Why do women accumulate abdominal fat in middle age?

Special for Infobae of The New York Times.

Q: I am a 40-something woman and for the first time I have belly fat. Is there any way to combat it through diet or exercise?

If you are a middle-aged woman and notice that your belly is expanding, the first thing you should know is that you are not alone.

“This is a physiological change that unfortunately happens to virtually all women as we age,” explains Victoria Vieira-Potter, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. “It’s not something you did,” he added, not an indication that you’re neglecting yourself, so to speak.

In the years preceding the menopauseVieira-Potter said, levels of hormones like estrogen change. And research suggests that these changes can lead to changes in body shape, along with hot flashes, mood swings, irregular periods, trouble sleeping, and more. Is perimenopausal transition, which usually begins between the ages of 45 and 55 and lasts about seven years, officially ends one year after the last period. At that time, the woman is said to be in menopause.

Before the menopausal transition, women tend to store more body fat in their thighs and hips, leading to a “pear-shaped” body, Vieira-Potter explained, while men tend to store more fat in the abdominal area, which gives them more “apple shape”.

However, around menopause there is a surprising change in where women store fat on their bodies, said Gail Greendale, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. In a 2021 studyFor example, Greendale and her colleagues tracked the bodies of 380 middle-aged women from Boston and Los Angeles for 12 years, including the time before, during and after they transitioned through menopause. Although the results varied by race and ethnicity, the overall result was that around menopause, women began to store fat more like men, meaning less around the thighs and hips and more around the midsection.

For example, among white and black women in the study, there was no net change in fat in the hips and thighs over 12 years, but midsection fat increased, on average, by 24 and 1 17 percent, respectively. Midsection fat gain was fastest during the years before and the year after the last menstrual period.

In other words, Vieira-Potter said, women “start to take on that apple shape instead of the pear shape.”

It’s also common for men to gain more fat in the midsection as they age, but it’s a slower and more steady change. “There is no analogue in men where an organ just says ‘bye!’ and shuts off,” Greendale said, referring to women’s ovaries during menopause.

According to Greendale, researchers don’t know exactly why these changes in fat storage occur. But even if they are normal, they are something to watch out for, he added. Increased belly fat—and, in particular, the type of visceral fat found deep inside the abdomen and surrounding the organs—has been linked to certain health risks, like the heart disease, diabetes and Cancer. This fat, which can expand not only with menopause, but also with stress, lack of exercise, poor diet, is the “problem fat,” according to Greendale. On the other hand, the fat stored in the thighs and hips, which creates the so-called pear shape, seems to protect against diabetes and heart disease.

Despite ubiquitous Internet ads claiming to have the secret to reducing belly fat, experts don’t really know how to address the expanding waistline associated with menopause, Greendale said. Researchers are just beginning to understand how and why the body changes at this stage of life, and she is careful not to promote a solution without proof that it works.

“What worries me is that women who try to do the right thing for themselves and stick to their exercise habits and eat a good diet may feel defeated” if their belly fat doesn’t recede, she said. “They may be doing all they can, and their belly fat may have a mind of its own.” It can also be harmful to make a excessive diet or do too much exercise, he pointed.

That said, it has been shown that performing at least 2.5 to 5 hours of physical activity moderate amount a week helps prevent heart disease and diabetes, both of which are associated with increased abdominal fat. Follow one healthy diet — including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and prioritizing fish, legumes, nuts, low-fat dairy, and lean meats as sources of protein — can also help protect against these diseases.

Physical activity also helps maintain healthy muscle and bone mass and improves insulin function, Vieira-Potter said. “Even if you exercise and don’t lose weight, you’re doing a lot of good metabolically.” Exercise is also enjoyable, and can help counter some of the mood changes that can occur with menopause.

It doesn’t have to be intense or strenuous to be beneficial, Vieira-Potter said. “Just find something you like.”

And, if you still feel discouraged about the change in your body, despite a good diet and a Exercise programGreendale recommended a dose of self-pity. “If my abdomen resists, I will understand that it may be part of the stage of life I am in.”

Alice Callahan is a journalist specializing in health and science.


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