Those love handles and jelly belly are aptly referred to as middle-age spread – not only because they affect us as we head towards our middle age, but also because they target the middle of our body. This weight gain affects both men and women, generally in their 40s, and not only inhibits our confidence, but can affect our health as well.
“Progesterone, which generally acts as an oestrogen inhibitor, decreases as we age. With this decline, oestrogen runs rampant, which causes the body to store fat instead of eliminating it,” says Sean Pettit, fitness expert. This is true for both men and women.
“As women reach menopause, their progesterone drops up to 120 times faster than their oestrogen. This causes an imbalance called ‘oestrogen dominance’. As men reach their 40s, there is a similar drop in progesterone, which in turn lowers their testosterone levels. Again this results in an imbalance and oestrogen becomes more dominant,” explains Da Silva.
Dr Ela Manga, an integrated medical practitioner, adds that as our hormonal balance begins to shift, it also causes our cells to become less sensitive to insulin and the thyroid hormone, resulting in insulin resistance, causing a further slowing down in the metabolic rate.
Generally men will show signs of hormonal imbalance by exhibiting symptoms of poor concentration, night sweats, irritability, depression, decreased libido and difficulty sleeping. Women tend to have mood swings, hot flushes, headaches, decreased libido, tender breasts and weight gain.
In women the weight gain is twofold. “The middle- age spread happens because both our ovaries and fat cells produce oestrogen, and with a declining oestrogen level, the body attempts to conserve whatever it can by redistributing the fat around our waistline. Add to that a declining thyroid function, which causes our metabolic rate to drop at a rate of approximately 2% every 10 years,” says registered dietician Ria Catsicas.
Da Silva explains that although doctors don’t know exactly why oestrogen increases body fat, there is one theory that oestrogen reduces the body’s ability to process and metabolise fatty acids, making them more likely to remain in our system and be deposited in fat stores. Fatty tissue itself produces oestrogen, which in turn makes the body ‘better’ at storing fat. It is a vicious and frustrating circle.
To make matters worse, sleep disturbances become more frequent with age. “Much research has been done to show the link between lack of sleep and changes in the secretion of hormones that affect appetite. Leptin is a hormone that regulates appetite, and it has been shown that lack of sleep causes a drop in leptin,” adds Manga.
Lean muscle mass
“What determines your basal metabolic rate is the amount of lean muscle mass that you have, with muscle mass being the main metabolically active cells in your body; if you lose this, your metabolic rate will drop,” Pettit notes. He adds that as we age, we lose about 10% of our muscle mass every three years; this amounts to a major decrease in our metabolic rate.
“Ensuring that you keep active through regular exercise, and maintaining the amount of muscle on your body, is one of the important factors in preventing this dreaded middle spread,” says Da Silva. She recommends that the best exercises to improving or maintaining muscle mass are those where your body bears weight. “Lifting weights or even using functional training with your own body weight will aid in improving your metabolism and muscle ratio, to ensure extra energy is burnt and hormone levels are kept stable,” she says.
While aerobic exercise is a fantastic means of burning extra kilojoules, and benefits your cardiovascular system and lungs, it unfortunately does not contribute much to maintaining muscle mass. However, Da Silva does advise a balance between strength and aerobic exercise as the best approach. “Balancing a routine of strength training and aerobic exercise can aid in burning extra kilojoules, rev the metabolism, and maintain – and even improve – your muscle mass and ratio.”
Julian Naidoo, a sports nutritionist and supplement specialist, tells us that exercise stimulates hormonal production, as well as muscle maintenance and growth. He advises following a training plan that has five to six days of training a week. For men, he recommends training individual muscle groups each day, and adding some cardio after the weight-training session. Women should do cardio daily and weight training three alternate days a week.
Balancing your sex hormones by reducing oestrogen is a step in the right direction. “Starting with your dietary habits, such as avoiding oestrogen- stimulating foods and boosting your intake of foods which shift excess oestrogen out of your system, will help,” says Da Silva.
Avoid foods high in saturated fats, refined or processed foods, as these all disrupt the hormonal balance. Da Silva says: “it’s also a good idea to lower your intake of alcohol.”
Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, spring greens, cabbage, celery, beetroot and spinach are good. “Citrus fruits contain d-limonene, which is shown to help detox oestrogen,” adds Pettit.
Boost your intake of soluble and insoluble fibre, and drink your required amount of water per day to flush your gut of waste and aid in detoxification. Pettit explains that the soluble fibre helps to regulate the flow of waste material through your digestive tract, while insoluble fibre binds itself to excess oestrogen in the digestive tract and carries it out.
Naidoo recommends a healthy eating plan that consist of five to six small snacks a day, and a good multivitamin. “Make sure you have protein, carbohydrates and good fats in each meal. Protein should include a variety of sources such as chicken, fish, lean red meat, egg whites and whey protein powder. Carbohydrates should come from sweet potato, brown basmati rice, oatmeal, mixed vegetables and salads.”
If you need to add supplements, Naidoo recommends a natural testosterone booster for men, as well as a growth hormone. “Look for products that have longjack extract, ZMA, tribulus, DAA, horny goat weed and nettle root extracts,” he says. For women he recommends a ZMA supplement and a growth hormone booster, some ClA and a good-quality whey protein shake. He mentions that the growth hormone-boosting supplements should include gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid), l-ornitine, l-arginine and mucana prurient for optimum benefits.
“Although fat loss can’t be targeted with specific exercise, fat mass can be reduced with exercises that use multiple major muscles together with weight within the movement, to amp the intensity to demand more energy,” says Da Silva. In other words, crunches which are often drilled out unfortunately do not have an effect, as these use only the front abdominal muscles. it is important to use all the core muscles to get more defined abs. this includes the abs, lower back, hips and thighs.
Pettit suggests resistance training to increase your lean muscle mass and, subsequently, your metabolism. “Try to incorporate full-body movements; this will get your heart rate up, giving you a great cardio workout and burning more calories.”
“Weight gain is not a given, provided we take action to change to a much healthier lifestyle,” Catsicas says. The fundamental principle of weight loss is that our daily calorie intake should be less than the calories expended.
Although this is simple, the factors that influence what, when, how much and why we eat are complex and need to be taken in account when searching for a solution. We are unique in our activity levels, gender, age, body size and genetic differences, to name a few. The factors that affect our choices in food are driven by our socioeconomic circumstances, culture, temperament and personality, response to appetite, moods and emotions, ability to cope with stress, degree of motivation, self-esteem, expectations of our own health and personal perception of our body image.
When prescribing a weight-loss programme, there is no one diet that suits us all. Consulting a registered dietician or joining a weight-loss group will help you to find the right eating plan for you. “A dietician can develop a practical plan that takes our lifestyle into consideration. For example, do we enjoy eating lunch from the work cafeteria, do we need a packed lunch on the road or do we enjoy lunch at home? The dietician can also calculate the correct calories, taking into consideration our activity level, age, gender, weight status and medication regime.
Understanding how different types of foods, the time and quantities of food and drink consumption affect our blood glucose levels and weight status will help us to make more informative choices. “Optimal blood glucose control is not only important to facilitate weight loss, but vital to control appetite and energy levels throughout the day. Your plan should allow for choices and variety; healthy eating should be an enjoyable experience, and healthy, delicious recipes and an exciting shopping list will contribute to your success,” says Catsicas.
She advises keeping a food diary, which will make you aware of what, when, how much and under what circumstances you eat. She also recommends identifying internal and external triggers that can cause you to overindulge. “Successful weight loss is not an easy process and it is all too easy to give up. Cognitive restructuring is a process whereby you challenge the validity of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thinking,” she says.
Written by Candice Tehini for Longevity magazine