For many adults, there comes a time in their lives when the things they used to do to shift body fat no longer work. There will be others still whose bodies once naturally burned body fat without them having to do much at all. Regardless, it can be incredibly frustrating, and many women, in particular, share with me that it feels like their bodies have betrayed them. It hasn’t though.
While it may feel like the opposite, our body believes it is doing us a great big favour by laying down and holding onto body fat. And it is responding to messages we have unwittingly been communicating to it, most likely for a number of years.
So how do we avoid this? The following are some solutions that also explain why body fat commonly increases during midlife – but that’s not the way it has to be.
Build and maintain muscle mass
There are tiny cellular organelles in the body called mitochondria which are responsible for the production of energy derived from the breakdown of the food you eat. Muscle contains the highest mitochondrial content of any tissue in your body. Yet, from the age of 30, unless you actively build muscle mass, you lose it.
Muscle mass typically accounts for around a third of total body weight and a quarter of your body’s metabolic activity. In contrast, body fat usually accounts for at least 20% of your body weight (and more for too many people these days) but only 5% of metabolic activity. Your ratio of muscle to fat mass therefore greatly impacts your metabolic rate. So, embrace resistance training to build muscle mass. This doesn’t mean you need to start lifting weights if you don’t enjoy it. Activities like Pilates and yoga will use your body weight or springs as resistance. The likes of gardening, walking, carrying children or groceries and climbing stairs will all contribute to building muscle as well.
Minimise the production of stress hormones
These days, it’s common to approach everything in life with urgency. Add regular coffee consumption to this and you have a recipe for the ongoing and relentless production of stress hormones.
The persistent presence of stress hormones has a significant impact on whether the body will burn or store body fat. Your two main stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol and, without unpacking them both in detail, it is cortisol—the long-term stress hormone — which has the biggest impact on body-fat levels.
Biochemically, cortisol has been linked to periods of food scarcity (think droughts or wars). With the presence of cortisol, your body thinks food will run out soon and, wanting to keep you alive, instructs muscles to be broken down and switches to fat-storing mode to preserve energy and sustain you through the food shortage. Often, when people begin to notice their clothes getting tighter, they restrict their food intake, not realising that this is only reinforcing what the body believes — that food is scarce. While cortisol is elevated, the body will resist burning body fat. So, for many, reducing stress hormones is a major key to preventing or addressing increases in body fat in middle age.
There are numerous ways you can reduce stress hormones in the body: meditation, slow diaphragmatic breathing, incorporating more restorative practices, medicinal herbal support, prioritising sleep and increasing nourishment will all make a major difference. Yet, by far the most effective (and probably challenging) is to explore your perceptions of pressure and urgency and all the thoughts that drive a stress response in your body.
This is something I unpack in great detail with those who join me for my nine-week online course for women, the last one of which for 2021 starts on October 11. Beyond just focusing on body-fat levels, we explore your thoughts and emotions, which can have a ripple effect on every other aspect of your life and overall happiness. I can’t emphasise enough how powerful it is.
Love your liver
When it comes to every aspect of your health and wellbeing, the liver packs an almighty punch. Most people don’t think about the role the liver plays in the perpetuation of so many challenging symptoms. Its primary role is detoxification, an often-misunderstood process. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing you need to do to “detox” your body — your liver does this for you day in, day out. However, you can support or “load up” your detoxification pathways with your lifestyle choices, and it is the latter that can lead to body-fat levels creeping up over time.
A helpful way to picture what occurs is this: when the liver has more problematic substances coming to its doors than it can manage, it has a backup system that releases partially detoxified substances back into the bloodstream. If the gridlock continues, these substances will be stored in body fat, which is deemed safer than having them flowing around the body in the blood. Until the liver has the space to deal with these substances, the body tends to resist burning this body fat as this would result in these problematic substances re-entering the bloodstream.
You can prevent (or address) body-fat storage linked to the liver’s load by supporting the detoxification pathways. Whole real food, particularly bitter plants like leafy greens and other colourful vegetables, provide the nutrients your liver-detoxification pathways need to function effectively. Minimise your intake of “liver loaders”, which include refined sugar, alcohol, trans fats (found in processed foods and takeaways) and synthetic substances (such as artificial ingredients found in packaged foods and cosmetics) to reduce the load on your liver.
Nutritional biochemist Dr Libby Weaver (PhD) is a 13-times bestselling author and speaker. Inspired by her best-selling book, Accidentally Overweight, Dr Libby is running a nine-week online course, starting on the 11th of October 2021, which provides education, guidance and tuition to help people solve their weight loss puzzle. For more information go to drlibby.com/courses