Wild City // Wise around the middle

I am 56 years old. I ponder how it is that in mid-life we gain weight around the middle. Guys get bellies, women go soft around the waist. Our metabolism slows as we grow older, and we slow, making weight gain feel inevitable.

After I set up housekeeping with my husband back in 1996, I put on those mid-life pounds. I had gone through a couple of especially lean years just before we got together. Living off savings so I could write, I was very careful about my grocery purchases. Back then I ate tofu and beans, a lot of simple stir-fries, and few sweets.

I had the look of a skinny vegetarian, my husband says, and he was greatly relieved to find out I was not one. The first meal he made for me (he likes to cook) was barbequed ribs over the grill.

That summer day he, his roommate, and I sat around the patio table and commenced to eat our dinner. I’m not sure what did it: the two years of avoiding fatty protein, the juiciness of my husband’s company or his own lusty approach to eating, but I tucked into my grub as though I had never tasted anything so good.

He and his roommate ate their 
fill and then pulled their chairs 
closer to watch me savor rib after charred, sauce-covered rib. In the end, the biggest stack of bones stood on my plate.

After that feast I pulled up on the reckless abandon when it came to eating, but I have certainly “grooved my grits,” as my husband puts it, in the years since.

Then a couple of years ago I got interested in fitness. I saw a trainer at the gym who told me I needed to lose 16 pounds. This shocked me. It is strange how we can put our own middles out of our minds.

I began doing Pilates, biking and taking long walks. Of course, all this made me hungry. Instead of losing weight, I gained a little. I am told I’ve probably replaced some fat pounds with muscle pounds. But still.

I decided in this new year to try a different approach to food. I have an incentive. I am thinking about participating in a 100-mile bike ride to raise money for cancer research. This will be a huge challenge, given that my longest ride so far has been a 37 miler.

Training starts in May for this September ride. When you are training, what you eat matters in a very immediate way. You need energy, so you think more about food as fuel. Eating healthy doesn’t feel like deprivation to me, so that won’t be a problem. It is the amount I eat that needs adjusting. Extra weight can slow you down.

I read somewhere that if you cup your two hands together, as if around a small ball, that is how big your stomach is. That is the amount you are to eat at a sitting. Though I’ve known this, I’ve ignored it.

This month, with my new approach, I am trying to become attuned to what “hungry” and “full” really mean to me. I’ve not been denying myself food: if I feel hungry, I eat a little. If I want something in particular, I have a little of it. But I have been trying to eat less overall, and to eat mindfully. I try to remember to eat slower, to taste each bite, and to notice how my body reacts to what I have eaten. This is, of course, a work in progress.

Insights so far: I have been nervous about letting myself feel hungry. It has been reassuring to be overfull, perhaps due to some more generalized insecurity about not having enough. When I eat a little less, I feel better, and have more energy. Whether or not I am actually lighter, I feel lighter, and more agile.

In my middle years, when I’ve eaten that second helping, or that snack, its been to sustain the little roll around my middle. I have known that, but felt helpless to stop it. I have sensed that my soft middle has really wanted to be there.

I wonder if there is an unconscious reason for its persistence. Paul Simon sings: “Why am I soft in the middle, The rest of my life is so hard.” By mid-life most of us are a swirl in complexities — family issues, relationship issues, health issues, jobs. It is tempting to lean in with your shoulder and push when things get hard, but what works better, in nearly every case, 
I believe, is instead to soften.

Maybe our wise middle-aged bodies simply try, with a visual image, to convey to us that message. Once we get it, our middles just might release us.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.