How to Handle Weight Gain at Menopause
Amy Hendel | March 20, 2018
Though you may be finding yourself gaining weight as you enter menopause, changes in your body have likely been happening for a while. If you were never big on exercise or watching your diet, and you were “getting away with it,” menopause may end that magical ride. And even if you have always been one for healthy eating and working out, you may find that you are still gaining weight at midlife. Read on to learn how physiological changes that occur as you move from perimenopause to menopause can make weight gain more likely — and how to deal with it.
Hormone changes may affect weight, but…
Declining levels of hormones like estrogen might make you more likely to gain weight. That weight gain often centers in your abdomen, rather than the thigh or hip area — even if you leaned toward a pear shape for most of your life. Experts say there are a host of other reasons, though, that may be propelling that weight gain. If your mom experienced central weight gain, then there may be a genetic predisposition to belly fat. But gene actions are enabled or limited by lifestyle habits.
Are you eating too much food?
Some women seem to have a higher metabolic rate even if they don’t exercise or watch calories. But most women will lose that edge when menopause hits. So if you’ve never had to restrict calories to maintain your weight, you may have to now. If you have been careful with calories in the past, you still will likely have to be more aware of daily calorie counts to maintain your weight at menopause. Adding or increasing exercise will likely allow you to consume a bit more food daily.
Are you eating the wrong foods?
Processed foods are often higher in calories. These high sugar foods also make you hungrier because you tend to experience sudden blood sugar lows, which spur further eating. These foods also lack fiber, which requires more fuel (fat from the body) during digestion. Highly processed foods are also high in salt, which can cause water bloat (weight gain). Processed foods are also high in unhealthy fats. One gram of fat equals nine calories, while carbs and protein clock in at 4 calories per gram.
Are you ‘stress eating?’
Stress eating is often mindless eating. You may be grabbing small handfuls of snacks throughout the day without even realizing how many calories are piling up. Stress eating is also associated with food binging, and the foods you tend to eat may be high in salt, fats, and sugar. Chronic stress (elevated cortisol) is also associated with general body inflammation, a risk factor for obesity. Chronic stress can also change your gut microbe balance, another obesity modifier.
Are you exercising?
If there was ever a time in life to start exercising, it’s now. Changing hormones and aging will likely lead to diminished bone density and loss of muscle mass. Your metabolic rate will slow, so you need to engage in aerobic, calorie-burning activities to help burn the calories you consume. Aerobic activity can include walking hills, jogging, running, using gym equipment like an elliptical (with sufficient resistance), and taking classes, like Zumba, kickboxing, boot camps, or boxing.
Are you maintaining muscle mass?
Muscle mass diminishes with aging. If you’re a regular exerciser who does resistance training, then during and after menopause you may need to increase the amount of weight you lift or add more resistance training time to your workouts. If you’re not working out with weights, then you need to start. Muscle cells support your metabolic rate and use calories efficiently. So, in addition to calorie-burning aerobic activity, get a prescription for a weight-training program. Commit to daily exercise.
Are you getting enough regular quality sleep?
Sleep has been clearly linked to weight gain and obesity. Not getting adequate sleep is linked to higher levels of cortisol, which in turn are linked to increased appetite. When faced with tempting junk food, you’ll be more likely to control the desire to grab and eat if you’ve gotten enough sleep. Chronic sleep loss raises hedonic drive for certain foods while blunting willpower. One study found that sleeping only 3.5 to 5.5 hours nightly leads to eating almost 400 more calories daily.
Why is weight gain at menopause dangerous?
Central adiposity, or weight gain in your belly, is linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease. Gaining excess belly fat and weight in general can make you feel unhappy with your shape and self-esteem. Carrying excess weight is also bad for your joints, and central obesity is linked to obstructive sleep apnea. These health concerns should motivate you to intercept further weight gain and shed excess pounds. Again, healthy diet, exercise, and sleep goals are crucial.
Get a personal lifestyle prescription
Consider meeting with a dietitian and personal trainer. When your body is going through challenging changes, your gynecologist may be able to refer you to professionals who can help you to tackle these changes, especially weight gain, with a personalized program. They can get you started on a personalized diet prescription and exercise program. If your insurance or finances can’t bear the cost, then there are some basic recommendations you can follow.
Diets to consider
The Mediterranean Diet helps to support gut microbe balance, improving your overall health — if you identify a daily calorie count, you can lose weight too. Another diet to consider is the ketogenic diet, especially if you’re overweight and at risk of developing diabetes or other inflammatory-related conditions. Intermittent fasting is a newer approach to weight loss with some good science behind it. A program like Weight Watchers offers diet and support. Always check with your doctor.
Aim for a goal of exercising 45 minutes to an hour most days of the week. Your program should include daily aerobic exercise (moderate to vigorous effort) and two to three days of weight training. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is vigorous and a good way to shave time off of some workout sessions. Yoga can help you to de-stress and build a strong abdominal core — there are online programs for all levels. Build up to these recommendations and vary routines to maintain challenge.
Reduce hot flashes and improve sleep with exercise, weight loss
Hot flashes can interfere with quality, deep sleep. The good news is that weight loss and committing to exercise can help to reduce the intensity and frequency of hot flashes. Learning about best sleep hygiene practices can help. For example, keep your bedroom cool, sleep in light, cotton pajamas, turn off tech devices a few hours before bedtime, and reduce artificial light exposure at least an hour before bedtime. Use your bed for sleep and sex only, and don’t eat or exercise within a few hours of bedtime.
Don’t tackle too many habit changes at once — “move more and eat less” is a good mantra. Focus on plant-based whole foods, meet daily protein goals to support muscle mass, ditch sugary and artificially sweetened drinks, and limit alcohol and sweets. To get support, seek out other women with similar issues. You can also create a health team to help you navigate the changes that menopause brings.