We all know that sinking feeling when you try to put on your favourite pair of jeans and the zip won’t do up any more. The dreaded spare tyre is something that many of us struggle with as we reach our fifties. However, it’s all too easy to look at weight gain around the middle as being an inevitable part of the menopause.
According to recent figures from Public Health England, women who measure more than 88cm (35 inches) around their middle are three times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than women with smaller waists.
But the health risks associated with tummy fat don’t end there. “Excess fat around the middle can also lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and high blood pressure,” says Professor Duff Bruce, weight loss specialist and visiting professor at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.
There are two types of fat in our bodies: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is located under the skin and its purpose is to insulate the body and provide a cushioning effect. Visceral fat surrounds and protects the body’s vital organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys.
We all need some visceral fat in our bodies, but when we have too much of it, such as when we gain weight around the middle, it can lead to serious health problems.
Why we get middle-aged spread
So what causes this particular weight gain? “As we grow older we tend to become less active,” says Professor Bruce. “We also lose muscle mass and this makes it harder to burn fat.”
Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of Fat Around the Middle, says: “The hormonal changes women go through during the menopause can contribute to weight gain around the middle. As the ovaries produce less and less oestrogen the body tries to compensate by manufacturing it elsewhere to protect the bones from osteoporosis.
“We know that larger and fatter women produce more oestrogen, which reduces their risk of osteoporosis, but the higher oestrogen levels increase their risk of breast cancer.”
Stress can compound the problem even further. “Cortisol, a hormone which is produced when we are under stress, increases the activity of an enzyme called aromatase,” says Dr Glenville.
“This causes the body to convert more male hormones to oestrogen, which in turn causes the weight to pile on around the middle. The combined effect of female hormonal changes, slower metabolism and stress creates a bigger likelihood of gaining fat around the middle.”
How to know if you should be worried
Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most commonly used method of determining whether you are overweight. However, it doesn’t give any indication of the body’s visceral fat levels. Many gyms have machines that measure your body fat percentage, and you can buy bathroom scales that do this too.
But Dr Glenville says the most accurate way to measure your visceral fat is by measuring the difference between your hips and waist.
She recommends taking a tape measure and measuring your waist at its narrowest point, then measuring your hips at their widest point. Then divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. If the number is above 0.8 you are what is known as an ‘apple’ shape, which means that you are carrying too much fat around your middle.
Fortunately, for those of us who are apple-shaped, there are plenty of ways to tackle the issue and reduce our risks of serious health conditions.
“Embarking on a weight loss programme or making simple lifestyle changes such as increasing the amount of exercise you do can help to get rid of visceral fat,” says Professor Bruce. “It’s no harder to get rid of than subcutaneous fat and in fact it’s often one of the first areas where fat disappears when you move to a healthier regime.”
Be warned, however, that restricting or cutting out calories could exacerbate the problem. “Your body will think there is a famine, which causes stress,” says Dr Glenville. “It will slow down your metabolism to hold on to your precious fat stores and if your blood sugar levels fluctuate, your body will also be releasing adrenaline, the same hormone it releases when you are under stress. This encourages the body to store fat.”
Ten ways to reduce your tummy fat
1 Dr Glenville advises eating little and often in order to convince the body that food is abundant and it does not need to store extra fat.
2 Regular meals will also keep your blood sugar levels on an even keel, and regulate production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
3 Unfortunately for those with a sweet tooth, you’ll need to eliminate all sugar and refined carbohydrates if you want to reduce your tummy fat.
4 Swap white bread, rice and pasta for whole wheat, rye, oats and quinoa.
5 Instead of eating potatoes, stock up on vegetables.
6 Swap sugary fruits like bananas, grapes and dried fruit for berries and citrus fruits.
7 It goes without saying that pastries, cakes and biscuits will have to go too.
8 Opt for lean sources of protein and low-fat dairy products.
9 Limit your intake of saturated fat, which is found in meat and high-fat dairy products like cheese and butter. Instead, go for moderate amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in fish, nuts and certain vegetable oils.
10 Caffeine and alcohol need to be reduced too, if you really want to tame that tummy.
How to exercise to reduce weight around the middle
In addition to dietary changes, exercise is – of course! – essential. A combination of aerobic activity and weight training is ideal because when we gain muscle mass we burn fat. “I recommend doing bone-strengthening exercises (weight training) two to three times a week,” says personal trainer Laurel Alper.
“Work all the major muscles groups. As we age, we lose calcium and this heightens our risk of osteoporosis, so load-bearing exercise is key. Try running, walking or biking three to five times a week for at least 20 minutes.
“You should feel out of breath when exercising and lightly perspire yet be able to hold a conversation.”
Laurel also recommends a variety of core exercises to help tone your tummy and keep you flexible. “Pilates is an excellent discipline, with specific exercises to engage your core muscles,” she says.
So, by making some dietary changes and upping your exercise levels, you will be well on the way to reducing any weight gain around the middle while also reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. And as an added bonus, those formerly tight jeans will start to feel a lot less snug.