Why is it that, when we were teenagers, we used to eat lots of high sugar and junk foods, but never had big bellies? But now, as we reach our 30s, those same foods make us fat?
Let me explain why, after our 30s, we start to slowly put on weight specifically on our bellies, and why it is so hard (but never impossible) to lose it.
- We need less energy, but we tend to eat more and move less so more fat is created and we gain more weight
- Less physical activity
- Food binging for comfort
- Constant high-stress levels that lead to high insulin levels (creating more fat)
- Sleep deprivation makes us feel tired which leads to more hunger signals, fewer satiety signals, and a higher desire to binge on junk food.
Now you know the reasons, let’s look at each one in more detail…
1. We Need Less Energy, But We Eat More…
This will a quick explanation I promise! As a baby, birthweight usually doubles in the first few months, and our body needs a lot of energy to build organs, bones, and body tissue. Because of all this, not much energy is left over so very little fat is created.
As toddlers, we continue to grow, and we don’t care about food. All we want is do is play, run, and do as many different activities as possible. Our parents complain that we can’t stop for a minute, won’t sit still to eat, and we burn crazy amounts of energy every single day.
As a teenager, the growth continues and our organs, bones and other tissues are still growing. In females, growth in height usually stops at 16, while in men it usually stops at around 22. We get all this energy from food. We may eat some junk food and some high sugar foods, but we don’t live for the food we eat. We do a lot of physical activity, some of us played sports, and we all hung out with our friends in and out of school.
Things start to change when we finish school/college and we get a job. We start to spend most of the day seated, driving instead of walking or cycling to get around. Social physical activities are replaced with hanging out in bars and drinking, or at restaurants eating and bingeing on food and booze.
In our 30s we reach our physical peak and our body switches to maintenance mode; no more growing bones and organs to support, plus less physical activity and more eating and drinking. Our bodies need less energy, but that’s when we use food as a way to comfort us.
Also, our stress levels usually increase during this time, meaning more cortisol (the stress hormone) is produced which leads to more insulin. Studies have shown that continued high levels of stress lead to high insulin levels, so more fat is produced, and we gain more weight.
Our bodies needs less energy and yet we often end up eating more, drinking more, and moving less. We store much more energy than we burn. We produce more fat and almost burn no glycogen. This constant eating trend leads to continuously high levels of insulin, and while we have insulin in our blood, we cannot burn glycogen or fat.
First: Track your calories to know how much you’re eating in one day. I use an app called MyFitnessPal. It’s easy and quick to add the different foods we eat during a day. It’s not the most exciting thing to do, but it doesn’t take much time and, by the end of the day, you’ll have a good idea of how many calories you eat.
Second: Reduce your daily calorie intake. Don’t go too crazy; just eat a little less and slowly and steadily increase your calorie restriction.
2. No Physical Activity
Sedentary life doesn’t allow your body to burn off any excess calories, so what we eat is more likely to be stored as fat.
After your 30s…
Driving to work and from work home. Seated at your desk all day
Social life is generally centered around eating or drinking, or binging on both.
“No time” for working out, walking or running.
No time for home cooking so grab-n-go processed high sugar foods make up most of our daily meals.
Celebrations are always around the table and involve eating and drinking – usually to excess.
But there’s still hope and it’s all about us. We have to be accountable for our decisions and only we can decide to change our fate.
Exercise is a great way to burn off extra energy so glycogen levels are depleted and then refilled instead of fat being generated.
3. Food Binging
Getting older means more responsibilities, and that means more worrying, often resulting in frustrations and disillusionment. As life gets tougher, we tend to look for comfort in food, alcohol, cigarettes, and other unhealthy substances.
We know these things don’t fix the problem, but we end up doing them over and over again anyway because, in the short-term, they make us feel better.
Because of this we start to develop addictions, and one of the most common addictions is food. We binge constantly to get a few seconds of pleasure that allows us to forget all our problems, worries and emotions. We get a glimpse of happiness that lasts only a moment and then, once it’s gone, we eat again, and again.
As much as we don’t like to admit it, we have all been there and we will all end-up binging again unless we address the cause of our problems – and that is usually stress.
First: Get rid of all the junk and processed food at home.
Second: Choose feeling better in the long run over the instant pleasure of junk food that is usually followed by tremendous guilt and feeling unwell.
Third: Understand the difference between hunger and cravings. When we are hungry we would happily eat something like five raw carrots. With cravings, you only want that specific food, like ice-cream, cookies etc. and you don’t feel like eating carrots.
4. Constant High-Stress Levels Leads To High Insulin Levels (more fat is created)
When we’re stressed, our bodies get ready to run or fight. Some functions are shut down so we can focus more on other tasks. Glucose is released so we have enough energy to fuel running or fighting.
So, stress doesn’t seem to be really a problem, and it isn’t. The problem is continuously high levels of stress.
When you are stressed, glucose is released so our blood sugar levels increase. We are continually stressed, and our body is constantly releasing energy (glucose) all the time but we are not burning it.
As glucose levels raise in our blood, insulin is produced to remove the excess. Insulin turns glucose into fat and then stores it. If you would like to know more about stress, check my in-depth article How Stress is Making Us Fat.
We need to relax, though that’s easier to say that to actually do, right?
- Meditation: I recently started using Headspace in my morning routine and it’s helped me to not only relax but also to gets me ready for the day. You can download and use it for free. You can choose from 3, 5 or 10-minute meditation sessions. It’s important to add this step to your daily routine otherwise you’ll forget or skip it.
- Exercise: Running (guide here), walking (guide here), home workouts (video here): Exercise helps you stop worrying and reduces your brain activity. It also helps you sleep longer and more deeply.
- Reading: Pick up a book or a magazine you like. This will force you to focus on other things rather than your day-to-day problems and the stuff you have to deal with.
- Writing or journaling: You don’t need to be a writer or write anything beautiful. The process of transferring your thoughts, ideas and emotions from your head to the paper is very relaxing. It gives you perspective and helps to take pressure from your shoulders. Your pen is your friend; use it to make your life easier.
- Listen to music: Don’t multi-task, just listen to music. Pick music you like, stop and listen to the music without doing anything else. Music is inspiring and relaxing. Take a breath and enjoy it.
- 5. Sleep deprivation When we don’t get enough sleep, or we don’t sleep properly, we get tired, easily irritated, impatient, and anxious.
Food gives us energy, but sleep is the other half of the story. Without a good night’s sleep, we don’t have enough energy to get through what is already a long, tiring, and stressful day.
When we are tired we tend to binge on junk food. That’s not just my personal experience, numerous studies have also proven it. Studies show that when we don’t have enough rest we tend to eat more.
A study published in Nature.com shows that sleep-deprived people ate around 385 more calories than their typical daily intake. Study participants craved high fat, high sugar, and processed food.
As we don’t feel good, we try to fix our discomfort with food. Our body calls for energy and we take another bite. It doesn’t matter how much we eat, we continually feel fatigued. We eat more food, but what we really need is a good night’s sleep.
Another study showed that sleep deprivation causes a higher consumption of high-calorie food.
Scientific American writes “Past studies have established that the stress of sleep deprivation puts the autonomic nervous system on alert, leading to increases in the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreases in the satiety hormone leptin”. Meaning that more hunger signals and less satiety signals are produced. This hormone imbalance is the perfect combination for weight gain.
Sleeping routine: Go to bed at the same time every night.
Avoid naps: Power naps can be very handy to give you some energy, but if you’re not sleeping properly at night, napping will probably not help.
Create a nighttime routine: Grab a book before bedtime, listen to some music, write about whatever is on your mind. These things will quieten your mind and slow your thoughts so that your brain activity decreases and you can relax, getting you ready to go to sleep.
Exercise: Again, exercise helps to tire your muscle and give your brain a break from taxing mental tasks and worry. It’s the perfect way to take a break from daily tasks, problems, and upsets. You’ll also sleep better. Just avoid strenuous exercise too close to bedtime as it can be overstimulating.
Good mattress and pillow: This is a sleep changer. My sleeping has changed totally, from insomnia to straight eight hours of good sleep per night. Yes, both of these items are expensive, but see it as an investment in your health. Plus, you will use it every day. If your bed is uncomfortable, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep.
Avoid using your smartphone or tablet in bed: Smartphones and tablets emit light, colors and movement that can be stimulating rather than calming. We also get so excited by all the flashy colors and pictures that we quickly wake-up instead of going to sleep.
A Quick note before we finish
Losing weight in your 30s will take time and discipline, but it can be done. We can only achieve our goals when we make some big lifestyle changes.
Choose long-term happiness instead of instant food pleasures.
Choose to enjoy a book, writing, or listening to music over food binging.
Focus on your goals and avoid the temptations of instant gratification and immediate pleasure.
Doing these things will be harder than eating junk food or watching TV, and they won’t produce such a big spike of instant pleasure, but it’s a growing and steady state of happiness that delivers blissful moments every single day.
Experience, fail, and try again. Once the benefits start to kick in, you will get all the motivation you need to keep on going through the hard days.
How Can We Burn Belly Fat?
- Low insulin levels: to allow burning fat
- Burn energy: First glycogen is burned and only then do we start to burn fat
- Diet: Prepare your own food, avoid junk food
- Reduce stress
- Improve sleep quality and duration