When menopause hits you will no longer joke about how Krispy Kreme doughnuts go straight to your hips. That’s because they won’t. You’ll be storing fat like a man. Your body will have lost the estrogen supply it needs to direct fat to your hips and buttocks, and will instead store it in your midsection. It’s called “male patterned weight gain”, explains Marcy S. Gregory, M.S. in “Lose the Belly Fat”, a handbook she’s written to help middle aged women get rid of it.

Gregory dedicates her book to a menopausal woman she met in a bagel shop and never forgot. She recalls what happened when the woman, wearing an exercise outfit and appearing to be in her early fifties, learned that Gregory was studying for a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition: “…I was deluged by her despair over her increasing belly fat since menopause, despite regular exercise and attentiveness to nutrition.” Gregory, 45 at the time, didn’t know then what she knows now:

“With menopause, you enter abdominal fat storage mode, no matter how much you weigh. If you eat more than you need to and do nothing to maintain your muscle tissue, which diminishes with age, you will gain weight and you will store it abdominally.”

Gregory has a private practice specializing in helping clients escape an expanding waistline with age and is confident that a woman can avoid taking on the shape of “an apple on toothpicks” when she reaches menopause. “You will want to look pretty and alluring with as flat a stomach as possible – and it can be done!”

Certainly there is no excess fat in Gregory’s explanation of how hormonal imbalances that come with perimenopause and menopause put your body into “abdominal fat storage mode”. She has trimmed the science down to two pages of text and a graphic, not a bit more than you need — an approach not unlike that which she encourages toward food, never a bite more than you need. Although Gregory explains hormones, she doesn’t blame hormones: the blame for your belly fat lies with your tendency to “eat too much too often”.

But your belly fat has a weakness you can exploit: “The good news is that fat stored in the midsection is constantly being recirculated, making it a more accessible fat source than the fat stored in the hips and buttocks. Taking advantage of this physiological function, you can successfully prevent fat from accumulating in your midsection by learning how to make a normal, daily habit of not eating more than you need to get that readily available fat out of storage and into action.”

It is at this point that Gregory’s book develops similarities to other weight management books on the market. Making a daily habit of not eating more than you need is after all the only way to stay slim at any age. Certainly many of the tips Gregory provides can be found in other weight management books. But Gregory packages this information, tweaking it at points, for the niche market of women wanting to avoid the belly fat that arrives with peri-menopause or menopause. And she never takes her focus off one body part: the abdomen.

Don’t eat MORE than you need or MORE often than you need – or it will be stored as abdominal fat.

Portion size, portion size, portion size

Learning to estimate or “eyeball” a standard portion size of any food is, she says, “the most important skill” for battling belly fat. When estimating a portion or serving size of vegetables, she suggests imagining a hockey puck. When you’re serving yourself a piece of meat, chicken or fish, imagine a bar of soap. Gregory never lets you forget the importance of portion size, mentioning it again and again throughout the book. She even devotes one of the just two precious color graphics in the book to a display of commonplace objects — tennis ball, hockey puck, computer mouse, etc. – that you can use to visualize portion sizes in a “real” meal.

The only other color graphic is devoted to the Food Guide Pyramid. You will “appreciate the beauty” of the Food Guide Pyramid, Gregory says, when you’ve mastered the ability to eyeball a portion size and rely on it as a guide to how many portions you “really need”. Gregory sees “sex appeal” where only a nutritionist could see it: in the tip of the food pyramid which offers such extras as olive oil and avocado.

Three squares a day

Gregory believes our parent’s generation had the right idea: three square meals a day. She doesn’t buy into the practice of eating or grazing on “mini-meals” all day. A square meal “in the right portions” – she never lets you forgot to eyeball portion sizes — can easily get you from one meal to the next. And if you get your body moving between meals as well, you will dip into the energy stored as fat around your waist.

Her advice on snacking between meals is simple: “STOP IT”. Eating three square meals and, if you absolutely can’t resist, an occasional nutritious snack, will give you “the beginnings of a sense of control” over food. Control is a theme in the book: getting to the point where you are in control of food, food is not in control of you.

Gregory also advises – in fact this is something she says she “cannot emphasize enough” – developing the habit of leaving the last bite of every meal on your plate. This, along with eyeballing portion sizes, will reinforce the fact that you are in control of food.

And one more thing: “feeling a hunger pang is OK.”

A little fat goes a long way

Making it from one meal to the next without getting hungry will be easier if you add some fat to your meal as fat digests more slowly than carbs and proteins. But Gregory is not on the low fat bandwagon. “If you like real cream cheese, then have it!” she says. “A serving is a serving; it’s the tablespoon size that you want to be able to visualize.” There she goes again ….never missing an opportunity to remind you of the importance of eyeballing portion sizes.

Gregory doesn’t distinguish between healthy fats and unhealthy fats in her sample menus. She gives you the option of using olive oil or butter when preparing the eggs and toast in “BREAKFAST SUGGESTIONS”. Her only stipulation is “Use your eyeballs!” so you don’t take more than a portion size.

Gregory’s menu suggestions don’t have to leave you feeling like Raquel Welch who, when asked by Larry King how she kept her great figure at sixty years of age, responded, “I hardly ever eat anything that tastes good”.

Tostada or Quesadilla: 1 whole wheat or corn tortilla, ½ cup black beans, 1 oz. shredded cheddar cheese, chopped tomato, salsa, 1 tablespoon guacamole or ¼ sliced avocado; soup, 1 cup, beverage.

Sounds tasty to me.

Gregory does apply the term “occasional” for munching on chips, nuts, or cheese and crackers with wine or a cocktail before dinner and suggests restricting these occasions to when you’re socializing, not alone. But if you want a piece of chocolate fudge cake for a birthday or when you’re feeling emotionally low, you won’t find Gregory standing in your way. Her advice is to simply follow her rules of thumb: watch the portion size and leave one bite on the plate.

Gregory has both a “DINING IN GUIDE” and a “DINING OUT GUIDE”. When it comes to dining out, let’s just say there would be no point in dragging her to one of those ‘all you can eat’ restaurants, her being a ‘never eat more than you need’ kind of woman. One suggestion she makes for restaurant dining: share. Share an appetizer, split an entrée, and instead of ordering dessert, take a couple of bites from the dessert of someone willing to share (hopefully that would be the husband with the bulging belly.)

Make physical activity a routine

“If you want to use the energy already stored in your midsection, you have to do something physical every day”, writes Gregory.

You won’t find glossy photos of smiling models in color coordinated outfits demonstrating exercises in this book. This is a no frills, self-published handbook, 47 pages of mostly text outlining just the basics for getting started on new diet and exercise habits.

Gregory uses herself as a role model, outlining her own weekly physical activity routine, ranging from cardio to pilates to ballroom dancing with a reluctant husband.

She includes weight training in her routine too, 30 minutes twice a week. Muscle tissue “uses the food you eat” so the more of it you have, the less likely you are going to be storing the food you eat in the fat tissue around your midsection. Here’s a piece of advice she offers for using weight training to battle belly fat: focus on building a bit of muscle on your arms and buttocks and you will divert the food you eat away from your belly area.

Gregory does recognize that “most people” find it difficult to get started on an exercise program. “Make it fun, keep it easy and grow into it”, she advises. Most importantly, make it a lifestyle.

Relax

If you feel anxious or stressed out, you could end up wearing it on your waistline. Anxiety can cause the release of a fat storage hormone which prevents the release of fat from your midsection — even if you’re restricting yourself to three square meals a day. Looking back to the day she met the despairing menopausal woman in the bagel shop, Gregory says, “I had no idea that anxiety and despair could take their biochemical toll on abdominal weight gain”.

Looking good

Gregory is writing for women who “want to learn how to look your best as you approach menopause”. She makes no mention of the health risks posed by belly fat. But she is certainly aware that they exist. She sent me an excited email last month when a new study was reported in major newspapers – I saw it on the front page of my local Vancouver Sun too – strongly linking belly fat to dementia in later life. Just last month, I also noticed an article in the Vancouver Sun about studies linking belly fat to cardiovascular disease, including the vast “Nurses Study” which found that even women within a normal weight range were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease if they had belly fat.

Regardless of whether you’re motivated to open Gregory’s book by a desire to look better or live longer, you will find no quick fixes here. You must be ready to put effort into developing new habits. But if you’re ready, Lose the Belly Fat is a skinny little handbook that will give you everything you need.

Lose the Belly Fat is published by Booksurge and is available at Amazon

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