It used to be that middle-aged spread was just that: a noticeable surge in weight gain around midlife. But a new study has revealed that this could now be a 30something spread, with people getting fatter younger than ever before.
Scientists from the University of California looked at the BMI of 65,000 people in four separate studies going back to before 1905 to see how weight has changed over the years – and found that this generation is getting wider, younger. For people born between 1955 and 1959, for example, the average 20-something BMI was 24.4, which is a healthy weight. But for people born between 1980 and 1984, the scientists found they were, on average, a healthy weight as teens, but overweight in their 20s and obese in their 30s.
Dr Giles Yeo, principal research associate at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, University of Cambridge, claims that this generational increase in weight gain has nothing to do with genetics. "Our genes have not changed from 1905 until now," he says. "The changes are driven ultimately from the environment – our lifestyle, social economic factors and the food environment."
Dr Yeo explains that "this is not a straightforward calorie issue. Records show we ate more in the past, but the types of food we’re eating now are very different and this affects the way we absorb calories."
Cost of food is also a factor. "Teenagers have always been energetic and a bottomless pit when it comes to eating, but they’re now able to buy cheaper food, which is often ultra-processed", such as fast food, crisps or chocolate. "And if you end up with obesity when you’re young, the likelihood of keeping the weight gain on is high."
Christina Marriott, CEO of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) agrees that "obesity is an area where prevention is much better than cure so we should do all we can to prevent the next generations being blighted by overweight and obesity". Here’s how to start addressing it:
In your teens and twenties
To stop 30-something spread in its tracks, society needs to urgently address the problem of obesity in the young: Marriott points out that "children’s exposure to junk food, including the targeting of offers at school gates and along routes to schools", can be a major issue. As can the fact "we’re moving a lot less nowadays because we no longer do manual labour", says Dr Yeo. "Young people should also be educated better about food, know where it comes from, and how to eat healthier. We also need to fix the environment around schools and stop fast food places parking around their buildings."
In your thirties
As work and childcare commitments pile up, focus can drift, too, from eating sensibly – many parents report finishing off children’s leftovers, or eating late at night when they’ve gone to sleep, which can reduce the amount of time needed for food to digest. This is also when dwindling metabolism makes itself known. It begins to slow as we age, meaning we might still imagine we have the metabolism of a teenager (and eat like one) when this is no longer the case.
Pregnancy and disturbed sleep can also cause metabolic rate to slow, which may cause weight gain in 30something women.. This, coupled with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles – heightened all the more by sitting at a desk all day – can make staving off excess weight more of a challenge than for previous generations.
In your forties
For the sandwich generation, juggling teens with ageing parents as well as financial pressures and other big life events such as house moves, career changes, divorce and bereavements can see focus on keeping waistlines in check slip away. Hormones are changing, too - as progesterone levels drop, oestrogen becomes more dominant which is stored in our fat, triggering the dreaded middle-aged spread.
We also become more resistant to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. When cells absorb food less well, it makes the brain think you’re hungry, and you may end up eating more calories than required: by combining protein, fat and carbohydrates at every meal, feelings of fullness should last longer, helping to reduce sugar cravings or the temptation to overconsume.
This is important because muscle mass – the main way the body burns calories – begins to decrease at this stage, too. Experts recommend strength or weight training two to four times a week in order to retain lean muscle mass, and keep bones and joints healthy as we age.
In your fifties
A report published during the pandemic found that 50-somethings were the cohort most likely to binge drink, with one in four believed to be either high risk or dependent on alcohol, according to the study of 1,150 adults – an increase of 17 per cent since 2017. "In your 50s there needs to be more days in the week where you exercise and don’t drink alcohol than those that you do," says Hannah Richards, nutritionist and author of The Best Possible You (thegutclinic.net).
"Alcohol affects your metabolic function and dumbs down your sleep and energy levels, so think about what drinking one night makes you do the next day.
"It will make you eat more and move less, which will trouble your digestion, so start to limit it more than you already do.’"
The need to keep our muscle mass topped up past 50 is key, adds registered nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr (clarissalenherr.com), who says we must "make sure to get in protein at every meal... Muscle helps to burn more calories and builds muscle mass, a predictor of good health as you age".
In your sixties-plus
Even if energy levels feel low at this stage of life, avoid eating microwaved meals in front of the TV. "Think about developing new hobbies such as playing tennis, golf, bridge to keep your activity levels up and make sure you’re looking after yourself by eating at a table, laughing and getting into bed before you’re tired," suggests Richards. "This way you’re creating a solid foundation for all the systems in your body to work effectively."
The gym may not be appealing to all people of this age, but undertaking household tasks can have a huge effect on fitness, too.
Studies have shown that half an hour tending to the garden equates to playing badminton for the same period, or undertaking a yoga session. For those in need of a lower-impact means of burning calories, some pruning might well do the trick.