Burning belly fat has never been an easy process. The bad news: It only gets harder as you get older. Hormone changes conspire against your good intentions. Chances are you’re less active than you were in your 20s and 30s. You’re also fighting history, says Tonia Reinhard, course director for clinical nutrition at the School of Medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit. “There was a time when older people with a slightly higher weight and more abdominal fat had a higher life expectancy,” she says. The thinking goes that our ancestors ate more than necessary whenever possible as a way of storing energy for the very real possibility of future periods of famine. Clearly we don’t need that genetic programming today, but it’s still there.
The good news: Your midsection is not a lost cause. There are a host of foods that go a long way toward burning belly fat. Switching up and/or trying some new weight loss exercises to work the deeper abdominal muscles can bring about noticeable results, too. But before we get to the nitty-gritty of how to deal with being overweight, it’s helpful to have a better idea of why watching our waistline goes beyond the aesthetic.
What’s wrong with a few extra inches anyway? Plenty, according to an international research team led by the Mayo Clinic’s James Cerhan, MD, PhD. In a recent review of 11 global studies on more than 600,000 people, Cerhan and his team found that larger waistlines corresponded to higher mortality risks. A man who has a 43-inch waist, for example, has a life expectancy after age 40 that is about three years lower than a fellow who zips into a size 35. And a woman whose waist measures 37 inches has a five-year lower life expectancy after age 40, compared to a woman with a 27-inch waist. For every 2 inches you add to your belt, your mortality risk climbs about 7 percent in men and about 9 percent in women.
It’s worth noting that those findings held true even for those with a body mass index (BMI) that falls within the normal range. That’s because BMI measures don’t distinguish between lean mass and fat mass — nor do they indicate where you carry your extra weight load. Doctors worry much more about larger midsections than, say, thighs or arms because belly fat (medically known as visceral fat) is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and gallstones, and is a risk factor for bone loss. Women who gain weight can also increase their risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.
The stubborn side of middle-aged spread. Crunches, calorie counting and multiple New Year’s resolutions can’t equal the powerful punch biology is aiming out our midsections. The connection between midlife weight gain and hormonal changes is strong: In women, a drop in estrogen prompts the body to shift fat more to our bellies. In men, lower testosterone leads to a rise in body fat and a drop in muscle mass. And for both sexes, an increase in the stress hormone cortisol signals the body to store more fat around the midsection.
“There are six to eight hormones that affect the body’s ability to burn fat,” says J.J. Smith, author of "Six Ways to Lose Belly Fat Without Exercise!" If one or more are out of balance, she says, you’ll feel it physically or emotionally, “But you probably won’t know to say, Oh, my hormones are out of balance, that’s why I’ve gained all this weight.”
Smith encourages adults in their 40s and 50s to ask their doctors about getting their hormones checked. In many cases, simple changes to your eating habits, exercising moreapplying natural methods to burn belly fat and making sleep a priority can help restore a balance. Your doctor also might recommend other medical treatments for a suspected hormone imbalance.
Change your diet. While calorie counting continues to be an important tool to shedding pounds, Reinhard says it’s important to remember that not all calories are equal. An 80-calorie cookie is far different from an 80-calorie serving of plain fat-free Greek yogurt with fresh fruit stirred in.