Midlife waist gain and how you can shift it

Losing weight is never easy but there comes a moment, typically some time in your 40s, when you climb on the scale and what you used to refer to as your ‘high’ weight (when only your ‘fat’ jeans fit) has become your average weight.

You also seem to be carrying a lot more around your middle. And none of your old tricks for quick weight loss – going to the gym a couple of times a week, cutting back on alcohol or sweets, an extra set of sit ups – are working for you the way they once did. To reverse this, you go on a strict diet for a few weeks but the weight doesn’t come off like it used to and your energy levels drop so much that the mere thought of exercise makes you sweat.

Don’t worry – you are not imagining it: it is harder to lose weight after 40. Research data from the huge study called the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) indicates that ages 45 to 60 may be the toughest years in terms of weight maintenance that women face during their lifetimes.

While older people generally have a harder time losing weight than younger people, the WHI study found that forty and fifty somethings had a much tougher time maintaining their weight than women of any age.

We blame ourselves
Most women tend to blame themselves when this happens. We women tend to think, I must not be doing this right! We’re somehow blinded to the fact that all women 45 to 60 years old are dealing with the same thing. We only see the 25-year-old next door who seems to be having no problem at all.

A source of oestrogen
Hormonal fluctuations associated with the menopause may play a role in this, although exactly how remains unclear, since about equal numbers of women gain weight as lose weight while taking oestrogen as hormone replacement therapy. What we do know, however, is that once you hit 40 your body starts to hang onto fat because it can use it as a source of oestrogen when your ovaries stop making it at the menopause. And if there’s a tyre around your tummy, it’s because your body finds it easiest to access oestrogen stored around your middle. It really wants to keep this fat, so you may find that you can lose weight anywhere but from your waist.

We also know that stress plays a part. Research has shown that stress induced cortisol and blood sugar imbalances can trigger weight gain, especially around the middle. In other words the more stressed you are the more likely you are to put on weight and for many women in their 40s, juggling home and work, stress is a way of life. This connection with the stress hormones is explained in detail in my book ‘Fat around the Middle’ and also tells you what to do about it.

But that’s not all. There’s a very subtle slowing down of the metabolism between 45 and 60. As we get older our growth hormone levels decline and muscle is gradually replaced by fat. Not only does this make women more prone to gravity it also affects their basic metabolic rate – the number of calories your body needs just to keep you alive (even if you are lying around doing nothing). The less muscle you have the lower your metabolism is so the fewer calories you need. Unfortunately, your appetite doesn’t decrease with your muscle mass so chances are you’re taking in more calories than you burn.

Lack of exercise
On a daily basis, the gradual slowing of metabolism is not that big a deal, but over the course of a couple of years, it all adds up. Plus there’s the fact that most 45-to-60-year-olds tend to have fairly sedentary lives so they are not getting as much exercise as they once did. And even if your weight doesn’t change, your body fat distribution is changing due to the hormonal shifts. Suddenly your waist is getting bigger and none of your clothes fit right, and you can’t figure out what’s going on.

It can be very frustrating for women. Yes, losing weight seems to be harder, but it’s not impossible. Rather than get discouraged at midlife you can turn the situation around with a battle plan that will be effective.

Rethink ‘diet’
Start by drinking at least 6 to 8 glasses of filtered or mineral water a day – research shows that it could up your metabolism by 30 per cent and you’ll burn an extra 17000 calories a year! (Drink green tea too – studies show it can raise metabolism by 35 per cent).

Next, rethink the word diet and start thinking in terms of a healthy eating plan to transform the way you eat so that you can look and feel great. The word diet implies something that has a beginning and an end. It suggests a quick fix and not a way of life and as soon as you stop following it the weight piles back on. You may have spent years focusing on losing weight but if you make health your goal rather than weight loss your whole relationship with food changes. There’s no denying that healthy eating involves cutting down on sugar, refined and processed and fatty foods and concentrating on foods that are natural such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, oily fish, nuts and seeds, but if you think of sugar and bad fats as major contributors to an expanding waist line this can be a big motivator.

Rethinking the word diet also means ditching so called diet foods. Diet foods may be low in fat but they’re often lacking in nutrition and packed with sugar to replace the flavour of fat. And lots of sugar means you get a quick high followed by a blood sugar low that sparks off food cravings and ups your risk of health problems like diabetes.

As well as diet foods you also need to forget foods that are low fat. Fat is high in calories but when you are over 40 it is crucial for your health and your skin – you just need to make sure you eat the right kind – in smallish amounts. Saturated fats and transfats – found in red meat and processed foods – raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease and some cancers. But healthy essential fats like omega 3 and omega 6 found in avocados, fish oil, nuts and seeds will give you healthy hair, skin, joints, heart and improved brain function.

And if your mum told you not to eat between meals, ignore her as snacking can actually help you lose weight. A healthy snack reminds your body that you’ve got a regular supply of food so it won’t go into starvation mode and slow your metabolism. It also keeps your blood sugar levels steady which helps to keep your moods and your hormone levels balanced.

Finally, you need to get your motivation in place. Any diet that’s vague – such as promising yourself to eat more vegetables and less sugar and starches – rarely works. Instead, start a food diary. By writing down everything you eat you will determine your eating patterns, and when the temptation to overeat is highest. What’s typical is that women eat a small breakfast, go out for lunch, and then come home after a long day and start cooking. We tend to nibble while we’re cooking, then we put out the meal and eat it, then we clean up, and start nibbling again, and then we finally go sit down and relax. For the rest of the night, we go in and out of the kitchen until bedtime. Sometimes we’re good and just get an apple or a rice cake, but other nights, we snack on things that are high in fat and sugar. And ultimately, it all adds up. To counteract that pattern, we need to change our routine and make the kitchen a no-go zone after dinner or get some one else to do the clearing up.

The ultimate goal is to change your lifestyle so that you’re eating healthily and boosting your metabolism with plenty of exercise. In this way you will be able to beat midlife waist gain and keep it off permanently.

Your 40+ battle plan:

  • First, you can think of midlife as an opportunity to get healthier and if you haven’t hit 40 yet you can use your knowledge of the coming metabolic and hormonal changes to prepare yourself, before small weight problems become big problems.
  • Second, you’re probably going to have to increase your physical activity. Your metabolism is slowing down and you need to rev it up so that your body burns fat more efficiently. The best way to do this is simply to be more active. The more you move the more calories your body needs. Also if you’re more active, you’ll build more fat burning muscle and the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn, even when you aren’t exercising.
  • Doctors typically advise at least thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day (think brisk walking or aerobics) and this should be mixed in with resistance training like weight or body toning to keep your muscles and your bones healthy. If you don’t enjoy exercise then you may not be thrilled to hear this message but you have to stop thinking of exercise as a punishment. To get off to a good start, try the walking workout plan and tummy toning exercises. You could also try moving more in your everyday life. For example, if your job involves a lot of sitting, fidget more – tap your feet and wriggle in your chair, researchers say people who can’t sit still burn an extra 350 calories a day.
  • Getting more exercise is not enough, however. If you want to maintain your weight, or lose weight, you will also have to pay attention to your stress levels and your diet. You’ll find plenty of stress management tips in the Spring clean your life article below and the simple diet recommendations (above) will help you lose weight, firm up and stay healthy – for the rest of your life.

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