and fat gain occurs right around the middle, just like in menopause.