Explaining Menopause and Weight Gain — and How to Stop It
Whether you’re just noticing the first signs of menopause or you’ve been struggling with symptoms for years, there’s a good chance that weight gain has crossed your mind. Pants get tighter, belts get looser, and bellies get softer — changes that can be difficult to handle as you juggle your other menopause symptoms.
Gaining a few extra pounds with age is incredibly common, but it’s not universal. If you look around, you’ll find that plenty of middle-aged women can sustain a healthy weight, and they don’t look too miserable, either.
So what’s their secret? A lot comes down to smart shifts in lifestyle and perspective to keep up with your changing biology.
What Causes Weight Gain During Menopause?
There’s no doubt about it: aging can be a drag. Physical and mental changes are bound to come, and they may begin to escalate around the midlife mark.
The bad news is that some predictably problematic changes happen after age 50, often resulting in more body fat (and a bigger waist measurement). Not only do you have to worry about the effects of menopause on self-esteem, but you also need to be concerned about your physical health.
Metabolism is a fairly individual thing, but even if yours has been rather peppy in the past, it’s likely to decline as you move through adulthood. In general, you burn calories more slowly as you age, which means most people will have to eat less to maintain their energy level.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when you’ve been set in your eating habits for decades.
It’s natural for your exercise routine to dip when you’re busy, but when you add in uncomfortable menopause symptoms like headaches, fatigue, insomnia, and hot flashes, you’re even less likely to squeeze in a workout each day.
Of course, less activity combined with a slowing metabolism will leave you with excess calories, so if you don’t scale back your calorie intake, you’ll begin to carry them around in the form of fat.
Everybody has fat on their bodies — it’s absolutely necessary for energy and good health. However, there’s good fat and bad fat (known respectively as brown fat and white fat), and as you get older, you lose the good brown fat and gain the bad white fat.
White fat tends to cling to the abdomen and hips, and your body can’t burn it for fuel as easily as it uses brown fat. The result? More stubborn pudge around your middle.
Stress Adds Up
Menopause is a stressful time. Not only are you dealing with menopausal symptoms, but you have life stressors.
High levels of stress can contribute to weight gain, this according to researchers from Kings College in London, United Kingdom.
A relatively new study from researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, investigated the link between depressive symptoms and weight gain in women based on menopause status. They are trying to determine how depressive symptoms, stress, eating, and menopausal weight gain were related.
What they found was that stress eating during menopause played an important part in the depression-weight association. In other words, moods during menopause affected weight gain and weight outcomes.
The Hormonal Changes of Menopause
The hormonal changes of menopause make it easier to gain easier around the waist and abdomen. Lower levels of estrogen can make you want to eat more and reduce your energy, so you are less physically active.
The lower levels of estrogen may also cause your body to use starch and blood sugar less effectively. When the blood sugar and starch are not doing what they are supposed, it is harder to lose weight.
In 2012, International Menopause Society conducted a study where researchers reviewed decades of research on weight gain and menopause. What they found was that hormone levels affect the distribution of body fat - in particular, centering it towards the waist.
The weight gain accumulation can increase the risk of insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.
In a second study – this one from 2013 – researchers from the Mayo Clinic compared fat tissue in pre-menopausal to that of post-menopausal women of similar ages. What they found was that the two cellular enzymes responsible for producing and storing fat were more active in the post-menopausal women.
The researchers felt that lower levels of estrogen played a part in the enzymes being active. They further noted that the decreased metabolism might also contribute to weight gain.
Diet and Lifestyle
The signs of menopause start to affect our lives, as do the stresses of getting older. Sometimes, we comfort eat in response to stress.
Many women also become less active after age 40 because their lives are busy. And less activity means less muscle mass and weight gain.
One study reported in the journal Menopause reported on 17,000 post-menopausal women who were either assigned to control group not using hormone therapy or a group that was on a healthy diet.
After one year, the diet group was experiencing fewer hot flashes and was three times as likely to have lost weight. But the weight loss wasn’t the significant part.
In fact, the reduced symptoms – which were a part of healthy eating – also played a role in the weight loss.
Genetics plays a part in menopausal weight gain. If women in your family – especially your mother – have weight issues during menopause, it is possible you will too.
Genetics affect when menopause starts and sometimes, they affect symptoms, too. For example, one 2016 led by researchers from School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, has found certain gene variants affect the brain receptors that regulate estrogen.
These gene receptors are present in all ethnic groups and women who have these variants experience more hot flashes than women who don’t. If genes affect hot flashes, chances are they affect other menopause symptoms, including weight gain.