Middle-aged spread is not inevitable

Top tips on avoiding middle-aged spread.

chocolate cakeLove handles, muffin tops and spare types. The bulge many of us have around our midriffs is called all of these and more. It is the weight that is easier to put on, than shift. Over the age of 40 the rate at which we burn off calories slows down. Add to this the menopause, when our bodies want to store fat, and we have a recipe for middle-aged spread.

On my son’s 10th birthday he climbed through a gap in the hedge, carefully balancing a paper plate in his hand. On it was a slice of his chocolate birthday cake for a favoured neighbour. As he proudly handed it over he was startled by her response, ‘It’ll go straight on my waistband!’ she squealed. ‘What did she mean?’ he wanted to know. Was she going to attach it to her clothes rather than eat it? He was perplexed. I wasn’t. I knew exactly what she meant. That calorie-laden slice of Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Fudge Cake looked tempting and tasted delicious but she was concerned it was going to add unwanted extra pounds.

Dr Kate Kirkwood, an experienced GP with an interest in women’s health, advises, ‘After the menopause, a combination of factors including the reduction in our circulating oestrogen levels makes it more likely that when we gain weight, it appears around our waist. Certainly, other factors play a part, including the decrease in muscle tissue mass that is known to occur as we grow older.’ But she says we can do something about it. ‘We can influence some of these factors through our lifestyle choices – exercise, strength training and a healthy diet with reduced portion sizes can go a long way to keeping our bodies in shape (or at least approximately so!)’

On average, in the UK, women reach the menopause at the age of 51 but for some it can be in their 30s and 40s. Emer Delaney is a Specialist Dietitian who tailors low calorie prescriptive meal plans to help women clients shed extra pounds safely and effectively. ‘During the menopause, it is very common for women to gain an average of 2-2.5kg over three years. It may put us at higher risk of developing insulin resistance and higher lipid levels.

Both hot flushes and night sweats can be exacerbated by weight gain, so it’s really important to limit this as much as we can.’

The recommended daily calorie intake for woman is 2,000 kcal but to trim our muffin tops Emer suggests we have to eat into that. ‘In order to lose weight, we need to reduce this by 600kcal a day, which is difficult to do. I always recommend a combination of calorie reduction and an increase in activity levels. Be smart and look at your eating pattern; are you snacking on high calories foods, do you need to reduce your portion size or eat a better quality of carbohydrate, which will keep your sugar levels stable and help control your appetite.’

Another way to keep an eye on just what we’re eating is to check food labels to find out how much sugar they contain. If the total sugar content is over 22.5g per 100g, it is high in sugar. Anything under 5g of total sugar per 100g is low. Many breakfast cereals are high in sugar. Dietitians advise switching to lower sugar cereals or those with no added sugar, such as porridge or whole wheat or grain cereal. If you eat toast for breakfast, then try wholemeal or granary bread, as it is higher in fibre than white bread, and reduce the amount of butter, jam or marmalade you spread on top.

vegetableWe know there is evidence that eating at least five portions of vegetables and fruit a day lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers. An apple, banana, pear or similar-sized fruit is each one portion. Three heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables is another and so is a cereal bowl of mixed salad. One portion of vegetables for adults is approximately 80g. To get the maximum benefits, you need to eat different types of fruit and vegetables. This is because different fruit and vegetables contain different combinations of fibre, minerals and other nutrients. Variety is the spice of life when it comes to healthy eating with the most nutritional benefit coming from eating a wide variety. And if in doubt, Emer Delaney says there is help at hand. ‘Find a dietitian who has experience in this area and together you can make a plan to shift those extra pounds.’

As well as eating a healthy, balanced diet, taking regular exercise is vital in middle age. We should step up our routines and include aerobic activities, such as walking, running, cycling and swimming, as well as strength and flexibility exercises. The aim should be at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Activities such as yoga and Tai Chi can help us to relax if we’re tired or feeling stressed.

Chocolate cake is definitely not one of our five a day, but most of us would agree it is a tasty treat for a special occasion. So, whatever happened to that slice of moist chocolate cake my son gave to our neighbour? You’ve guessed it. Our neighbour opted for an extra slice!