“The decline in oestrogen shows how our bodies are designed to procreate, then wither and fade,” says Newson. “In perimenopause, our oestrogen levels drop but the body still wants it and so will create more fat cells around the abdomen area to produce a weaker oestrogen. Oestrogen also helps to optimise the action of insulin, the hormone that prevents high blood sugar levels, so low levels of oestrogen raise your blood sugar levels, which leads to cravings and weight gain.”
NHS Consultant and weight loss expert Dr Sally Norton agrees, claiming this time of life drums up a ‘perfect storm’ of events for women.
“So many things happen at this age,” she says. “Years of yo-yo dieting may be catching up with you; the hormone changes kick in as perimenopause symptoms can start 10 years before the menopause. The drop in oestrogen changes the fat distribution, which is why women tend to go from pear-shaped around this age to apple-shaped, developing a big belly but still losing weight off their legs and bum. We also tend to be less active now and yet we still dish out the same food portions to ourselves as we would to our partners and teenagers.”
It doesn’t help that women also lose 8 per cent of muscle per decade after the age of 40. “Muscle burns more energy than fat, so resistance training to build up more muscle is a good idea in midlife,” says Norton, adding that 49 is the perfect time for a mindset overhaul and making small, doable changes.
“It’s all about eating real food, not diet or low-calorie rubbish, cutting down on constant grazing and going back to three traditional healthy meals a day and reducing your portion size to match your lower activity levels,” she says. “Eating little and often – even if it’s healthy – isn’t good for weight control at this age as it makes your blood sugar levels go up and down, which leads to more difficulty burning fat.”
And here’s my problem.
I’m a classic grazer and always seem to be popping something– whether an apple, a bag of popcorn or an energy bar – into my mouth.
With fat-burning now a priority, I seek advice from nutritional therapist, Melissa Cohen who writes me a midlife food plan to shift fat, reduce bloating (a particular middle-aged curse of mine) and improve my overall wellbeing.
It’s based around eating three healthy meals a day, all of which are heavy on good fats like avocado, protein such as chicken, eggs, meat or fish and lots of salad and vegetables – about half your plate.
“The idea is that each meal should be filling so you don’t need to eat in between,” says Cohen.
Slow-releasing carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, butternut squash and quinoa are midlife winners, as are foods high in phytoestrogen – tofu, tempeh, flaxseed, chickpeas and lentils.
“These foods mimic the effects of oestrogen and should be eaten every day,” says Cohen. “The goal at this age is to balance out blood sugar levels and avoid certain fruit and carbohydrates, which sends glucose rushing into the bloodstream, giving you a quick high, but an even quicker fall.”