As we age, our metabolism slows down. Even in our late 20s and early 30s, many women begin noticing that the diet and exercise regime that once kept them slim no longer works like it used to.
Yet during perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause, maintaining a healthy weight can become more of a challenge than ever before. Suddenly, we’re piling on the pounds and no longer able to fit into our jeans.
But menopause-related weight gain doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of aging. With the right strategies, you can beat the battle of the bulge and remain fit and healthy before, during, and after menopause.
What Causes Menopausal Weight Gain?
Several factors contribute to weight gain during menopause.
Both men and women are prone to weight gain as they age. This is partly due to a slowing metabolism and partly due to age-related loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia.
The process of sarcopenia begins as early as our 30s, but this muscle loss accelerates after menopause, around the age of 60 and above.
Hormones are another major contributing factor to weight gain in women during menopause. Estrogen has been shown to inhibit food intake. It works by blocking the body’s hunger signals. But during perimenopause and menopause, our estrogen levels start to plummet, and this appetite-suppressing effect disappears.
A lack of estrogen also alters the way we gain weight in menopause. Younger women tend to gain weight in their hips and thighs. However, once estrogen begins to decline, any new weight gain tends to settle around our middle.
Alongside muscle loss and hormonal changes, many women become increasingly sedentary as they age. They might stop playing sports or going to the gym and spend more time sitting still. This lack of activity, combined with slowing metabolism and shifting hormones, makes weight gain tricky to avoid.
What Are the Potential Risks of Weight Gain During Menopause?
Menopausal weight gain tends to settle around our midsection. But this type of visceral belly fat comes with some serious health consequences. Having a waist circumference of more than 35 inches raises the risk of developing heart disease.
Heart disease is particularly concerning for menopausal women. That’s because estrogen, which has heart-protecting properties, declines dramatically during menopause. This leaves us more vulnerable to developing cardiovascular complications.
But a high BMI doesn’t just spell bad news for your heart. As the number on the scale creeps up, so does the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Belly fat causes insulin resistance, a condition that makes it harder for your body to respond to insulin. If left unchecked, insulin resistance can lead to prediabetes and diabetes.
Alongside the serious health complications above, being overweight or obese can make your menopausal journey more difficult. The more excess weight you carry, the more difficult the symptoms of menopause are likely to be.
Obese women tend to suffer more from hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and insomnia. But the good news is that losing weight during menopause reverses the pattern. Women who drop pounds also see a drop in the severity of their symptoms.
How to Control Weight Gain During Menopause
It becomes much easier to gain weight during menopause. But there are several ways to minimize the damage.
Diet is the single biggest contributing factor to weight gain. If you’re eating too much of the wrong type of foods, you are fighting a losing battle, no matter how much you move.
As we age, our calorie requirement goes down. In fact, menopausal women need 45% fewer calories than women in their 20s.
If you’re fairly sedentary, aim for around 1600 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight. If you’re trying to lose weight, it takes a 500-calorie-a-day deficit to lose 1 pound per week.
But it’s not all about calorie counting. Eating the right types of food, and avoiding the wrong ones, is the true key to success.
So, what does a healthy menopause diet look like?
- Low sugar
Sugar is the driving force behind weight gain and obesity. It’s also the leading cause of many chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
So, if you’re trying to lose weight or avoid gaining excess fat during menopause, reducing your sugar intake should be your number one priority.
But you don’t have to eliminate your sweet tooth entirely. Try baking craving-satisfying treats with natural sweeteners like erythritol and stevia, which are healthier alternatives to sugar.
- Real food
Avoid pre-packaged and processed foods as much as possible. Instead, opt for real, nutrient-rich, wholesome, home-cooked foods.
- Healthy fats
Research shows that eating a diet laden with trans and saturated fats accounts for almost a pound of additional weight each year.
But fat itself isn’t the enemy. Consuming the same amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, aka ‘healthy fats, ’ isn’t associated with a rise in weight. In fact, these types of fats help control cholesterol and protect the health of your heart.
Foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut butter, avocados, nuts, seeds, and oily fish.
- The Mediterranean diet
There are countless diets out there, and many of them can be effective in helping you to lose unwanted weight. But one of the most popular and well-researched diets for weight loss and health is the Mediterranean diet.
This way of eating avoids processed foods. Instead, the focus is on a rich variety of phytonutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, seafood, chicken, eggs, and whole grains.
- Plenty of protein
Lean muscle mass naturally decreases during menopause. But the more lean muscle you have, the faster your metabolism works. So, eating a diet rich in muscle-building protein can help you stay slim.
Research suggests that women should eat between 0.8 and 1.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight every day.
- Less alcohol
Drinking more than one 4-ounce glass of wine per day can see your waistline expand. Alcoholic drinks are packed with empty calories and sugar, making them a fast track to weight gain.
- Stay hydrated
Remember to drink plenty of water, around 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) per day. Replacing sugar-laden drinks with water can help to stave off hunger and reduce cravings. Some research even suggests that drinking water helps you to burn more calories.
Getting plenty of exercise is crucial during menopause. Not only does it help you lose weight by burning calories and building lean muscle, it also keeps your heart healthy and boosts your mood.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week for women during menopause. This includes activities like brisk walking, swimming, and cycling. If you prefer more vigorous workouts, such as running or going to an aerobic exercise class, aim to fit in at least 75 minutes per week.
The best way to make sure you get enough exercise is to find an activity that you enjoy. This way, you’re much more likely to make it part of your routine.
So, try a yoga class, hit the local cycling trails, or take up tennis with a friend. Find a sport or hobby that gets your heart rate up and keeps you coming back for more.
Get your family and friends on board
Make sure your family and friends know that you’re trying to make a positive change to lose weight and become healthier. Ask them to help you by encouraging you to stay active and eat well. And if you have a partner or friend who also wants to lose a few pounds, why not buddy up and embrace a new healthier lifestyle together?
Not everyone, no. But it’s certainly a common phenomenon. Research shows that the average woman gains around 5 pounds weight during menopause.
Women who gain weight during menopause typically start to notice the scale creeping up a few years before their periods stop during perimenopause. This is when hormonal fluctuations begin, and keeping a healthy BMI becomes more of a challenge.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is sometimes prescribed to help alleviate the bothersome symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes and night sweats.
But it can also help with weight loss, too. One study showed that women who take HRT carried 3 less pounds of fat than those who didn’t. They also scored lower on the BMI scale.
However, HRT isn’t for everyone. It comes with an increased risk of side effects, including stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer. So, it should only be used as a last resort.
If you’ve gained weight during menopause, remember that you’re not alone. Many women find that the number on the scale creeps up as they go through this transitional time.
Menopausal weight gain is common, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable or permanent. If you stick to a healthy and nutritious diet and keep your body moving, you can shave off the extra pounds and go through menopause as the happiest and healthiest version of yourself.
- Sex hormones, appetite and eating behaviour in women
- Impact of hormone replacement therapy on the body mass and fat compositions of menopausal women: a cross-sectional study
- Obesity and weight management at menopause
- How much water should you drink? Your guide to knowing if you are drinking enough.
- ARE YOU GETTING ENOUGH PROTEIN DURING PERIMENOPAUSE AND MENOPAUSE?
- The Mediterranean diet and menopausal health: An EMAS position statement
- Polyunsaturated Fat vs. Monounsaturated Fat: What’s the Difference?
- Does Eating Fat Make You Fat?
- 6 Ways Added Sugar Is Fattening
- Why am I gaining weight so fast during menopause? And will hormone therapy help?