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Menopause and weight gain: What’s the link and what can help?

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Posted by Alex Daly on Aug. 5, 2019

Maintaining a healthy weight is never easy and can be challenging for people of all ages. This is especially true for women who are going through menopause, typically in their late 40s and 50s, when hormones fluctuate and the metabolism slows down. 

Menopause (defined as the absence of a menstrual cycle for an entire year) can feel like an unpredictable time of life, but with a smart exercise routine (think: strength and cardio training) and a balanced diet full of healthy produce, protein and whole grains, you can help avoid adding on excess pounds. Remember, before beginning any diet or exercise program, talk with your doctor to discuss your overall health, medical condition(s) and ideas for staying healthy. 

Read on to learn more about the factors behind menopause weight gain and a few ways that you can maintain a healthy weight during your menopausal years. 

What causes menopause weight gain?

Weight gain during menopause isn’t caused by just one factor. There are a number of different culprits at play, including: 

  • Hormonal changes
  • Lifestyle factors
  • Genetics
  • Aging

Some studies show that hormonal changes during menopause cause women to gain weight in their abdomen (as opposed to their buttocks and thighs, for example). Genetics play a role in whether this will be true for you. If your parents or close older relatives also carry extra weight around the abdomen, there’s a good chance that you will as well. 

Additional studies have explored the role that estrogen plays in controlling body weight. During menopause, estrogen levels fluctuate, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight if necessary. 

In addition, aging affects weight gain. As we get older, we all lose muscle mass. Using your muscles burns a lot of energy or calories from food. Having less muscle in your body can lead to weight gain because it decreases the rate at which your body uses calories.  

Lifestyle factors also contribute to menopause weight gain, such as exercising or moving less, and eating more or straying from a healthy diet (like turning to frozen meals or fast food). 

Modifying your diet and lifting weights can help you maintain a healthy weight. If you eat unhealthy foods and don’t exercise, you will probably gain weight during menopause. To achieve weight loss, you will probably need to increase the length and intensity of the workouts you do — no matter what your past activity levels were.

In addition, when you aren’t sleeping well or getting enough sleep, you might be snacking more and consuming more calories. Menopause can cause disruptions in a woman’s sleep cycle, with uncomfortable symptoms such as night sweats, so it’s important to try and make sure you are getting enough rest. (Talk with a healthcare provider, if you’re experiencing night sweats, insomnia or other trouble sleeping.) 

How risky is weight gain during and after menopause?

Menopause weight gain can do more than make it tough to fasten your jeans. It can have serious implications for your health. As we age, it becomes harder to lose weight, especially around the abdomen and stomach region, where most menopause weight gain happens. This type of fat around the organs has been linked with other serious medical conditions, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer

So think about maintaining a healthy weight for the overall health benefits. 

How can exercise prevent weight gain after menopause?

During menopause, you’ll probably need to do more than one form of exercise. Even if you’re in decent aerobic or “cardio” shape (with regular walking, running, swimming or other active workouts that get your heart rate up), you may need to add some other types of exercise to your routine to help stave off menopausal weight gain, such as: 

  • Weights and “resistance training.” Lifting weights several times a week can go a long way in helping you maintain a healthy weight because it can build muscle mass and improve your metabolism (a factor in how your body turns food into energy). You lose muscle mass as you age, so by gaining muscle, your body burns calories more efficiently — making it easier to maintain or lose weight. If weight machines at the gym aren’t your thing, try lifting free weights (barbells, kettlebells or even weighted sandbags) at home and search the internet for free videos offering other resistance training ideas. 
  • Yoga and pilates. These are some other effective forms of exercise that use the body’s own weight to build strength and flexibility. Try a beginner level class or find free online videos at home. Yoga has cognitive benefits too, studies have shown. 

Whatever you do, choose activities you love so that you’ll stick with them. Try to move as much as possible throughout the day, from gardening to taking walks with the dog around the block. A combination of resistance training and aerobic training often proves most effective. Again, always talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program. 

How can a healthy diet help minimize weight gain during menopause?

By making smart choices in your diet, you can help maintain a healthy weight during and after menopause. Here are some hints: 

  • Boost your fruit and veggie intake. Try and get more whole (not processed) fruits and vegetables in your diet in any way you like -- whether it’s by adding fruit to your breakfast, piling greens onto your healthy sandwich at lunch or making a low-sodium yet veggie-packed soup or stir fry for dinner. 
  • Add more whole grains. Try to steer clear of “white” carbs such as white bread, rice, crackers and pasta, and instead opt for fiber-rich multigrain or “brown” alternatives, such as 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, multigrain crackers and whole wheat or chickpea pasta. In general, limiting refined (“white”) carbohydrates and chips is a healthy idea. 
  • Pack in some protein. By increasing protein and reducing the unhealthy carbs in your diet, you may feel more satisfied and energized after meals. Low-sodium beans and nuts are healthy protein sources, as are eggs, fish, (white meat) chicken, and low-fat and low-sugar dairy foods (like plain or vanilla yogurt and string cheese). 
  • Watch your sugar intake. Make sure to read nutrition labels — you might be surprised to learn how much sugar is in the fruity yogurt cup, juice boxes and other foods you’re eating. The American Heart Association advises that women should have no more than 25 grams of sugar a day in their diet. And, of course, steer clear of having cookies, doughnuts and ice cream on a regular basis, and try and limit your intake of alcoholic beverages, which can contribute to belly fat. 

Consider working with a registered dietitian and/or personal trainer to help you set and meet your weight-loss (or weight maintenance) goals during the tricky menopause phase. 

If you are experiencing menopause symptoms and finding it harder to maintain a healthy weight, talk with a healthcare provider online who can discuss your symptoms with you and offer confidential medical advice. 

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