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How to fight the fat after 40

TURNING 40 means developing a ring of fat around the middle for many women -- which, let's face, it isn't the best look in jeans or a dress. Dr Pamela Peeke believes this fat is caused by soaring stress levels which can affect a woman's ability to burn calories.

In her New York Times bestseller Fight Fat After Forty, the American nutritionist dishes up tips based on her three years of research into the link between stress and a declining metabolism and fat.

She says: "Fuel up in the morning by eating breakfast. Have a satisfying lunch, then taper down your eating as evening approaches."

So if you're wondering how the likes of Carol Vorderman (51), Gwen Stefani (42), Catherine Zeta-Jones (42) and Liz Hurley (46) keep so fit, maybe they're following some of Dr Peeke's tips!

You're not the woman you once were

A 40-year-old woman has a different body than 10 years earlier (tell us something we don't know, you say!).

This is because a woman's metabolism declines at the rate of at least 5pc per decade of life, starting at the age of 20, due to the natural loss of muscle mass with age.

Crucially, the lower your muscle mass, the fewer calories you're able to burn. So for example, if you consumed 2,000 calories a day when you were 20 and were a size 12, to have any chance of remaining the same size at age 45, you will need to be consuming at least 300 fewer calories a day.

Many of us, however, continue eating the same number of calories a day from age 20 to 45, which explains why we're somewhere between 30lb to 50lb heavier.

Keeping a food diary is the best way to go about changing your eating habits. Write down what you eat each day so you have a clear idea of when you are over-doing it. Watch out for what you may be eating when you're depressed or sad, or even happy.

Get stressed, get eating = get fat

Unless you stay under the duvet, there's no way to avoid the chaotic lifestyle that is part and parcel of being 40 and over -- juggling your children, ageing parents, and working life. So it's understandable if you pop the odd chocolate in your mouth to help you cope with the stress.

And to add to your load, this is also a time when hormones start flooding your body, causing mood swings and intense food cravings.

Unfortunately, much of the weight gained during this decade gathers around your waist. Too much weight accumulated around the middle in middle age is dangerous because it places a woman at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

One way to avoid this problem is to learn which stressors push your buttons -- and how to avoid eating mindlessly throughout the day. Instead of consuming a bar of chocolate, stop and ask yourself what is upsetting you and what steps you can take to resolve the problem.

Move yourself

It's recommended that a woman over 40 should do 45 minutes of exercise five or six days a week. If possible, this exercise should be broken into 10-minute slots.

Walking works well for most women, as it can be done anywhere and at any time -- and it burns calories and reduces stress.

If you like cycling, start cycling to work or to visit your family. If time is an issue, do simple things such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, and moving and stretching for two to three minutes as often as you can.

Strength or weight training will go a long way to maintaining muscle mass and combined with aerobic exercise, it will boost your midlife metabolism.

Set weight-loss targets and give yourself a reward when they are reached.

Snacking is out to get you

Snacking in the late afternoon and evening is one of the biggest contributors to stress-related weight gain in a woman over 40. Craving snacks happens because levels of the stress hormone cortisol plummet and tiredness sets in after 3pm.

Many of us reach for foods high in sugar or gulp coffee for a quick energy rush -- cue weight gain around the middle. One way to avoid calorific snacking is to plan your menu choices in case your energy begins to wane in the late afternoon.

Stick to foods which don't cause your body any stress such as wholegrain bread, skimmed milk, vegetables and fruit.

Meanwhile, try to organise your day so that you have fewer stressful projects and intellectual challenges after 3pm.

What's with the big portions?

It's sad but true, that a declining metabolism in a woman over 40 means she has to eat less if she wants to maintain a slim figure.

One suggestion is using a smaller dinner plate, which may fool you into thinking you're getting more than you actually are, and so stop you from overeating. Never skip your five-a-day, however, and be cautious when it comes to filling up on foods with processed and refined sugars -- sweets and pastries, pasta, rice and bread.

Be wise, and instead of eating a whole box of low-calorie biscuits, eat a couple of real biscuits as an occasional treat.

Basically, stop filling your plate up so much!

Giving in is not an option

Unless you want to get fat that is. If you are someone who starts eating when life gets tough, then you are facing a future as an overweight woman -- and a woman who never gets to wear the clothes she wants or a bikini on the beach.

It's about prioritising yourself. It's about when things get tough on the homefront or at work, remembering that you owe it to yourself to make time to exercise and eat healthily and have some downtime.

Fight Fat After Forty: How to Stop Being a Stress Eater and Lose Weight Fast, by Pamela Peeke, published by Piatkus, price €17.15