Our changing shape is a very real concern of our 40s. You can be incredibly slim but as you grow older you can grow from a pear into an apple. And this can be a problem. There are two types of fat – subcutaneous, that which you see, and visceral fat, the fat around our organs which can result in a large waist. Even if you are slim elsewhere, weight around the belly for women (and men), can lead to a host of problems from insulin resistance linked to type 2 diabetes, to heart issues. So learning what is going on in our 40s can help us protect our bodies as we grow older.
Why it Happens
- A reduction in oestrogen which previously had held back ALdh3L, an enzyme that dictates where fat goes
- Lean muscle mass reduction from our 30s and the subsequent effect on our metabolic rate
- An increase in cortisol released when we’re stressed and the effect cortisol has on both what we crave (instant energy aka sugar) and where that fat goes (close to our organs for immediate escape – belly fat cells have 4 times the number of cortisol receptor cells of other parts of the body)
- An increase in cortisol may also lead to hormone imbalance as our body will chose to help us escape from a lion over and above any other body function – including producing sex hormones. This can lead to further anxiety, stress, insulin resistance and so on
- A further study on cortisol found that it also increases the activity of aromatase (an enzyme that converts testosterone to oestrogen) and may facilitate subcutaneous activity in women, but not men, in particular postmenopausal women
Why is belly fat bad?
Studies have linked it to a whole host of metabolic syndromes from cardio vascular disease, strokes, breast cancer, alzheimers, type 2 diabetes and increased blood pressure. At a time when we can naturally become more insulin resistant, plus generally more inflammatory, this can really fan the flames
What to Do
Learning how to tackle each of the causes head on is a straight forward way to take control
Move more – include movement every day. Find the thing you love but include exercise that increases your heart rate and maintains your lean muscle mass. HIIT is incredibly effective at burning fat, but should be kept to 2 maximum 3 times a week especially if your life is pretty stressful as it is. Too much HIIT can increase cortisol levels and lead to more weight gain. Walking is great, but include some brisk walking in that 30 minute stroll. And strength – as always strength is so important for women our age. From a body fat perspective it can help to maintain your lean muscle mass (remember, lean muscle mass is metabolically active) and also build resilience physically and mentally. All movement is good, find something you enjoy and don’t get stressed about it
Nutrition – Eat more fibre (studies vary but aim for 25g a day if you have no bowel/digestive issues) as it can slow down how fast the stomach releases digested food & also is great for a diverse gut microbiome which has been linked to belly fat. The rainbow diet is also linked to this so get your colourful fruit and vegetable in and read more here. Don’t drop fats but instead include good fats (omega 3s nuts, avocados, fish), hormones are made from fats so low fat isn’t great for the 40’s Woman. Include protein, it can make you feel fuller longer and is essential for muscle growth. Find some recipes that include lots of veg. I love Melissa Hemsley’s recipes – the first real time for me that nutritious and delicious has overlapped (see halloumi slaw recipe on this page)
Drink less – alcohol, studies have shown a link between alcohol and belly fat. I tried low alcohol wine a while back and it didn’t work for me but it may for you (review here) Alcohol free beer is pretty good and there are loads to chose from (I really like Brew Dog) and many swear by kombucha (a tasty drink which is also a probiotic so a win all round)
Stress Management – short term stress is necessary. Chronic (constant) stress is linked to a cascade of issues that can be especially detrimental to a 40’s Woman. So finding daily practices that help you feel less stressed now, to stop your body reacting accordingly, producing cortisol, unbalancing hormone levels, craving sugar and building body fat is vital. This one is important to me – gradually learning what stresses me out and the tools that help! There are so many suggestions – walking in the forest and looking at the clouds, breathing, meditation, journalling, movement, running with friends, eating nutritious food etc. Different ones work for different people and learning what works for you now, not waiting till you’ve time “to think about it”, is essential. But my key one – don’t let the very things that are supposed to de-stress you become the stressors. I was following so many things at one time that were supposed to make me feel better that I ended up getting stressed if I didn’t do them/follow them/have time to fit them in. I also highly recommend the TED talk by Kelly McGonigal – “How to Make Stress your Friend”. It’s only 14 minutes and really worth a listen.
Bring daily joy into your life – take on good habits, eat more fibre, move more, but if you’re like me and following rules adds stress, have a glass of red wine and a packet of crisps, just don’t do it every day, don’t stress/feel guilty after it (the stress may be more detrimental to your health than the actual crisps) and also drink a glass of water!