Around age 35, a dip in estrogen sounds an alarm to a woman's fat cells. These 30 billion cells, in turn, swell in size, number, and ability to store fat so they can assume the duty of pumping estrogen once her ovaries cease this role during menopause.
What does this mean to you? The fat cells at your waist grow the largest because they're better equipped to produce estrogen than fat cells elsewhere in your body. As a result, pounds may seem to amass around your middle without any appreciable change in your eating habits or exercise routine.
The good news is that the larger and more active your abdominal fat cells become, the more estrogen will be produced -- and the more benefits you'll receive as you enter menopause: fewer hot flashes, milder mood swings, reduced memory loss, improved sleep, less intense PMS, and a lower risk of getting osteoporosis.
Women also add pounds because a middle-aged body doesn't have the energy it had as a teenager. In the stage before menopause, metabolism (the energy furnace that burns calories) slows 10 to 15 percent, says Debra Waterhouse, a registered dietitian and author of the book, Outsmarting the Midlife Fat Cell.
"It's in our biological blueprint," she says. "Your body is programmed in the decade before menopause to add weight and expand at the waist."
But it need not rule or destroy you. You can have some control -- the difference between gaining a few pounds or increasing a few dress sizes. Here are some tips -- on the pages that follow -- from Waterhouse, who has been able to keep a lid on not only her own weight gain but also that of many of her clients.
Keep a food diary and use a measuring cup for three consecutive days to determine exactly how much you're eating, when you overeat, and whether you're driven by hunger or emotions.
Never skip breakfast or lunch. Your metabolism is at full blast before noon -- then it dips 20 to 30 percent by evening. So eat heavier meals earlier in the day, when you're likely to burn anything you eat.
Eat smaller and more frequent meals. Strive for four to six meals a day. By doing so you bypass common mistakes: skipping breakfast, skimping on lunch, and eating everything but the refrigerator door come nighttime.
Make "only a handful" your motto. Try not to eat more than what could fit in the palm of your hand, Waterhouse advises. "By using your hand as your measuring cup, you'll realize that you typically eat twice what you need to satisfy your hunger." This approach may lead you to eat half your sandwich at lunch and the remainder at midmorning or midafternoon.
Forget fat-free. Calories count more than fat, so don't go crazy on the fat-free (and often sugar-laden) goodies. "Any food can be converted and stored as fat." A study at the University of Pennsylvania may reveal why: When yogurt was labeled low-fat, women ate significantly more and consumed more calories.
Listen to your inner voice. "If we're in tune with our bodies, we'll naturally adjust to our lowered metabolism," Waterhouse says. When you're about to eat, ask yourself: "Am I hungry?" If you are truly hungry, food will give you energy and you'll burn those calories. But if you're eating to soothe yourself or socialize, you are most likely eating in excess. "Maybe you need a walk or another way to vent your anger. But you don't need food."
Start strength training. You can reverse your metabolism's decline with weights. The average woman loses 1/2 pound of muscle yearly while gaining 1 1/2 pounds of fat a year after age 35. The end result is 1 pound more on the scale, but an even greater sense of flabbiness. If you lift weights, you can stop muscle loss. All you need is to strength-train twice weekly for a half-hour each time. If you prefer sports to dumbbells, you can get many of the same gains from the stop-and-lift of tennis, racquetball, softball, karate, and gardening.
Hold the line with longer workouts. Combined with strength training, aerobic exercise stimulates the release of fat from your fat cells. But most women need to work out at least 50 minutes nonstop four times a week to see visible results in body fat. "You're negotiating with fat cells to at least give up a little bit of storage fat. That takes time," says Waterhouse. Don't work out so much that you become breathless; you should be able to sing a song.
Drink lots of water. Women going through the transition to menopause are as prone to dehydration as the elderly and burn victims. Drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day -- until your urine is pale in color, Waterhouse says.
Move it to lose it. It may sound clichéd, but nothing could be closer to the truth. Aerobic exercise of moderate intensity four times a week for an hour each session will burn off fat, Waterhouse says. And it doesn't have to be at an Olympic pace. Again, you shouldn't be so breathless you couldn't sing a song.
Take a positive view. Berating yourself or obsessing because you can't fit into your college jeans is not only silly but destructive. "To treat your body well with food and fitness, you have to have a certain respect for your body," Waterhouse says.
Focus on the parts of your body you like best. Besides saying silent affirmations, such as admiring your soft skin, slender hands, or long neck, you should stop putting your life on hold until you lose a certain amount of weight. Adopt a man's mind-set on the matter. "For men, weight is around twelve on the list in important traits, yet for us it's number one," Waterhouse says. "Who we are is more important than what we weigh."
The soy of cooking. Soy is a great health food for women going through the transition of menopause because it is rich in plant estrogens. Though weaker than your body's own estrogen, these phyto, or plant, estrogens may help alleviate menopause symptoms.
To gain health benefits, strive for 30 to 100 milligrams of phytoestrogens a day, the equivalent of 3 ounces of tofu, one glass of soy milk, or 2 tablespoons of soy protein powder. Here are six easy ways to increase phytoestrogens in your diet.