Belly fat, sometimes called "middle-age spread," is an affliction that's hard to avoid when you're over 40. You don't like how that excess weight looks in the mirror, and what it does to you internally is even worse: It raises your risk of chronic disease. You're not stuck with it though. You might find it harder to lose belly fat as you age, but the tried-and-true weight-loss methods of exercise and a quality diet can help you reduce your belly fat, as well as any other weight that's crept on over the years.
Where Does Belly Fat Come From
If you consume more calories than you burn, you'll put on weight. Men of all ages often store extra pounds in their belly, but women of child-bearing age tend to put more weight onto their hips and thighs. As hormones start to shift during peri-menopause, though, women's fat also migrates toward the belly.
Belly fat is also known as visceral fat because it interweaves around the internal organs -- or viscera. It's more inflammatory than the subcutaneous fat that sits right under the skin and thus releases compounds and hormones into the body that elevate the risk of metabolic disorders, heart disease and some cancers.
You gain fat as you age, because the natural decrease in metabolically active muscle mass begins in your 30s and continues as you age. This loss of muscle lowers your metabolism, which makes it easier to gain fat. Much of this fat appears in the abdomen area, especially if your calorie intake is a bit high and exercise is on the low side.
Eating to Lose Belly Fat After 40
A diet filled with refined grains, processed foods, sugar and saturated fats encourages the development and prolongation of belly fat. To lose it, subtract these foods from your diet and eat mostly lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, unsaturated fats, vegetables and fruits instead.
Portion control is critical in losing belly fat. Eating too many calories, even healthy ones, deters weight loss. Estimate your daily calorie needs based on your exact age, gender, size and activity level by consulting with your doctor or using an online tool. Eat 250 to 500 calories fewer than this maintenance number to lose 1/2 to 1 pound per week.
For most people, 4 to 5 ounces of protein, 1/2 to 1 cup of whole grains and 1 cup of watery, fibrous vegetables at meals will prompt weight loss. For example, have grilled chicken with brown rice and green beans; eggs with peppers, spinach and whole-wheat toast; roast pork tenderloin with baked sweet potato and a green salad; or broiled tilapia with quinoa and asparagus. Skip sugary, fatty sauces and dressings. Flavor foods with herbs, spices, citrus juice and vinegar.
While an occasional treat at a holiday or birthday is fine, cut down on sweets and drink soft drinks. Have snacks such as fresh fruit, hummus with cut-up vegetables, a scant handful of nuts or plain yogurt with a drizzle of honey instead. To avoid temptation, try not to indulge a spouse or pre-teen kid that likes to have junk food on hand. They'll benefit from the healthier food choices too.
Physical Activity for Losing Belly Fat
Offset the natural loss of muscle mass as you pass age 40 with weight training. Hit the gym at least twice per week to perform, at minimum, one set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise for each major muscle group. If you use the muscle, your body will slow the rate at which it lets it naturally slip away. This keeps your metabolism humming at a relatively high level and makes weight loss more manageable.
In addition to weight training, perform regular cardiovascular exercise to help you burn additional calories and expedite weight loss, including from your belly. Even if your gross weight on the scale doesn't change, you will find that the percentage of fat stored in your belly diminishes. Belly fat is some of the first fat you lose when you become more physically active.
While any added activity is positive, high-intensity cardio performed at 75 percent of your maximum effort may be most effective in combating visceral fat, reports a 2009 study published in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. Do a high-intensity activity, such as running, an indoor cycling class or circuit weight training for 30 to 45 minutes at three or four workouts per week. On off days, take a brisk walk, do water aerobics or perform household chores, such as gardening and washing the car, to burn calories. The American College of Sports Medicine advocates at least 250 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardio exercise to achieve substantial weight loss.
Stress Less to Lose Belly Fat
Some of the greatest life stressors, including kids in their teens, aging parents, financial independence and increased work responsibilities, hit around age 40. Learn to manage the increased pressure; when you let it get to you, it shows up as extra abdominal fat. You may eat more to alleviate anxiety, have little time to prepare healthy meals and produce more of the hormone cortisol, which encourages the body to store and hold onto belly fat.
If you haven't already, your 40s is a time to begin a mind-body practice, such as yoga or meditation, that helps you manage life's challenges. Any self-care regimen is helpful too; a soothing bedtime routine and delegating some work tasks, for example, can help lighten your stress load. When you feel less stressed, exercising more and eating less are more appealing.