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Fighting middle-age spread

What your waist and your BMI tell you about your health

Author: Doreen Corbey July 21 2009

woman measuring waist with tape measure

With the influx of food programmes on TV telling us how we should be eating to stay healthy and to slim down, it appears that we have become a nation enthused by weight loss.

If you’ve been watching any of these programmes, you will have heard the term BMI (Body Mass Index), which indicates your recommended weight taking into account your height. Experts have been popularising the term BMI to assess whether you are in your healthy weight zone. If you haven’t already done so, to calculate your BMI, divide your weight in kg by your height in metres, or just look use a BMI Calculator to have it done for you.

Having taking your BMI as a rough guideline, the next thing you have to do in the name of your health is to get out your tape measure. Measure your waist at the narrowest point and your hips at the widest, and divide the waist by the hip measurement.

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For men, the result should be less than 0.95, for women less than 0.8. Some experts recommend waist measurements of less than 31 inches for women and less than 37” for men, but I prefer the waist to hip division as this comes out fairer for the curvier figure.

If you are above the 0.95 or 0.8, or if your waist is more than 34” women or 40” men, you could be putting your life at risk. Extra fat around the waist and within the abdomen is linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Unfortunately, the BMI does not take into account a bulging waistline, which is why measuring yourself is a good habit to get into. You could be a fit athlete bulked up with muscle and very little fat, but as muscle weighs more than fat, your BMI could register you as obese in this case!

Why is waist to hip measurement so important? Fat on the hips is harmless, it just sits there and gives padding. Fat around the middle – a different story. It can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer. We are pre-disposed to deposit fat there. As we reach our 40s, our bodies start to hang onto fat, because it produces oestrogen (in preparation for decreasing levels during menopause) and it’s easier for the body to find the oestrogen if it’s around the middle.

Secondly, stress causes fat to be laid in this same area because when you are stressed, your body thinks you’re in a “fight or flight” situation and you will need energy. It is quicker for the body to source energy from the middle than from your hips. In addition to all this bad news, our metabolism - the rate at which our bodies burn off energy - slows down. As we get older, muscle decreases and is replaced by fat, and the less muscle we have, the lower our metabolism, therefore the fewer calories we need to consume.

However, if you’re still in your 20s, don’t think you’re safe for long - middle age spread can begin in your 30s. The growth hormone somatotropin is our best friend when we’re young. Secreted by the pituitary gland, it helps maintain strong bones and muscles, reduces glucose in the liver and breaks down stored fat.

In our 30s, the production of this hormone starts to decline. With rises in glucose levels, there is increased insulin. Insulin packs excess glucose away as fat to be accessed later and, as there is less breaking down of body fat, the result can lead to visible bulges. Look up the word “somatopause” on the internet and you will find a plethora of articles on the subject.

So, what do you do if you haven’t got the ideal waist to hip measurement? Well, if you have curves, embrace them. In fact, scientists even endorse the good health of having a large behind, and a large bottom equates to large hips. So don’t fret about hip slimming exercises, leave them alone and concentrate on the waist!

Firstly, your diet. What you eat will help, especially if you have discovered that your BMI is also not within the ideal range. Consuming fewer calories will have a fairly fast effect, but may not teach you much about eating for a healthy life, and I would not personally recommend the popular low fat diets.

You could try the Reverse Diet by Tricia Cunningham, or the Low GL Diet by Patrick Holford. Some people recommend fasting every other day if you cannot control your calorie intake, whereas other experts go for the opposite approach and prefer 3 meals a day plus nutritious snacks (nuts not crisps) so that your body doesn’t think it’s going into starvation mode.

Leslie Kenton recommends that you try to eat more of your food raw. If you already eat raw, double the portion. Eat raw at the beginning of each meal. Apart from keeping all their nutrients, raw food has the advantage of making you feel full quicker. Soup enthusiasts similarly recommend soup because of its effect of making you feel full for longer. The mix of solids with liquid passes through the stomach at a constant, slower pace than just solids alone.

One recommendation that may sound obvious is to allocate time to your meal and chew properly. Chewing accounts for a lot of the digestive work. Bolting down your food means that, no matter how healthy it is, the food is not going to be fully digested. Drink plenty of water, aiming for 8 glasses a day as this can raise your metabolism by 30%. Green tea raises your metabolism by 35% (source Marilyn Glenville).

The second thing to do is exercise. Perhaps a dirty word to some but it is essential and regular exercise can also boost your metabolism and stimulate production of the growth hormone somatotropin. Anaerobic exercise is recommended. This is where you do short bursts of power then follow this with steady movements. Stomach exercises are an excellent way to reduce a bulging middle and, reducing your stomach will also reduce your waist.

Lastly, chill. The more stressed you are, the more fat you will lay down, so give yourself some time off. Yes, you could go out for a meal with a friend, but remember you’ll be working it off later. Even if it’s just giving yourself 30 minutes for a bath, relaxing with a face mask or a taking time for a massage; if it reduces your stress levels, it’s good for your waist and your long term health.

Recommended reading:

  • Fat Around the Middle – Marilyn Glenville (easy to read and easy to understand)
  • GL Diet – Patrick Holford (note GL not GI)
  • Ready Set Go! Synergy Fitness for Time-crunched Adults – Phil Campbell
  • The Waistline Plan – Sally Lewis
About the Author

Doreen has had a passion for massage since she was 15 years old. She still has that passion, and offers massage, specialist facials and other beauty treatments in her home-based salon in Surrey. With any energy left over she will devour all the beauty pages of all the magazines she can lay her hands on!

Doreen's homepage: Bellessence

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Posted on 16/08/09 08:02 by: Jean Hunt

Excellent article which clearly explains what has happened to me!

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