We have become a looks-based society, that’s for sure. We only have to scroll through our social media, watch TV, or glance through magazines to feel that beauty is judged from the outside and not from the inside. Although as we get older we may become more disparaging of this concept, we might also be trying our hardest to keep age at bay and find ourselves struggling to stay youthful in appearance.
We’ve all heard of the middle-age spread but did you know that the term applies to women as well as men? That’s because it all comes down to hormone levels. In fact, weight in the middle of your body, also known as central adiposity, is determined by four hormones – oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and HGH. Whilst you might think of particular hormones as affecting one sex more than another you may well be surprised by what you’re about to read. That’s because each of these hormones will play a part in your middle-age spread regardless of the genitals you were born with.
Oestrogen & Progesterone
Younger men tend to have higher levels of testosterone and progesterone relative to oestrogen than older men. However, when men reach their 30s and 40s the level of testosterone and progesterone drop resulting in what’s known as oestrogen dominance. Similarly, with middle-aged women there is oestrogen dominance and whilst that might come as a surprise because you may think that you lose oestrogen as you move into menopause, and you do, you lose progesterone faster initially.
Oestrogen is a really important hormone; it helps keep your bones healthy, it keeps your brain healthy and it ensures that you have libido. However, oestrogen dominance is something that seems to have become more problematic over time. That’s because oestrogen makes its way into the human body through food, water and the environment. We are now exposed to more oestrogen than ever before. There are environmental oestrogens such as xeno-oestrogens which come from chemicals found in pesticides, plastics and other materials. What’s more, they’re fat-soluble, so they store easily in your body if you’ve greater fat levels, only exacerbating the problem.
Testosterone plays an important role in maintaining healthy weight and shape for all people during younger years. In fact, it binds to fat, carrying it out of the body so less is stored around the middle. It also helps to build muscle, speed up the metabolism and maintain insulin sensitivity, which prevents diabetes. As levels of testosterone start to decrease naturally from about the age of 30 onwards this encourages the body to store fat, particularly around the belly. Not only is it often unwelcome from the look’s perspective, but it can also increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
The more HGH you have surging through your veins, the stronger and leaner you will be. HGH builds stronger bones, increases energy, improves sexual performance and increases your quality of sleep. This is another hormone that enters rapid decline in your 40s. Whilst this phenomenon has been known about and understood in terms of the male body for some time, it’s relevance to the female body has only recently been understood. HGH is tightly connected to oestrogen levels, the more oestrogen a woman has the more HGH she produces. This means that as she approaches menopause when oestrogen levels go into decline, HGH also declines. This is the point when women begin to see loss of muscle mass and increased body fat.
How to rebalance hormones?
Many of the hormone imbalances discussed above have a very natural course. There’s a certain level of acceptance that hormones will change over the course of our lives. However, given that food and drink choices can act as messengers to the body, and can decrease the rate of hormonal change it seems only sensible to “control the controllables” and do what we can to maintain optimal hormone balance and a slower rate of change. Additionally, non-food related changes can play a huge role in improving muscle mass and minimising belly fat so these are areas within your control that can also be addressed:
1. Eat more protein and fewer carbs
Protein is the building block of muscle, and since muscle mass diminishes as you age, you need to up your intake. Ensure you have protein with every meal. Healthy sources include nuts, seeds, fish, dairy and lean meat.
Avoid refined carbs in the form of white bread and pasta and stick to wholegrain varieties (traditional sourdough bread and rye bread for example) which release glucose more slowly, causing less weight gain.
2. Make sure you work those muscles
The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even when you’re not exercising. So, as you age, it’s important to do what’s called resistance training – exercising with some form of weights – to keep your muscles strong.
Where HGH is concerned the type of exercise is very important indeed. What many people don’t realise is that HGH is only released when you activate your super-fast muscle fibres. Whilst aerobic cardio only works your slow-twitch endurance fibres.
Beyond about 45 minutes of exercise, there is a marked drop in growth hormone and cortisol levels increase. So shorter, more intense periods of exercise are better for reducing middle-aged spread.
3. Eliminate stress
Midlife can be a time of high stress – juggling troublesome teenage kids, elderly parents and high-pressure work. But research has linked high levels of the stress hormone cortisol to an accumulation of fat around your midriff.
Grace McMahon, Beingwell's Chief Life Coach, shares her top tips for reducing stress and anxiety here.
4. Use every opportunity to stand up
Being sedentary for too long decreases the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which helps you burn fat around the middle. Standing, however, burns twice as many calories as sitting.
5. Get quality sleep
Our sleep quality often declines in middle-age, but when you’re short on sleep your appetite increases, meaning you eat more and gain weight. Unlock Kip Advisor or head on over to sleepingwell for more support on how to sleep better.
Final thoughts: Changing hormone levels is something we will all deal with over the course of time. It's important to remember that you can influence the rate of that change through your own lifestyle and nutrition choices. Sleep, stress, movement, and nutrition are all areas that can impact your body's inclination to gain weight around the middle. Focus on making small changes in these areas and you will start to see the benefits.
Jenny Tschiesche BSc(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT
The Lunchbox Doctor
Best Selling Author and Nutrition Workshop Facilitator
BANT Registered Nutritionist
A note from Beingwell: If your organisation would like Jenny to deliver a workshop, or want to find out more about the many ways she can help your employees to eat better, pop us an email email@example.com. Find out more about Jenny here.