Busting belly fat has never been an easy process. The bad news: It only gets harder as you get older. Hormone changes conspire against your good intentions. Chances are you're less active than you were in your 20s and 30s. You're also fighting history, says Tonia Reinhard, course director for clinical nutrition at the School of Medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit. "There was a time when older people with a slightly higher weight and more abdominal fat had a higher life expectancy," she says. The thinking goes that our ancestors ate more than necessary whenever possible as a way of storing energy for the very real possibility of future periods of famine. Clearly we don't need that genetic programming today, but it's still there.
The good news: Your midsection is not a lost cause. There are a host of foods that go a long way toward burning belly fat. Switching up and/or trying some new exercises to work the deeper abdominal muscles can bring about noticeable results, too. But before we get to the nitty-gritty, it's helpful to have a better idea of why watching our waistline goes beyond the aesthetic.
What's wrong with a few extra inches anyway? Plenty, according to an international research team led by the Mayo Clinic's James Cerhan, MD, PhD. In a recent review of 11 global studies on more than 600,000 people, Cerhan and his team found that larger waistlines corresponded to higher mortality risks. A man who has a 43-inch waist, for example, has a life expectancy after age 40 that is about three years lower than a fellow who zips into a size 35. And a woman whose waist measures 37 inches has a five-year lower life expectancy after age 40, compared to a woman with a 27-inch waist. For every 2 inches you add to your belt, your mortality risk climbs about 7 percent in men and about 9 percent in women.
It's worth noting that those findings held true even for those with a body mass index (BMI) that falls within the normal range. That's because BMI measures don't distinguish between lean mass and fat mass — nor do they indicate where you carry your extra weight load. Doctors worry much more about larger midsections than, say, thighs or arms because belly fat (medically known as visceral fat) is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and gallstones, and is a risk factor for bone loss. Women who gain weight can also increase their risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.
The stubborn side of middle-aged spread. Crunches, calorie counting and multiple New Year's resolutions can't equal the powerful punch biology is aiming out our midsections. The connection between midlife weight gain and hormonal changes is strong: In women, a drop in estrogen prompts the body to shift fat more to our bellies. In men, lower testosterone leads to a rise in body fat and a drop in muscle mass. And for both sexes, an increase in the stress hormone cortisol signals the body to store more fat around the midsection.
"There are six to eight hormones that affect the body's ability to burn fat," says J.J. Smith, author of "Six Ways to Lose Belly Fat Without Exercise!" If one or more are out of balance, she says, you'll feel it physically or emotionally, "But you probably won't know to say, Oh, my hormones are out of balance, that's why I've gained all this weight."
Smith encourages adults in their 40s and 50s to ask their doctors about getting their hormones checked. In many cases, simple changes to your eating habits, exercising more and making sleep a priority can help restore a balance. Your doctor also might recommend other medical treatments for a suspected hormone imbalance.
Change your diet. While calorie counting continues to be an important tool to shedding pounds, Reinhard says it's important to remember that not all calories are equal. An 80-calorie cookie is far different from an 80-calorie serving of plain fat-free Greek yogurt with fresh fruit stirred in.
"The best thing adults over 40 can do for themselves is try hard to not gain weight as they get older," says Reinhard, author of "Superfoods: The Healthiest Foods on the Planet." The easiest way to do that is to know your food, meaning you know how to read and interpret food labels, and to eat nutrient-dense, not nutrient-poor, foods.
"Think about your food choices as you would your electronics choices," she says. "With electronics you want to pay the least amount you can for the most features. It's the same with food: When you give up calories, make sure you're getting the most nutrients back."
To target belly fat, build your snacks and meals around vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. The lean protein will help you hold onto your muscle mass, which is important to keep your metabolism on the higher side. And be sure to include foods that are high in monounsaturated fats (often referred to as MUFAS), such as avocados, nuts and seeds, and olive oil, which have been shown to help burn fat. As you begin to read food labels, look for double digits in the "% Daily Value" column, since higher percentages tend to be markers for a nutrient-dense food.
Try new moves. As much as you want to focus on your abs, sit-ups alone won't get you very far. Instead, spend your time doing head-to-toe workouts that promote a higher all-day calorie burn and that safeguard your muscle mass. Resistance moves — even if you're just using your body's own weight — can build new muscle, which in turn increases your metabolism. Twice a week try to make time to do some squats, lunges, overhead and shoulder presses, and planks.
For cardio, you can't beat a simple power walk — fast and far enough to break a sweat. If you're already doing that and still staring at a muffin top, challenge yourself to an HIIT (that stands for high intensity interval training) walking workout. These workouts have been shown to burn more calories and fat in less time. Here the idea is to combine short segments of very high-intensity effort with recovery periods of low effort. The beauty is that you can pick the interval lengths. Try, for example, 30 seconds of all-out hoofing it followed by 1 to 3 minutes of walking at an easy or moderate pace; repeat 10 times. If walking isn't your thing, you can apply the HIIT method to whatever you do enjoy — swimming, biking, punching a boxing bag, even dancing.