Have your noticed a change in size and shape around your abdomen or to be more precise a bulge above your waistband? If the answer is a resounding yes, let’s move on and explore why women gain weight during perimenopause and following menopause.
Weight gain in the lead up to menopause and beyond is often referred to as “unexplained weight gain” or “middle age spread”. This is usually caused by a change in your hormones.
Even if you have never had a weight problem, you may find it harder to manage your weight once you are approaching menopause.
Most of us gain around 10-15 pounds (1 kilo = 2.2 lbs) during the transitional period between perimenopause (premenopause) and actual menopause (the “final period”). It happens steadily at around 1 pound per year on average. You will begin to notice that your weight is not distributing itself the same as it used to. There are exceptions to every rule, therefore, some women will not have a change in actual weight on the scales but their proportion of body fat will still increase.
Women who experience early or surgical menopause can experience more rapid and excessive weight gain.
It is important to point out that should you become concerned that your menopause weight gain is excessive i.e. outside of the above parameters it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional.
The term “middle age spread” in women comes from the fact that you will begin to put weight on around your abdomen rather than your hips, thighs and buttocks. This is known as the “apple” shape – the stomach area becomes rounder. The “pear” shape that you had during your childbearing years will change as it becomes increasingly harder to redistribute your weight evenly.
Scientific research has demonstrated that it is extremely unhealthy to have excess weight on any part of your body but when it is around your abdomen the danger increases greatly.
It is important to point out that menopause weight gain doesn’t have to be inevitable, in fact, menopausal women who manage to retain their ‘youthful figure’ are usually women who have always been active and remain so. They themselves may notice a change in weight distribution but overall they look trim, fit and healthy.
Two Types of Fat in your Abdominal Area
Type 1 – this is called subcutaneous fat and lies directly beneath the skin and the top of the abdominal muscles.
Type 2 – this is called visceral fat and lies deeper in the abdomen beneath your muscle and surrounding your organs. This is the fat that feels hard if you push on it.
Both types of fat in the abdominal area are serious health factors with research showing that visceral fat is the most dangerous. Both types of fat significantly increase the development of:-
- Coronary Heart Disease
- Gallbladder Disease
- High Blood Pressure
- Breast Cancer
- High Cholesterol
- Kidney Disease
- Sleep Apnea
- More severe menopausal symptoms
The Importance of Maintaining a Healthy Body Mass Index (BMI)
If your BMI is less than 18.4 – you are underweight for your height.
If your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9 – you are an ideal weight for your height.
If your BMI is between 25 and 29.9 – you are overweight for your height.
If your BMI is between 30 and 39.9 – you are obese.
If your BMI is over 40 – you are very obese.
A BMI of 25 or higher can be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Losing 10-15 pounds can help to lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of diabetes. If your BMI is over 30, you need to take immediate action to change your lifestyle in order to lose weight.
A healthy waist to hip ratio (WHR) is a more accurate predictor of risk than body mass index. A woman’s waistline should ideally be 70 to 80% hips.
Measure the smallest bit of your natural waist and the widest part of your hips. Then divide waist measurement by hip and multiply by 100. Women with a WHR greater than 85% are more in the unhealthy zone.
Our hormones play an integral part in influencing menopause and weight gain in relation to your appetite, metabolism and fat storage.
The rise and fall of estrogen, testosterone and androgen levels will be a constant battle.
- As your ovaries produce less estrogen your body looks elsewhere for this hormone which can be found in your fat cells. Your body then works more diligently to convert calories into fat which in turn increases your estrogen levels. Regrettably, fat cells don’t burn calories in the same way that muscles do, which causes weight gain.
- Low levels of the progesterone hormone can be the cause of many symptoms including weight gain. water retention and bloating. Although these don’t actually cause weight gain they can make you feel like you have.
- Androgen – now we are talking “apples” again. This hormone is responsible for reallocating your weight directly to your abdomen/middle section. One of the first signs of perimenopause is increased androgen in your body which causes weight gain.
- Testosterone helps the creation of lean muscle mass from the calories you have consumed. Because muscle cells burn more calories than fat cells this increases your metabolism. However, because menopause results in lower levels of testosterone we inevitably lose some of the muscle mass, which leads to lower metabolism.
Other Factors in Relationship to Menopause and Weight Gain
- Increased sedentary habits. A lack of frequent cardio exercise such as walking in the lead up to and following menopause.
- Increased loss of muscle mass. Some loss of muscle mass is due to the aging process but weight bearing exercises can minimise this.
- You are what you eat. As you get older the way you eat shows on the outside so your eating habits need to be addressed.
- Stress hormones can prevent weight loss as they send signals to your body to go into storage mode. If your body thinks that it won’t get food again for a considerable period of time it stores every calorie it takes in causing weight gain.
- Insulin Resistance can occur during the menopausal years, when a woman’s body wrongly turns calorie intake into fat. Over time, refined and processed foods may make a woman’s body resistant to insulin produced in the blood stream.
What Can You Do About Menopause Weight Gain?
- Eat a healthy balanced diet. Avoid processed foods in favour of more lean proteins and fresh fruit and vegetables. Small amounts of food at frequent intervals rather than 3 big meals will help to regulate blood sugar, burn calories, melt fat and keep you slim.
- Eat more food containing phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen and help lower insulin: nuts, seeds, legumes, lentil, berries and spices, including, turmeric, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, cumin and liquorice.
- For breakfast choose phytoestrogen-packed foods: berries, nuts, seeds and almond milk to boost your metabolism.
- Keep a food diary to help explain any weight gain. It may be that your eating habits have changed in response to your menopausal symptoms. For example are you eating more when you feel emotional, fatigued or stressed?
- Top food swaps: seed based crispbreads instead of bread, lettuce as a wrap, quinoa instead of pasta or couscous, blitzed cauliflower instead of rice or potatoes, raw vegetables with hummus instead of crisps.
- Avoid crash diets, very low calories diets or fad diets.
- Don’t lose excessive amounts of weight as this will cause an increased risk of osteoporosis.
- Limit your intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
- Be active: aerobic/cardio exercise will increase your metabolism and burn fat. Weight bearing exercise will help to increase muscle mass and strength and prevent osteoporosis. Even a moderate exercise regime can help to keep weight gain in check and also helps to relieve other menopause symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Do whatever your enjoy and do it frequently – walking, dancing, yoga, tennis etc
- If possible don’t sit down for more than 3 hours each day as a sedentary lifestyle will increase your waistline and harm your health.
- Work on your attitude towards your weight management, focusing on what you can do rather than what you wish for.
- Drink herbal tea and plenty of water.
The Risks of Weight Gain After Menopause. Retrieved from ww.webmd.com/menopause/guide/menopause-weight-gain-and-exercise-tips#1
Weight Gain and the Menopause. Retrieved from http://www.avogel.co.uk/health/menopause/symptoms/weight-gain/
The Risks of Weight Gain After Menopause. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/womens-health/in-depth/menopause-weight-gain/art-20046058
Johnston, J. Dr., Diet, Exercise & Lifestyle: Weight Gain. Retrieved from http://www.menopausematters.co.uk/weightgain.php