Menopause is defined as going a full year without a menstrual period. In the United States, the average age of menopause is 52.1 This can be the natural result of declining hormone production by the ovaries; specifically, estrogen and progesterone. It might be surgically or medically induced due to hysterectomy, chemotherapy, or radiation. It could even be caused by premature ovarian failure, in which the ovaries stop functioning earlier than usual (prior to age 40) due to genetic factors or autoimmune disease.2
Symptoms of menopause vary, including but not limited to hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness or irritation, changes in sex drive, thinning hair, dry skin, issues with sleep, memory, and changes in weight.
Menopause and weight gain is a common topic discussed at annual exams. Women often pose the scenario of doing all the right things, like eating well and exercising, yet having minimal success battling menopausal weight gain or that dreaded menopausal “pouch”—those unwanted pounds that tend to develop around the abdominal section. So, what gives? Is this a battle that can be won? Do we have a fighting chance?
How Does Menopause Impact Weight?
During menopause, we lose muscle mass, which in turn contributes to a slowing of our metabolism. Our fat deposition changes from a gynoid (primarily a hip and thigh allotment) to a mid-abdominal distribution, also known as an android pattern. This type of fat pattern is commonly noted in males and is the reason for that mid-abdominal pouch. And while some of this can be attributed to the changes in hormonal levels seen in menopause, like decreases in estrogen and progesterone levels, most of the changes we notice in our bodies related to weight, whether it be maintenance, loss, or gain, are due to lifestyle.
As we age, our bodies follow suit. They can no longer sustain the same caloric intake, types of foods, exercise routines (or lack thereof), as our younger versions did. We often need to make changes in our day-to-day routines to move the number on the scale and the notches on our belt.
How to Manage Weight During Menopause
Menopause may and oftentimes does require us to make changes to how we nourish ourselves, including:
Making Dietary Changes
Losing weight during menopause—like at any other life stage—often requires consuming less calories, but there are some other dietary changes that can help you gain the upper hand, including:
- decreasing simple carbohydrate intake
- increasing consumption of lean protein and fiber
- limiting sugar
- drinking less alcohol
- drinking more water
Refreshing Your Exercise Routine
Increasing the amount and types of exercise we are doing can help offset menopausal weight gain. Doing exercises that build muscle mass will increase our metabolisms as well as curb increases in fat around the midsection. Weight-bearing exercises also help prevent bone loss, which is common during menopause and the direct result of decreased estrogen levels.
Getting More Sleep
Hot flashes and night sweats are symptoms many women experience in menopause that might disrupt sleep. Layering clothing, so you can put clothes on or take them off to be more comfortable at night, can help. Some women opt for hormone replacement therapy to counteract the negative effects. No matter which method you choose, improving sleep during this phase of life may prove helpful.
Not getting an adequate amount of sleep can impact weight adversely by increasing consumption of late-night snacks, as well as affecting metabolism.3 In addition to treating any underlying causes of sleeplessness, things that can promote a good night’s rest include turning off electronic devices, and adhering to a sleep schedule in which you go to bed and wake up at the same time daily.
Stressors during this time of life are very common. You may be caring for aging parents, dealing with a suddenly empty nest, or embarking on a new career. Midlife changes in addition to the physical changes that are common during menopause can and do impact weight. Stress leads to increased cortisol levels which directly impedes weight loss efforts.4
Finding ways to cope with these stressors whether it be through journaling, exercise, meditation, or therapy, will not only assist in battling those unwanted pounds, but also help with getting adequate sleep.
Preventative Medicine is the Best Medicine
Changes in fat distribution are not without consequences, so it’s important to make adjustments, not just for weight loss, but for overall health. Fat distribution around the mid-section is associated with increases in type 2 diabetes, as well as cardiovascular disease.5
Let’s start doing today what can and will impact tomorrow. Here’s to embracing menopause and all the changes that come with it. It might just end up being the best time of your life.