Why a Bit of Belly Fat is a Good Thing

belly_fat.jpgBelly fat is the trendy new “no no” for women—everybody’s talking about it. But I beg to differ. For a menopausal woman, a little bit of belly fat is natural, healthy and put there for a purpose, which is to make estrogen. I understand perfectly well how much we would all like to maintain that youthful slim profile, but aging gracefully may well mean that we surrender to some belly fat.

I’m not talking about a flabby fat-laden, carbohydrate-and-high insulin-induced belly that creates multi-layerd muffin tops; or a pregnancy-like bloated constipation belly; or the low pooch of a high cortisol stress-induced belly; I’m talking about the normal roundness of belly that comes with middle age and menopause, that’s nearly impossible to get rid of, even with diet and exercise.

As we approach our 50s, the ovaries wind down their production of progesterone and estrogen, but they keep making androgens (male hormones) well into our 70s. Belly fat converts androgens into estrogen, in both men and women. (Which is why men with a lot of belly fat start to look, well… feminine.)

Although excessive estrogen can predispose women to breast and uterine cancer, the amount created by a little menopausal belly fat is often just enough to maintain good skin tone, keep the brain clicking, create some vaginal lubrication and encourage bone maintenance. It’s the thin menopausal woman with a flat belly who is most likely to have hot flashes, wrinkles, brain fog, vaginal dryness and thinning bones.

The “Blue Zone” episodes on Oprah showcased cultures worldwide with the longest-lived and healthiest populations. These vignettes of rural mountain communities focused primarily on thin, muscular old men who had spent their lives working outside. The old women were there in the background and while their arms were thin and muscled, they were universally thick around the middle.

I did some research on body weight and death rates in older women. Sure enough, it’s well established that once you’re menopausal, falling into the “overweight” category reduces your risk of death. Again, it’s important to make the distinction between overweight and obese. At any age, obesity will increase your risk of dying.

I agree that if you’re 30 or even 40 and have significant belly fat, that’s unhealthy and is probably due to poor diet and lack of exercise. But a bit of a belly in a menopausal woman is undoubtedly a feature of healthy aging.