How Do I Control Menopause Weight Gain?
As you go through menopause, you may experience many changes. In addition to your period stopping, you may experience mood swings, hot flashes and weight gain. Weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area, is a common complaint among those going through menopause. About 90% of menopausal women experience some amount of weight gain. On average, women gain around 5-10 pounds between the ages of 45 and 55.
Here is what you need to know about the causes of menopause weight gain, risk of weight gain and steps you can take to prevent weight gain in later years.
What causes menopause weight gain?
Menopause alone does not cause weight gain. Other factors contribute to weight gain during this period in your life, including:
- Hormonal changes - People who go through menopause also experience hormonal changes, leading to a decline in the production of estrogen and progesterone. A decrease in estrogen can make you more likely to gain weight around your abdomen than your hips and thighs. Women tend to carry fat on their thighs and hips when they are younger, and then the fat distribution shifts to the abdomen beginning in perimenopause. Why? Estrogen is an anti-inflammatory hormone. With the decline in estrogen, inflammatory markers increase cortisol levels, which signals the body to store fat, especially belly fat.
- Age and decreased activity - As we age, our lean muscle mass naturally decreases as we become less active, and metabolism begins to slow, causing the burning of fewer calories, making it easier to gain weight and harder to take that weight off. Muscle mass naturally diminishes with age, so without resistance training, our body composition will tend to shift to more fat and less muscle. This further slows down metabolism, with an average decrease of 5% per decade.
- Decreased sleep – Hormonal changes during menopause can cause hot flashes and sleep disturbances, keeping many women up at night. Poor sleep can be stressful on the body and lead to high levels of inflammation, triggering the body to store fat and cause weight gain. When we’re sleep-deprived, we’re also less motivated to exercise and get things done, and we are more likely to make poor food choices.
What are the risks of menopause weight gain?
While menopause itself does not cause certain health conditions, the physical changes that occur during menopause can increase your chances of developing:
- Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure: Increased body weight, especially around the belly, that can occur during menopause can increase your risk of developing insulin resistance and glucose and lipid metabolism disturbances, increasing your chances of developing these conditions.
- Osteoporosis - Estrogen helps prevent bones from getting weaker by slowing the natural breakdown of bone. The drop in estrogen levels during menopause significantly speeds up bone loss, resulting in osteoporosis.
- Certain cancers
How can I prevent menopause weight gain?
Consume a healthy anti-inflammatory diet - Anti-inflammatory diets, like the Mediterranean diet, focus on fresh, whole foods, which many studies have shown help menopausal women lose fat mass while maintaining maintain muscle mass.
When considering a nutritious diet, you should:
- Eat foods rich in fiber, such as whole grains, black beans and other legumes. Fiber is a prebiotic and promotes a healthy gut biome, which can improve cortisol levels and decrease inflammation. Track your total fiber intake to ensure you are getting at least 25to-30 milligrams daily. If needed, supplement with a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber, which improves fasting blood sugars, helping improve insulin resistance. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, and insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water. Most plants contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, but in different amounts. Examples of soluble fiber include oats, peas, beans and apples. Examples of insoluable fiber include whole-wheat flour, wheat bran and nuts.[AL1]
- Limit carbohydrates. Lower carbohydrate diets have been proven to lower insulin levels, stabilize blood sugar levels and decrease stubborn belly fat. Limit or avoid sugars, such as dietary fructose (especially high fructose corn syrup) and sucrose, which promote insulin resistance and raise insulin and cortisol levels. Remember to avoid high-calorie drinks like soda, sweetened coffee, energy drinks and sweet cocktails and processed or packaged foods.
- Eat your veggies. Strive for five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Vegetables are rich in antioxidants and fight off inflammation which leads to weight gain. Examples of veggies are green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale), broccoli, mushrooms and fruits such as strawberries and blueberries.
- Eat enough protein. You should balance protein throughout the day and aim for 20–25 grams with each meal. Try to limit red meat.
- Eat enough healthy fats. Omega-3 rich foods have been found to help lower fasting insulin and cortisol levels. Omega-3 rich foods are also a natural appetite suppressant. Incorporate foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like avocados, tuna, salmon, hemp, chia or flaxseed. Replace high saturated fats with unsaturated fats, like olive, avocado and canola oils.
Get adequate hydration - Drink plenty of water. Just 64 ounces a day can help to fend off cravings since being even slightly dehydrated can leave us feeling hungry, sluggish and looking for carb-rich foods as a quick pick-me-up when the reality is that all we need is more fluids.
Practice good sleep hygiene –Lack of sleep stresses the body and increases cortisol levels. Try to go to bed around the same time daily. Avoid late-night caffeine and excessive use of electronic gadgets in the bedroom.
Maintain physical activity – Maintaining an active lifestyle not only helps prevent unwanted weight gain by building and maintaining muscle but can also help with other menopause symptoms such as mood and hot flashes.
Healthy adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. Sample exercise activities include brisk walks, jogging, swimming or biking. It is also advisable to have two to three days of strength training per week. Water aerobics can help strengthen leg and hip muscles while burning calories. Pilates and yoga also increase muscular strength, endurance and flexibility, with low impact on the joints.
Hormonal treatment – If increasing your physical activity and watching what you eat does not help with weight gain, you might consider hormone replacement. It is important to talk to your doctor and discuss the right course of action for you as risk and benefit vary with each person. There is evidence that hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) reduces obesity, decreases abdominal fat mass (redistributes body fat), lowers the fasting glucose and insulin levels, improves blood lipid profile, and, as a result, reduces cardiovascular risk, but one must weigh all the risk and benefits.
If you are experiencing weight gain or other symptoms related to menopause, schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN to discuss any questions or concerns you have. They can advise you on the best nutrition and exercise routines specific to you and prescribe medication if needed.
Learn more about Women's Services at Ochsner.