There’s good news. As research uncovers the reasons why we get middle-aged spread, scientists and nutritionists are learning of more ways to fight it. By studying the intricate changes in metabolism that slow down our bodies’ fat-burning as we age and what influences them — from hormone havoc to relentless stress — they have uncovered small, simple, yet effective ways we can boost them again, and boost them for life.
So, what’s causing your middle-aged middle, and, most importantly, what can you do about it?
Thyroid hormone: “The thyroid gland plays a critical role in regulating your metabolism,” says Dr Mark Hyman, author of Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss (Atria Books). Thyroid hormone not only regulates heat production in the body and the metabolism of food, it is also the key to determining how the body uses energy.
Twenty per cent of women, and 10% of men, have a sluggish thyroid, which slows their metabolism. Our susceptibility to this increases as we age. “Thyroid dysfunction is often a problem that requires testing and monitoring by your doctor, but there are some things you can do in terms of diet and lifestyle to help your thyroid,” says Dr Hyman.
What you can do: “Some foods can offer nutritional support for your thyroid by providing nutrients such as iodine, selenium and omega-3 fatty acids required for the body to make thyroid hormone,” says Dr Hyman.
Particularly good foods for thyroid function include: seaweed and sea vegetables, such as nori (containing iodine); sardines and salmon (containing iodine, omega-3 fats and vitamin D); brazil nuts (containing selenium); and leafy green vegetables (containing natural vitamin A). Your doctor can also do a simple blood test to measure your thyroid’s function.
Insulin: “This is one of the body’s major metabolic hormones,” says Dr Michael R Eades, co-author of Lose Your Middle Aged Middle (Pitakus).
Insulin’s primary role is to drive nutrients from food into the tissues for energy and organ function and then to store what isn’t used as fat.
“A diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar requires a high, regular insulin output to process all that glucose,” he says. “Continued over a couple of decades, this constant demand on the system takes its toll and insulin receptors become less responsive,” says Dr Eades.
“This can lead to insulin resistance and eventually type-2 diabetes, both found to be associated with central obesity and the storage of fat around the middle”.
What you can do: “One of the keys to shedding fat and keeping weight stable, especially in middle age, is to control the amount of insulin your body releases through a blood sugar balancing diet,” says nutritionist Yvonne Bishop Weston.
Make sure you eat a diet low in sugar and refined or ‘white’ carbohydrates and opt for foods with a low glycaemic load (GL), she says
GL refers to the speed at which a portion of a food spikes insulin levels. “If you stick to small portions of foods with a GL of under 10, your blood sugar and insulin release should remain stable and that, in turn, will keep your metabolism and energy sustained and sugar cravings at bay,” she says.
For the GL of most everyday foods, see mendosa.com/gilists.
“When we’re under stress, we release, first, the hormone adrenalin, and then cortisol, which help our bodies create fuel to deal with whatever is causing our stress,” says Bishop-Weston. “Trouble is, our bodies were only designed to deal with sharp bursts of stress that were over quickly rather than the chronic, relentless stress that most 40-somethings juggling work, worries and family have to deal with today.”
Such ongoing stress leads to chronic elevation of cortisol, which keeps the blood sugar elevated, says Dr Eades. “That keeps insulin levels high and drives the accumulation of fat around the middle,” he says.
What you can do: “Beating stress is the first step to losing weight over 40,” says Bishop-Weston. “The first thing I do when I see a client who has a healthy diet and is exercising, but not losing weight, is to test for an over-production of stress hormones in her system, using a saliva and urine test, and most nutritionists can do this” (optimumnutrtionists.com).
On busy days, when stress hormones are flooding our systems, one solution is available to anyone, any time, and that’s learning to breathe better throughout the day.
Try this breathing break recommended by respiratory physician Dr Keith Prowse. “Every hour or so, take a moment to check in with your breath, to make sure you are opening your lungs properly. Sit quietly and simply breathe in for a count of four to five, and out for a count of four to five. People’s temptation is to snatch their breath in and out when they are under stress, but counting the breath helps you breathe slower and deeper,” he says. Simple.
LOSS OF MUSCLE
“The single biggest factor influencing metabolism is lean muscle tissue,” says Dr Dan Banardot, nutrition researcher at Georgia State University. “The average person’s metabolism will slow by two per cent every decade after 30, but studies have found that women who stay physically active and sustain their muscle tone into later life don’t experience that decrease”.
As we age, our bodies are subject to ‘sarcopenia’ or muscle loss (another unfair reason why a 20-year-old has a higher metabolism than a 60-year-old).
“Fat in your body uses few calories,” says nutritionist Juliette Kellow. But every pound of muscle in your body burns an extra 50 calories a day, even as you sit and read this article.
“That means an extra 10 pounds of muscle will burn around 500 calories a day, without you doing anything,” says Kellow. “That’s sufficient to lose a pound a week.”
What you can do: Regular exercise at any time will help boost muscle mass and metabolism and Benardot’s if-you-do-nothing-else advice is to exercise hard enough to break a sweat for 30 minutes three times a week.
However, if you’re pressed for time, taking three ten-minute bursts exercise three times a day can be great for your metabolism, says sports scientist Professor Greg Whyte.
This could be as simple as a skipping and lunging circuit or some fast stair climbing at work for ten minutes.
“Short bursts of intensive exercise result in a massive increase in resting metabolic rate — that’s the rate at which your body burns calories at rest — for up to three hours after exercise,” he says. “If you do ten minutes before work, ten at lunch and ten after dinner, you will have kept your body’s metabolism raised throughout the day.”