Most people tend to put on weight after 30 years. Here's why it happens and how you can beat the middle age flab.

Just like age, it creeps up on us silently; that extra tyre around the waist, the padding on the hips and the flab on the thighs until one day you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and wonder, “How did this happen?”

Research shows that after the age of 30, our metabolism slows down naturally. This means that our body now requires lesser energy to sustain basic functions like breathing, heart rate. Muscles too start to shrink: since muscles burn calories, our body now burns fewer calories.

At the same time, we are more set in our ways of life; with more resources at our disposal, our lifestyle is very comfortable and convenient. This means we now need fewer calories; any surplus energy will be stored as fat. No wonder it is difficult to escape the middle aged spread.

Research shows that we can beat the get-fat years with sensible changes in our lifestyle.

Change 1: Eat less

Does eating less help fend off weight gain in middle age? Yes. A recent study at the Brigham Young University followed 192 middle-aged women for three years and found that women who do not restrain their eating habits, over time, have more than twice the risk of substantial weight gain. Recent studies prove that since the body's energy requirements progressively decline with age, energy intake must mirror that decrease; otherwise, weight gain occurs! Remember, eating less does not mean dieting or missing meals; it just means eating with control. To begin with:

Put less food on your plate even if it is just a tablespoonful less of each dish you serve.

Eat when you're hungry, not when you are bored. Before putting anything in your mouth, ask yourself: Am I really hungry? If the answer is no, put the food down. If you still eat it anyway, say out loud, “I am not hungry but I am still eating this.”

Eat slowly. This stops you from over-eating.

Avoid second helpings. Serve yourself and keep serving bowls in the kitchen or the side-table.

Push yourself away from the table before you stuff yourself.

Change 2: Eat Right

While trying to eat less, continue to eat a healthy diet low in fats, moderate in protein and high in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Follow the half plate rule. Half of your plate should be filled with carbohydrates and proteins (rice and dal or roti and paneer) and the other half with veggies cooked in minimal oil.

Lay off the white stuff. Sugar, potatoes, bread, pasta, rice and sweets are all simple carbohydrates that mean flab. Instead, opt for complex, high-fibre carbohydrates such as whole grains (chakki-ground atta, multi-grain bread and brown rice), husked (chilka) pulses, high-fibre vegetables (beans, peas, carrots, lotus stem) since the body burns more calories digesting these. Avoid sweets, chocolates, cakes and cookies.

Limit your total fat intake. You need only 2-3 teaspoons of fat as added oil/ghee/butter during the day. Choose healthier methods of cooking such as boiling, grilling, roasting, and steaming.

Also cut down on fat. Say no fast foods; fried foods (chips, nachos, samosas, pakodas and namkeens); butter popcorn; butter/cheese/mayonnaise/rich salad dressings. Switch to toned or even double-toned milk completely.

Eat more vegetables and fruits. Loading your plate with vegetables like spinach, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, cabbage and lettuce automatically means that you are eating fewer simple carbs.

Steam, broil or microwave vegetables to retain the most nutrients. Or sauté them in a little oil quickly over medium heat! Aim to get 4-5 servings a day. (A serving is 1/2 katori of cooked vegetables or 100 gm of raw vegetables.)

Go easy on starchy vegetables including potatoes, sweet potato, colocasia (arbi) raw bananas, and legumes such as peas, which are higher in calories.

Though brimming with nutrients and fibre, fruits contain more natural sugar and calories than vegetables, so don't eat them with abandon. Aim at 2-3 servings a day. (A serving is 100 gm equivalent to one small apple or one small orange).

Avoid high sugar fruits like mangoes, bananas, chikoo, and litchis; fruit juices; and canned/candied fruits.

Change 3: Become Active

You need not run marathons or be a gym freak to be fit. You just have to exercise moderately and regularly, not intensively.

Try brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, playing tennis... anything that causes you to breathe a little harder than normal and causes your heart to beat faster than usual (so that you can just about talk but not sing).

About 30 minutes of such exercise 4-5 days a week is good enough. Research also shows that exercise in several short (10-minute) periods is as effective as exercising at one go. For most of us, walking – and if possible, brisk walking - is the best way of becoming physically active. Walking not only gets us going, it gets us going well into old age.

In addition, experts suggest including some strength training and flexibility exercises for general health. As we grow older, our muscles lose their strength and waste away.

To slow down this process, strength training at least once or twice a week for 10-15 minutes will keep your body toned and your metabolism up. This is because a pound of muscle burns from 35 to 50 calories a day and a pound of fat will burn 2 calories per day. Muscle mass can be built by weight training (lifting weights that are light enough (about 1-2 kg) and exercises where body weight is used as the source of resistance (push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, squats and crunches).

Inactivity also reduces the flexibility of our muscles leading to stiffness of joints. The long, slow stretches of yoga (or tai chi) enhance flexibility, provide psychological relaxation and can be done alone. Experts also recommend flexibility exercises 1-2 times a week for 15-20 minutes.

Stay on your feet

Try to be as active as possible:

Answer the doorbell and telephone (not mobile) yourself. Make your own tea and coffee. Making beds, hanging out clothes to dry, dusting, clearing up the house are great for your health.

During TV commercials, walk in place, climb up and down the stairs, or take a spin around the perimeter of the house.

Running an errand nearby? Walk there instead of taking the car.

Don't fight for parking. Avoid the aggravation of jockeying for a space close to the door and park farther away.

Return your shopping cart to the front of the store instead of leaving it in the parking lot.

In airports, walk around the terminal while waiting for your flight and avoid escalators and moving sidewalks.

Stay active, always

Your activity schedule for overall health should include four days of brisk walking (or swimming or cycling or tennis) for 30-40 minutes a day and 2-3 days of strength building and/or stretching exercise for about 10-15 minutes a day.

The writer, a nutrition and health researcher, is the author of The Power of N: Nutrition in our Times.