Sherry Stampler thought she was one of the lucky ones. A skinny kid whose dad used to offer her $100 for every pound she could gain, Sherry breezed through her 20s and 30s (and three pregnancies) with nary an extra ounce on her 5-foot-4, 110-pound frame. Then suddenly, at about age 45, she got this bulge just above her waist. “I wasn’t eating more or exercising less,” Sherry says. “It just showed up. And the worst part was, I couldn’t get rid of it.”
Sherry’s belly fat isn’t merely a flaw on her otherwise age-defying shape. Mounting research shows it can also be dangerous and is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
There are two types of fat: the subcutaneous, or “pinchable,” kind that collects just under the skin—and, unless you’re obese, poses no health threat—and visceral fat, which develops deep inside the abdomen. “Visceral fat appears to be metabolically more active than fat that settles elsewhere,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Fit to Live: The 5-Point Plan to Be Lean, Strong, & Fearless for Life (Rodale Books, 2007). This visceral fat—belly fat, in plain English—interferes with liver function. In particular, it hampers the processing of cholesterol and insulin—and may also compromise the function of other tissues and systems. In December a study conducted at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam found links between belly fat and capillary inflammation (a contributor to heart disease) and between belly fat and insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes).
Unfortunately the flow of fat from our arms, legs, and hips to our stomachs is a natural part of aging. “Up until about age 40, estrogen in women and testosterone in men controls fat allocation, keeping it away from the abdomen,” Peeke says. “Once these hormones decline, it becomes easier for excessive calories to be stored deep inside the belly.”
While you can’t control the buildup of belly fat, your lifestyle habits can influence how much midlife fat you accumulate. Read on for your complete guide to banishing belly fat forever.
Don’t be a stress eater
You probably know someone (but not you, of course!) who eats in response to stress. Bad day at the office? Grab a candy bar. Argument with your spouse? Finish off that pint of Häagen-Dazs.
There’s probably a biological basis to stress eating, researchers say. Chronic stress causes your body to secrete excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol, and too much cortisol triggers cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. What’s most troubling, though, is that stress eating doesn’t just pack on pounds; it packs on pounds in the worst place, your middle (cortisol stimulates fat production deep in the abdomen).
Stress may cause even slender women to grow a bit of a pot, says Elissa Epel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco’s Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment. “It’s not just a formula of calories in and calories out. What we eat and how much may determine our overall weight, but stress influences where that fat actually gets deposited on our body,” Epel says.
In March, Epel and her colleagues launched a pilot study to determine whether stress-reduction techniques such as meditation and yoga could help women lose existing tummy fat—and keep it off. Although the results are not yet in, Epel has high hopes that stress reduction can reverse the trend. “We know that excessive exposure to cortisol can increase belly fat. So it’s logical that stress reduction should minimize it. That’s what we aim to find out.”
In the meantime control cortisol-induced cravings by having plenty of protein-carb snacks on hand. “Opt for low-fat string cheese with an apple, a multigrain cracker with reduced-fat crunchy peanut butter, or low-fat yogurt with sliced almonds or chopped walnuts,” says Peeke.
Make a muscle
Once you hit 30, your lean muscle mass decreases by about a pound a year. If you’re inactive, that lost muscle mass often is replaced by fat. So if you’re not already lifting weights two to three days a week, start now. Need proof that weight training will reduce your waistline? Two studies that analyzed the effects of strength training in older adults between ages 50 and 70 showed a 10 to 15 percent decrease in belly fat despite no weight loss. “Stick with basic moves that work the major muscle groups—shoulders, chest, back, abs, butt, legs, and arms,” says Sherri MacMillan, owner of Northwest Personal Training in Portland, Oregon, and author of Fit Over Forty: The Winning Way to Lifetime Fitness (Raincoast Books, 2003). “As you get stronger, continue to increase your weight load to counter gradual muscle loss.” But don’t rush it: progress no more than 5 to 10 percent every one to two weeks to minimize strain on your tendons, ligaments, and muscles. (Check out our total-body strength-training workouts using either free weights or fitness machines.)
Doing moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise almost every day also can keep abdominal fat in check: according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003, women who exercised 30 to 45 minutes a day for five days a week for a year cut their belly fat by 3 to 6 percent (the more exercise they did, the more belly fat they lost). And recent research from the University of Arkansas found that study participants who did 90 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week lost twice the amount of visceral fat as those who just dieted.
So if your version of an aerobic workout is strolling out to the mailbox, now’s the time to take it to the next level. “Start by moving your body for at least 30 minutes a day,” says MacMillan. “Then, to effectively lose or maintain weight, work up to 20 to 60 minutes of moderate to more vigorous activity three to five times a week.” (See our Belly-Buster Workout Plan.)
Eat only the best
To avoid gaining weight, the rule of thumb is that for each decade past 40, you should consume about 100 fewer calories a day. That’s because metabolism—the rate at which your body burns calories—gradually slows down as you age. But now, when your goal is to minimize not just fat but belly fat in particular, you also need to be selective about which foods you eliminate.
Don’t cut protein to save calories. You want to consume 60 to 70 grams of protein a day to maintain healthy bones and muscles, says Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D., director of Sports Medicine Nutrition for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and the Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Also consider: A 2005 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that if you’re trying to shed pounds, keeping adequate protein in the diet wards off muscle loss and increases fat burning. Go for eggs, skinless poultry, or lean meat or fish, and avoid fried or fatty luncheon meats and high-fat cheese.
Be sure to get adequate amounts of fiber, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. (For women over 50, that’s 21 grams per day; for men over 50, 25 grams.) “These foods not only keep your gut healthy; they take more time to process than others so you feel full longer and won’t eat so often,” Bonci says.
Finally, don’t cut all of the fat out of your diet. “Healthy fats are integral to bone and heart health, and they’re loaded with antioxidants that may help lower the risk of cancer,” says Bonci. Healthy fats include monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, and they should make up between 20 and 35 percent of your daily diet. “A tablespoon of olive oil, a quarter cup of nuts, or two tablespoons of nut butter each have about half of what you need for the day,” says Bonci. Best bets: tuna, salmon, sardines, avocados, peanuts, and olive or canola oils.
So what should you cut out? Start by eliminating the five C’s: candy, cookies, cake, cola, and chips. Make deep-fat-fried foods a once-a-month treat (that includes chicken nuggets and other fast-food chicken and fish burgers). And go easy on processed breads, crackers, and other snack foods.
Holly St. Lifer is a health and fitness writer whose work appears frequently in Fitness, Shape, Self, and Ladies’ Home Journal.
For black-and-white reprints of this article call 866-888-3723.