The Middle-Age Middle

Young African American couple.

How to put this delicately? Women of a certain age will likely end up getting a little, um, pudgy around the middle.

Or to be more direct: Almost all women, without fail, will grow a gut, a little ball of a belly, when they get to be about 40.

They'll start feeling like Humpty Dumpty, a creature with a rounded abdomen sitting atop a flat derriere and skinny legs.

And it won't matter if they've always watched their weight and exercised faithfully, as 41-year-old Tiffany Kadrmas discovered.

"Oh my gosh -- when I hit 40, I started noticing this bulge in my stomach," says Kadrmas, a Colorado Springs mother of two.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't eat fast food or drink soda. I watch what I eat. I've always had a skinny behind and legs, so I couldn't figure out why I was putting on this weight around my waist."

It's all about aging and the changes brought about by menopause -- and the years leading up to it.

"Women in perimenopause can actually experience a shape shifting," says Dr. Pamela Peeke, author of Fight Fat After 40.

"The average weight gain during the five to seven years surrounding the onset of menopause can range from less than 10 to over 25 pounds.

"And instead of accumulating around the hips and thighs, that weight begins to settle around the waistline." As a matter of fact, she has coined the word "menopot," which she calls the "soft, fluffy 'pinch an inch' fat outside the abdominal muscle."

She also warns about another type of post-menopausal fat deep in the abdomen, which she calls "toxic weight." "This type of fat is highly associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer," she says. Before you throw up your hands in defeat and start a "what-the-heck" Snickers diet, know that a beach ball belly doesn't have to stick around. But making it disappear takes discipline, effort and commitment. Why It HappensAs a lot of women might suspect, a major culprit behind belly fat is hormones, says Elizabeth Somer, a dietitian and author of several books, including Ten Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet. "It's the changing of hormones, and women start packing more weight around the middle," she says. "In their 30s, women start trading muscle mass for fat. Muscles are always burning fat, even when you're sleeping. The body is trading active tissue for inactive tissue, which can lead to weight gain." The loss of muscle mass is a huge factor. Even women who exercise regularly notice the extra weight accumulating around their waists. "Since muscle mass is her calorie-burning furnace, this means she has lost the ability to burn approximately 400 calories per day," says Peeke.
Peeke also says stress can cause a chemical reaction that makes fat cells get bigger and even multiply in number. And guess where those fat cells settle? The belly, of course. Add to all that a lower metabolic rate. Women don't burn calories as efficiently as they did in their younger days. "The metabolic drop has actually been occurring for years, ever since the age of 20," says Peeke. "The basal metabolic rate drops by approximately 5 percent per decade of life. When a woman hits 40, she is entering her third 5 percent decrease." Bottom line: Women need to eat fewer calories as they age. "Gaining weight around the middle doesn't have to be a decree," says Somer. "Most earlier research has been done with women who didn't exercise. Boomers are now entering this life-changing period -- a new generation who say, 'But darn I don't have to get fat.' It's easy to fix if they are willing to put out the effort." Sharon Jacob, a dietitian at Penrose-St. Francis Health Learning Center, in Colorado, sees it all the time. "Women come in who are in their mid-40s or 50s wanting to find a weight-loss program, and get so frustrated because we tell them they need to eat less," she says. "We counsel them to eat a low-fat diet that is high in fiber and lean protein. If they do that and cut back on calorie intake, they will start seeing weight-loss results."
And that can help deflate the beach ball belly and pare the "toxic," deep-abdomen fat. Get MovingBut weight loss alone won't necessarily eliminate the gut. Exercise has to be part of the equation, experts say. "Some women have had babies and never gotten back in shape," says David Gerstel, owner of Spectrum Wellness and Rehabilitation Centers in Colorado Springs. "Then as their bodies experience changes, their abdomen muscles are not toned and they start getting a pooch in the belly. But with a combination of aerobic and strength training, they can improve muscle tone and have better-looking bodies." That's how Tiffany Kadrmas nipped her "pesky belly fat" in the bud: by working out with Ashley Kipp, owner of Pikes Peak Pilates and Health. "I started working out with her once a week to improve my core muscles," says Kadrmas, who has been with Kipp for about a year. "I've seen a big difference in my stomach muscle tone, and if you can believe it, I've grown 1/2 inch." Meaning she has improved her posture and is standing taller, which helps pull in the tummy, too. "Not only will we lose muscle mass and have a tendency to store a little more fat, but we will also succumb to gravity," says Kipp. "That's just life.
"But we can certainly make things better through both diet and exercise. It's a simple energy equation: Make sure that the calories going in each day don't exceed the calories going out." And don't forget strength training. "Strength training is creating muscle mass," says Kipp, who, of course, recommends Pilates. "This is extremely important. Pilates will build calorie-burning strength and will help specifically focus your core or the abdominals." For Kadrmas, Pilates machines have been a godsend. "The things I have gotten strong enough to do on that machine -- The Reformer -- it blows my mind," she says. "And the belly area is starting to get flat." Add a Year, Lose CaloriesA sad but true fact of aging: The older we get, the fewer calories we need. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, women may need 2,000 calories a day at age 20. By age 45, they need about 300 fewer calories per day. "If you continue to consume the extra calories, you will gain 1 pound every 12 days, or 30 pounds per year," she says. To keep your calories in check: Keep a food journal, counting everything you put in your mouth -- including samples of things you're cooking. Be honest with yourself.   Put the reins on mindless eating -- the unchecked snacking that people do when they watch TV, talk on the phone, chat at parties.  
Watch your portions. A serving of meat or fish is 3 ounces; a serving of spaghetti is 1/2 cup, says dietitian Elizabeth Somer. "A muffin you buy at Starbucks is not one serving," she says. "It's at least three."   Stick with fruits and vegetables for snacks. "No one gains weight eating those unless they drench them in butter and cheese sauce," Somer says. Contact the writer at Source: The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Powered by YellowBrix.
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