Women are particularly vulnerable to increased fat in their older years due to the effects of menopause. Menopause actually redistributes your weight, moving it from your arms, legs and hips to your abdomen. You might notice you’re a little larger at your midsection even if you haven’t gained any weight.
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Types of Fat
Subcutaneous fat is that which you can grab with your hand. It’s under the skin and tends to distribute a little lower than your waistline. Visceral fat is inside you, clustered around and between your abdominal organs. Visceral fat can cause a host of health problems, including type two diabetes, breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, partially because it continues producing estrogen in women even after menopause. Visceral fat usually lies in the area behind your waistline.
Effect of Menopause
During menopause, when your estrogen levels decrease, it throws off the ratio between your estrogen and androgen, male hormones present in women in low amounts. Lower estrogen levels also prompt your body to produce more cortisol. Both these processes might contribute to an increase in belly fat.
Identifying a Problem
You can’t see your visceral fat, but you can find out if it is there simply by measuring your waist. Place a tape measure around your waist in the area of your navel. Don’t inhale, suck your belly in or hold your breath. A woman of average, healthy weight should measure less than 35 inches However, some research has indicated that even more than 33 inches can indicate visceral fat stores, and in Asian women, a measure of more than 31.5 inches is considered high. Waist measurement is a more reliable indicator of visceral belly fat than your body mass index.
Some researchers have theorized that estrogen supplements can prevent the buildup of belly fat by keeping your estrogen-androgen levels in balance and checking cortisol production, which is known to prompt the body to produce abdominal fat. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that this is not so. Both women and men, all over 60 years of age, were supplemented with DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, which converts to testosterone and estrogen in the body. It did not affect their body-composition measurements. A study presented at the Endocrine Society’s 91st Meeting in 2009 indicated that hormone replacement therapy did help reduce belly fat in post-menopausal women, but only if they were additionally active. It had no impact on those women who did not get adequate exercise. Obviously, if you have not yet reached menopause, taking estrogen supplements is not recommended.
Visceral fat reacts pretty favorably to exercise and a healthy diet, diminishing with these efforts without the need for hormone replacement therapy. The study also indicates that exercise is the key to reducing belly fat, with or without supplemental hormones. So-called “starvation diets” are not recommended because they slow your metabolism, urging your body to hoard fat, not release it.