If you suddenly feel like you’re carrying more weight around your waist, you’re not going crazy. “Belly fat increases by 50 percent as women approach and go through menopause,” says endocrinologist Reza Yavari, MD. If this fat sits just under the skin, there’s a good chance it’s mainly a cosmetic issue. However, if you have visceral fat—the deep ab fat that surrounds your organs—you may be at an increased risk of developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that predispose you to heart disease. Fortunately, there are some simple changes you can make to attack both types of fat. Here are 42 of the best.
The neighborhood-waistline link is an emerging area of obesity research. One study found that people who live in the most walkable communities are on average six pounds lighter than those in the most sprawling suburbs. Another survey of nearly 11,000 Atlanta residents found that those who spent the most time in cars were more likely to be obese than those who walked to shops and offices.
Daily activity is essential: 91 percent of participants exercise for an hour a day, usually walking. If you don’t exercise, start with 10-minute walking sessions until you’ve built up to 30 minutes every other day. Once you’re in the habit, revamp every six weeks by varying the routine: work out at a more intense pace, or try a new activity.
Doris Lancaster’s secret weapon is her food diary. On a free, private online log, she keeps track of everything she puts in her mouth. “It’s tedious, but I know if I have a milkshake, it’s going on my permanent record,” she says. The diary has also helped her identify eating patterns and triggers, and knowing what drives her to overeat or crave unhealthy foods makes her less likely to succumb.
“I was thin until I turned 30, when I seemed to put on 30 pounds overnight,” Jennefer Witter says. “I even accused my dry cleaner of shrinking my clothes!” She lost the weight by working with a nutritionist, and weigh-ins after her 30-minute cardio and weight-training sessions have kept her trim since. “I get on the scale virtually every morning,” she says.
National Weight Control Registry members say regular self-weighing is crucial: 75 percent climb on the scale at least once a week, and half weigh in daily. “People try to track their weight by how their clothes feel, but by the time your pants are tight, you may have gained 10 pounds,” says NWCR cofounder Rena Wing. The key to daily weighing is not to overreact. Your weight can fluctuate by up to four pounds on any given day. Instead, notice patterns: “I don’t freak out if I’m suddenly two pounds up. But if the number steadily climbs, I add 10 extra minutes of cardio to my workout until the weight comes back down,” Witter says.
If you leave exercise to chance, you won’t fit it in. Make workout appointments that can’t be broken. Either carve out the same times every week and stick to that schedule or, if you don’t have a set routine, plan a week or even a month ahead.
Your metabolism is slower now, and it’s easier to gain weight. To counter this tendency, burn 10 extra calories an hour. Two minutes of moderate activity, such as jumping jacks or stair walking, will do the trick.
Debbie Chabot tried every weight-loss scheme imaginable, and then she found a diet coaching service online. During weekly 30-minute phone calls, her coach helped her identify unhealthy eating patterns and gave her a safe place to talk about her insecurities regarding her weight. Before that, “I never had a person who cheered on my successes or guided me if I got off track,” says Chabot, who still checks in with her coach every week or so.
Having a cheerleader can be a big asset for weight maintenance. A study found that dieters who had social support from family and friends lost more weight over an 18-month period than those who didn’t. Internet support groups like Weight Watchers and eDiets provide a virtual community to help you achieve weight loss.
If your commute leaves you with no free time, try to fit exercises into your workday. Find simple strength exercises or stretches to do while seated (on a train or bus), climb the stairs for ten minutes on your lunch break or walk swift laps around your building for about 20 minutes before you get into the office.
Vow to do an activity that will get you breathing hard for at least 10 minutes, seven days a week. “Even if you just set the timer on the kitchen stove and vigorously clean the house or run up and down the stairs, you’ll do something good for your heart—and your waistline,” says Andrea Metcalf, a Chicago-based trainer.
Eating five or six smaller meals instead of three larger ones can help prevent both hunger and overeating. Mini meals steady blood sugar levels, and slow down the release of insulin, a hormone that can cause your body to store more fat, explains Maye Musk, RD, a New York-based nutritionist.
“When you reach 40, it becomes harder for your muscles to recover from exercise and you need more protein to assist in the repair process,” says Lisa Dorfman, RD and sports nutritionist. Try to eat about half your body weight in protein grams every day.
Increase the intensity of your aerobic routine to near your limit for anywhere from 20 seconds to two minutes, then spend about an equal amount of time exercising at a level that feels comfortable. Continue alternating the sequence during your workout.
Give yourself the occasional green light for forbidden foods, despite how many calories a treat may contain. Once you let yourself decide, you may find that instead of wanting to eat too much of a forbidden high-calorie food, you’re satisfied with a small portion because you know you can have it again in the future.
During the perimenopausal transition (which takes seven to 10 years), what feels like a need for food can often be exhaustion instead. When you’re craving a quick fix—something most easily found in a vending machine or deli, in the form of fatty, processed food—try another tactic before assuming you’re hungry.
The more you grab meals on the go and then multitask, the easier it is to lose track of how much you’re actually consuming. Be more mindful when eating (feel the textures, inhale the aromas), because engaging your senses slows down the process, leaving you more satisfied.
By midlife many long-term dieters have learned to rely on scheduled mealtimes—rather than their body’s signals—to decide when to eat. Just because the clock says 1 p.m., that doesn’t mean you need a big meal.
Eating small amounts of food several times a day has kept the weight off for Michaela McKenna.
“In the past, I’d be too busy to eat until the afternoon,” McKenna says. “Then, when the kids came home from school, I’d start grazing. I’d eat 4,000 calories by bedtime.” Now her daytime food choices consist of yogurt and a handful of almonds, or a high-protein cereal bar and fruit. At dinner she eats a small portion of whatever her family is having, such as fish and whole-wheat pasta. Eating frequently keeps her blood sugar level even, so she doesn’t have the energy highs and lows that used to lead to cravings.
If you graze throughout the day, make sure to keep the quantity per sitting to a minimum, says Molly Kimball, RD, of the Ochsner Clinic’s Elmwood Fitness Center, in New Orleans. “Aim for 200 to 300 calories per meal, about every three to four hours.”
For most of her adult life, Lisa Skiles struggled against what people called her big-boned frame. Since losing weight with the help of a diet program, she has maintained her impressive loss through careful planning. Rule one: She decides what she’ll eat that day when she gets up in the morning. “Lunch with a friend means I’ll eat more than normal, so I’ll plan on a light dinner,” Skiles says.
Skiles also knows her order before she walks into a restaurant. Judith Beck, PhD, author of The Beck Diet Solution, says spontaneous eating may mean you’ll choose foods based on cravings, which usually means higher- calorie foods. Eating small portions of favorite foods is also key, according to Beck, 53, who has maintained a 15-pound weight loss for 10 years: “I like a treat at night, so I allow myself up to 250 calories of whatever I want. The trick is limiting it to after dinner, which motivates me to eat healthy the rest of the day.”
It takes 20 to 30 minutes for the fullness cue to travel from the stomach to the brain. But over-40 women can have an even harder time knowing when to stop eating, because the hormones that signal satiety are among those that fluctuate during perimenopause. Eating more slowly can help you eat less.
By now you know your personal need-to-eat signs—stomach rumbles, vague crabbiness, an inability to focus—so you should definitely grab a bite before you get to that point. But responding shouldn’t mean stuffing yourself senseless. Tune in to your natural “stop” signals.