Why is belly fat harder to shift after 40?
No, you’re not imagining it… if you are a woman in your 40s or beyond, you may have noticed that your shape is starting to shift or has already changed. Where once you deposited fat on your legs and bum, now it may be deposited more on and around your abdomen.
Welcome perimenopause and menopause. During perimenopause which precedes menopause (when we haven't bled for 12 months) and can last anywhere from five to 15 years, we transition through a gradual loss of female sex hormones. This time of our lives is marked by big hormonal shifts that can affect the quality of life in many ways, but the good news is, there are lots you can do to limit the symptoms.
Sex hormones and belly fat
The first hormone to start its decline is progesterone, followed by oestrogen and other sex hormones. These changes can cause all sorts of symptoms and vary from woman to woman, but can include PMS, migraines, hot flashes, missed periods, vaginal dryness, poor sleep, dry skin, hair loss, anxiety and of course weight gain and increased belly fat.
It is partly to do with oestrogen which may start to go haywire and then eventually decline during perimenopause. Oestrogen tends to encourage fat deposition on our hips and thighs but as oestrogen declines, this pattern changes to more of a male-type pattern of belly fat.
But there are two other incredibly important hormones that are rarely talked about when it comes to perimenopause and menopause, and which, in my opinion, are just as important, insulin and cortisol.
Blood sugar and belly fat
Most people only think of insulin in relation to diabetes, but this hormone impacts on many other hormones including our sex hormones. When it is out of balance, other hormones can also be out of balance.
During perimenopause many women tend to become ‘insulin-resistant.’ This basically means that your cells aren’t as sensitive to the signals from insulin and no longer allow insulin to take glucose out of your blood and into your cells to be used for energy. Too much sugar builds up in your blood and can cause havoc with your other hormones and contribute to weight gain.
Stress and belly fat
Cortisol is another hormone that has an impact when we hit perimenopause. This key stress hormone triggers an increase in blood sugar, to make sure we have enough energy to fight or flee in times of danger. It’s a brilliant system called the Fight or Flight Response but often, in the modern world, our stress levels are raised for long periods and when we are not actually in danger.
As we get older, and with stress levels in many women’s lives already high, this hormone can remain raised (what we call chronic stress). Cortisol can affect our sex hormones too, and because it impacts our blood sugar, can lead to increased fat, especially around the belly.
If you suffer from any of the symptoms I have listed above, there are many other things to try. Here are five of my top tips that I recommend:
1. Cut down on sugar and refined carbohydrates. As I said before, our blood sugar control tends to diminish as we get older, and so watching our sugar and refined carb intake is more important than ever.
Try to cut out white foods like white bread, pasta and rice, and replace them with wholegrain varieties instead, but also limit the amount you have of each of these foods.
2. Eat protein and healthy fats with every meal. Women often struggle to get enough protein and healthy fats into their diet. Both protein and fats not only keep you full for longer but also help to slow down the release of glucose from carbs into the blood.
Always ask yourself at each meal (and with snacks), “Is there any protein or good fat in this?”
3. Cut down on alcohol. Yes, you’ve heard it before, but I’ll repeat it; alcohol is not our friend and especially so when we hit perimenopause. Alcohol affects blood sugar and as we age, our ability to detoxify it reduces, hence the worsening hangovers that many women complain of.
4. Focus on reducing your stress. This is an area that many women don’t even think about as they don’t make the connection to this and their symptoms or weight gain, but I can’t ‘stress’ enough how important this is if you want to improve your peri-health.
There are so many ways we can do this but some of them include making sure we take time in nature each day, practising yoga or Pilates (my preference), meditation and mindfulness, and journaling.
5. Track your cycle. This last tip is slightly different, but I and many women find it so useful. I don’t mean just track when your period starts and finishes, I mean track your daily symptoms throughout the cycle. This can be eye-opening for many women and can help you to identify patterns. It can also be super helpful for planning activities. There are many apps that can make this easy for you, too.
It can be easy to fear this period of our lives, but I believe knowledge is power. Once you have a better understanding of what is going on and understand the options available to restore balance, perimenopause and menopause can become an enjoyable phase in a woman’s life and they really should be.
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