Every woman knows that at some point in her life, the transition of menopause will begin. For most women, this happens as early as 40 and for others, mid-50s. While menopause marks the end of a woman's reproductive life, it begins a new chapter, too! I'll get to that in a bit. It goes without saying, though, that here are a lot of rough associations attached to menopause. Weight gain, hot flashes, lack of libido, dry skin and simply the feeling of not having control of your own body can create a lot of distress and anxiety. In what I do for a living, I hear a lot about weight gain through menopause and midlife. Why does it happen? What, if anything, can be done about it? Those are two common and valid questions.
Usually, though, weight gain is just part of the equation. Weight gain through menopause and midlife happens because of the changes happening to your body and because of the input you're giving it.
In this article, I will explain why weight gain happens. But I always want to give you a few tips to help lose weight, or more importantly fat, if that's a problem for you.
Don't try to fix what's not broken! If you're transitioning through or already transitioned through menopause and haven't gained weight, use this information as food for thought. Don't force change where change is not needed.
Weight Gain Through Menopause and Midlife
From the day you are born, your body gets busy making changes that never stop. Your body grows, repairs and regenerates constantly thanks to genetically-coded information you're born with and input you give your body through the environment in which you live. Genetics play a role in your physical self (height, hair color, etc.), but also your mental self, too! Genes account for roughly 50% of your personality. Our body weight can also be attributed to both genes and our lifestyles.
We women are amazing humans! We have this beautiful and sometimes chaotic symphony of hormones that moves our body through stages in life. Prepubescence, puberty, reproduction, and post-menopause are four general stages we shift through, each with its own purpose.
Menopause is something that needs to happen. On a hormonal level, our sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone drop, ending our menstrual cycle as well as our ability to become pregnant. On a physical level it's important too. If you've ever been pregnant, you know how hard pregnancy can be on your body. Can you imagine if women were able to get pregnant later in life? If pregnancy is hard on a young body it will only be harder on an older body.
Nonetheless, as those two important hormone levels drop, we become more susceptible to weight gain through menopause and midlife - especially through the belly area.
How can you mitigate or avoid this midsection fat that is not just a nuisance, but also detrimental to your health?
Midlife Weight Gain: Knowing What to Expect
It's unfair to suggest that hormones are the only reason women gain weight and store fat - but they certainly have a lot to do with it. Understanding what's happening with your hormones can help you understand not just your body, but also your ability to control your weight.
Your body has dozens of hormones sending signals all the time. All of those hormones are important. Your hormones sit in a state of homeostasis, optimally staying in balance with one another. When we alter one hormone, we can throw off other hormones. A good example of this happens when you eat too much sugar. Eating too much sugar raises your blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels rise very high, your body signals for your pancreas to release a lot of insulin. Insulin acts like an anchor, pulling blood sugar levels back down quickly. When this happens, your body perceives stress. Stress elevates your hormone, cortisol. Either of these hormones, when inflated too high, will store fat. But since both get called into action, both have an effect on your body.
When you approach menopause, sometimes 10+ years earlier, estrogen and progesterone start fluctuating in a less regular way than they once did - estrogen especially. Both high or low estrogen levels can create all sorts of side effects from sore breasts to water retention.
Once you've transitioned through menopause, progesterone is no longer produced, and estrogen is produced only in small amounts via fat cells.
The lack of estrogen can cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate. This can cause insulin, as mentioned above, to get called into action. The result is more visceral (belly) fat.
Belly Fat & Menopause
Belly fat is no joke. I'm not talking about the pinchable fat that makes a home toward the surface of your skin. That's called subcutaneous. Rather, I'm talking about deeper visceral fat that gets packed around your organs in your midsection. This is the type of fat that gets stores through menopause and midlife, largely as a result of those fluctuating blood sugar levels.
Eating a diet that's low in fiber, high in sugar and full of processed vegetable oils puts your body on the fast track of belly fat storage. Even if you never had belly fat before midlife, your body is now more delicate in terms of its response to the lack of estrogen. If there was ever a time to clean up your diet and start eating right, it's during menopause.
Belly fat during menopause and midlife is not a rite of passage; it doesn't have to happen to every woman. Yes, some people will weigh more and store more fat, but visceral fat is largely caused by lifestyle choices controlled by you.
Menopause also affects muscle growth. The muscle you have won't evaporate overnight, but you'll have to do a little work to maintain it. This is an important point because lower muscle mass almost always means greater fat storage. Similar to diet, if there were ever a time to get up and move around more to support your muscles, joints and bones, it's around the time of menopause.
The Middle Age Spread and Diet
The one thing every woman whose hormones shift around menopause need to try to maintain one quality when it comes to diet: calm maturity. When we gain weight, the knee jerk reaction is to do something to lose the fat as fast as possible. This usually involves some fad diet. After that diet doesn't work or stops working, the reaction is to "diet hop" until you find the shoe that fits.
The best diet is always the one that offers slow, steady, sustainable progress with the added benefit of helping your health. This is almost always a plant-based diet, meaning a diet that fills your plate with mostly vegetables.
If you gain a few pounds, and you notice that the weight that was once around your hips and thighs is now around your waistline, know that this is not uncommon and the result of lowered estrogen and a heightened sensitivity to insulin production. Instead of cutting calories, take a good look at your current diet.
When we react to weight gain, we ignore what our body is trying to tell us. Weight gain is a symptom of something greater - and that "something greater" usually manifests itself into diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, stroke, high blood pressure, etc. None of these, especially heart disease, are uncommon in post-menopausal women.
Lifestyle Questions to Ask Yourself
Whether you're years before menopause and seeing some weight creep around the belly area, in the thick of menopause, or if your transition is long over, you can always do something to lower body fat and improve your health. Everyone's life is different, so there are different variables that affect why you, specifically, gained weight. It's up to you to take an honest look at your life and lifestyle to make the modifications needed to see positive change.
- Are you currently eating a diet that is giving you about 35 grams of fiber? If not, slowly scale up to that amount.
- Are you limiting fast food to one (or zero) days a week?
- Are you drinking half your weight in ounces of water, sparkling water or herbal tea? (i.e. 160lb woman = 80oz water)
- Are you avoiding sodas, diet sodas, juices and energy drinks?
- Are you getting movement in most days of the week? (walking, yoga, tai chi, swimming, strength training, etc.)
- Are you limiting coffee to 10am?
- Are you avoiding processed vegetable oils? (corn, canola and soybean oil)
- What goals do you have for yourself? <<The most important question!
When it comes to eating healthier and getting more movement, it can be hard, so don't worry if you feel like you missed the mark on a lot of these questions.
Sugar is addictive. Sneaky ingredients are in a lot of foods. We're all really busy. There are a million reasons why it's hard to keep up. But we've still got to try, right?