And while lack of exercise and eating too much are two obvious causes – surprisingly, stress can be a factor too. I re-researched this subject this week as when I put on weight, it mostly goes to my middle (and bust), giving me the classic apple shape and a waistline way over what is considered ideal for low disease risk.
Stress and belly fat certainly resonated with me. I'm just emerging from several months when life events and overwork reduced me to a constant state of anxiety, panic, insomnia, mild low mood and various psychosomatic symptoms. And while I have been so stressed out, both my sugary food intake and my belly increased – quite rapidly, to my horror.
Apparently, when you're under a lot of stress, your body produces more of the hormone cortisol, which appears directly to influence food intake by binding to receptors in the brain. It can also influence leptin levels (mentioned here two weeks ago) and can lead to low blood sugar, all of which causes sugar cravings. And should you not be able to burn these sugary calories off with exericise and/or your daily lifestyle, they quickly convert into fat which mainly settles around you midriff. The reason this fat – called visceral fat - is so unhealthy is that it clings to your internal organs rather than being the healthier sort insulating your limbs.
And that's why – especially considering the latest news that 3.2 million of us in the UK now have diabetes (mostly type 2), plus nearly another million probably going undiagnosed, and figures rising by over 20% in just seven years – it's vital to try to lick that belly into shape. Even more so in 'middle age'. USA figures show three times as many people between 45 and 64 have diabetes than younger adults*.
In order to try to get my stress levels down I have a multi-pronged strategy. Tackling the sleep problems back in January was a start and it's working well. I'm also two weeks into a six-week course of St John's Wort, the herbal remedy that's been found to work as well in mild cases of depression as prescription drugs and it really does work for me, not particularly for depression as I don't think I'm actually depressed, but for calming anxiety. I tried it once before several years ago, with no side effects, when I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and at the end of the six weeks came off it with no problems at all.
I've also got a new rule to avoid my home office at the weekends, get out and enjoy a laid-back life a little more with Husband, do more reading for leisure (how many books did I read last year …. ONE!, and I used to read one a week...).
And at last my sweet cravings are diminishing. As someone who's never been a sweet-toother, it was baffling to find myself roaming the house looking for sweet remnants leftover from the festive season. One day I even found my hands, seemingly of their own accord, ripping open a past its sell-by date ready-made Christmas pudding and eating it like a chocolate bar, then going back for more before I went to bed. Now I'm almost as happy with a few healthy nuts, so that's progress.
I'm also taking magnesium supplements to help relax my muscles. They certainly seem to have improved the state of my up-tight lower back and hips so I've just begun exercising again, thank goodness – a known stress antidote.
By no means have all the issues making me stressed out and fat completely disappeared but I'm most definitely finding it easier to cope, and to eat less. Maybe I'm not just weak-willed after all.
Ate last night:
Pork and peppers with beansprouts
Many people believe pork is a high-fat, high-saturates food, but a lean cut is lower in fat than most other meats and a great source of protein and nerve-calming B vitamins. So to serve two, I thinly sliced around 300g lean leftover pork roast and marinaded it in low-salt soya sauce and 1 tsp Chinese Five Spice for 15 minutes. I stir-fried green sweet peppers, sugar snap peas and broccoli in groundnut oil until softened and lightly coloured, then added 2 tsp each minced ginger and garlic, the juice of a small lime, a dash of both runny honey and chilli pepper sauce, 2 tbsp of leftover home-made pork gravy, a few cashew nuts, the pork, some beansprouts and stirred for a minute. Healthy, quick, easy, and satisfying.