What to do about the middle-aged spread

So you’ve reached an age where you’re juggling all the things and all the people: working, keeping the household running like clockwork, teenagers at home dealing with hormones and exams, maybe even caring for aging parents.  If that isn’t enough to cope with maybe you’re also finding you’re putting on more weight, especially around the middle, almost effortlessly.  It’s almost as if your fat cells take on superpowers while you sleep, adding inches in the space of just a few hours.  And all those tricks you had up your sleeve in your 20s and 30s for quickly shaving off 10 pounds before the summer holidays just don’t work anymore, despite your dedication and willpower.

What are some of the things you might need to consider if “you’re doing all the right things, but still can’t lose weight”? 

CALORIES IN / CALORIES OUT

This is the first thing people think about when it comes to weight loss – eat less and run a calorie deficit.  And yes, this is important.  Portion sizes and calories do matter to an extent.  I’m sorry to say it but there is no such thing as “eating whatever you want and still losing weight” – if “whatever you want” is a box of donuts every day.  Portion control and a sensible mix of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates and protein) is essential.

But it’s by no means the whole picture.  There are other things we need to think about – especially as we get older.

There’s more to losing weight – and always has been – than just eating the right things. What you eat is just one part. An important part, nonetheless, but still just one part.

The ‘midlife’ years can be a challenge for all sorts of different reasons and, yes, weight loss IS harder. I want you to know that it’s not your fault. And I’m not saying that to be nice. Really. It’s your hormones.

HORMONES

Oestrogen

Progesterone levels fall rapidly as you stop ovulating as regularly and, although oestrogen is decreasing, too, it’s falling at a slower rate, meaning you can end up being oestrogen dominant (that’s too much oestrogen in proportion to progesterone).

Thyroid

The thyroid is your internal motor and it comes under increased pressure in your 40s. Imagine a record playing at a reduced speed … That’s what happens when your thyroid is struggling to keep up. Low levels of thyroid hormones can bring mood changes, weight increases, constipation and a sluggish feeling.

Your hormones work together synergistically. When one or more is out of kilter, there is an effect on the others, too. This is especially true where the thyroid and adrenals are concerned.

Cortisol

The stress hormone cortisol, made by the adrenal glands, can also increase (particularly if you’re used to spinning too many plates), making sleep more difficult and leading to weight gain. Rather comically, we have not evolved a great deal since caveman times when the big stressor was the sabre-toothed tiger and we had to keep the energy round the middle so it could be easily accessed when you needed to run away from that tiger.

Insulin

Insulin is the hormone linked to diabetes, but it is also the fat storage hormone. As a double whammy, it additionally blocks fat burning. It’s made by the body in response to the carbohydrates you eat. The more refined the carbs (i.e. more like sugar or starch), the more insulin produced and the more fat is stored. But, as we age, the cells in our bodies can become less sensitive to insulin, so the pancreas needs to pump out more and more to get the same job done.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Digestion

If your digestive system is not working quite as it should, this can leave you feeling – and looking – bloated. There’s a lot of research into the microbiome (your gut environment) right now, and there are proven links between the balance of bacteria in the gut and being overweight.

Anyone with an imbalance of good to bad bacteria in their large intestine will also find themselves absorbing up to 15% more calories from their food. Cruel, I know. So if you’re the kind of person who has suffered off and on with tummy troubles, it’s worth talking to a nutrition professional to get things checked out. Symptoms worth investigating include gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation (not going to the loo at least once a day) or diarrhoea (or alternating), feelings of nausea.

Sleep

Sleep and weight are intimately related. If you are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you are setting yourself up to be hungrier, eat more, weigh more, and have a harder time losing weight. 

Sleep deprivation causes hormone imbalance, and I’m not talking PMT, but the hormones that directly affect your feelings of hunger. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone – makes you feel hungrier) and leptin (the satiety hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough) are majorly disrupted when you are not sleeping enough.

Lack of sleep also messes with your levels of stress hormones and your body’s sensitivity to insulin, both of which contribute to weight gain.

So, after a night of bad sleep, if you feel ravenous, it’s not all in your head, but rather, in your hormones. And, it’s the carb-heavy, starchy foods that are going to be calling your name, not the lovely healthy ones.

Exercise

As the weight creeps on, it’s very common for women to start getting into the types of exercise that are very punishing on the body, like running and high intensity interval training. What do I mean by ‘punishing’? These very intense forms of exercise stress the body and, if your body is already stressed, it’s just too much.

Yoga, Pilates, Zumba and other dance-based classes are good, and don’t knock a decent walking workout. Resistance/ strength exercise (weights) is also good to help with the loss of muscle. Strength training also helps you shore up bone, maintain balance, and avoid injury – important for protecting your skeleton, both now and when you’re older.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

If ever there was a time to get your hands on facts to shed light on the situation, this is it. Your GP might be able to run a few tests that will tell you whether or not you are going through the menopause. But what next? This is where functional medicine and personalised nutrition come into the picture.  In clinic, I am used to working with the best private laboratories to provide my clients with tests that show us which hormones are out of whack – so that we can come up with a bespoke nutrition and supplement programme to tackle it. I’m often told by clients these aren’t as expensive as they thought they would be. Email me or book a free call to discuss whether testing (and specifically which tests) might be right for you.

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