Let’s start with a shocking fact: Women are three times more likely to become obese or have metabolic syndrome after the menopause than before it (1). If you want to understand why and what you can do to help prevent or reverse it then please read on….
What causes weight gain at menopause?
The big question here is do the hormonal changes that occur at menopause cause weight gain or is something else at play?
As women go through the menopause and beyond there is a decline in both oestrogen and progesterone production as the ovaries shut down. Oestrogen serves many roles in the body apart from controlling the menstrual cycle, including helping to control metabolism and body weight, blood cholesterol levels, promotion of bone health and improve brain function and mood. So, a declining oestrogen level can have implications for metabolic health which include ‘thinning’ of bones (2) , raising blood cholesterol levels, brain fog and poor mood and a re-distribution of fat mass from hips, bum and thighs to abdominal areas, leading to a thickening of the waistline (3). The ability to burn fat for fuel also declines after the menopause (4)
However, declining hormone levels are the not the main cause of weight gain in menopausal women. Studies have shown that the biggest influence over weight gain is simply the aging process, adopting a more sedentary lifestyle and doing less exercise, resulting in a fall in muscle mass and a drop in metabolic rate (5). After menopause women typically burn 200-220 fewer calories per day and this reduces further after age 60, particularly in women who don’t exercise (6). Assuming you don’t change your diet during and after menopause this will mean that you are now eating excess calories compared to your energy expenditure and you will start to put weight on!
So, to emphasise, a fall in activity and exercise after menopause has more effect on weight gain than falling hormone levels but falling oestrogen levels cause a re-distribution of body fat to the abdomen – this type of fat is metabolically unhealthy and is associated with insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers (7).
Why are some women affected by weight gain at menopause than others?
The degree to which you are affected by weight gain at menopause depends to some extent on your weight management before menopause. Studies show that women who are a normal weight before menopause tend not to put much weight on after menopause and any weight gain can be easily lost with diet and lifestyle modification (8). However, women who are already overweight or obese going into menopause have a tendency to put more weight on and have more trouble losing it and keeping the weight off, they are also more likely to suffer the symptoms of menopause such as mood swings, anxiety, hot sweats, fatigue, hair loss and brain fog (8) (9). So it pays to try and get to grips with weight problems before you enter the menopause!
What can you do to improve your health as you make the transition through menopause?
Prevention is always better than cure! So if you are still pre-menopausal and are overweight, now is the time to start ‘project you’ and get to grips with your weight. You are likely to have a much easier time of menopause if you go into it a normal healthy weight.
However, it you are already in the midst of menopause or beyond and are seeing your waistline expanding then it is not to late to take steps to help you lose weight, improve health and fitness and balance out those hormones a little. Follow our diet and lifestyle recommendations to get you started.
Disclaimer: Our recommendations are not a substitute for medical advice so if you are suffering serious symptoms during menopause then it is your responsibility to seek help from your doctor.
Lose weight – we would recommend a low-carb approach to weight loss during menopause as it directly helps to reduce the insulin resistance that can develop in some women when oestrogen levels decline. Omit sugars and reduce consumption of carbohydrates such as bread, pasta rice and potatoes. Aim for 50-90g of carbohydrates per day
Eat adequate protein to support muscle growth and maintenance, improve bone strength, improve metabolic rate and help to control hunger. Aim for 1.2-1.5 grams protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
Eat omega-3 rich foods such as oily fish, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts to reduce inflammation, support brain health and help reduce mood swings. Aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish per week and sprinkle a small handful of flaxseeds or chia seeds onto yoghurt daily.
Avoid highly processed vegetable and seed oils such as sunflower and corn oil as the processing renders them very unstable in heat and light resulting in free radical formation which can be very damaging to cells and DNA. Always cook with natural fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, butter, ghee, lard or virgin coconut oil.
Eat calcium rich foods to maintain bone strength. Aim for 1200mg calcium per day. Eat hard cheeses, canned fish with bones such as sardines and plenty of leafy green vegetables
Eat plenty of fibre to slow down digestion and suppress hunger. Fibre will also ‘feed’ the gut microbiome helping it to become more diverse and improve gut health generally. Aim for around 30g of fibre per day by eating plenty of leafy green vegetables – including the stems, nuts and seeds and fruits such as berries.
Drink plenty of cold water to help control hot flushes by reducing core temperature. Aim to drink 1.5-2 litres per day.
Eat plenty of antioxidant foods, particularly cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Compounds found in cruciferous vegetables can help with hormone metabolism.
Reduce ultra-processed foods (UPF) in your diet. UPF are associated with a range of diseases including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems and some cancers. Packaging from UPFs can also leach phthalates into the food during microwaving which can act as ‘endocrine disrupters’ which can detrimentally affect the oestrogen levels in the body.
Exercise! If your life has gradually become more sedentary as you reach menopause then now is the time to get moving again and start exercising and building up those muscles:
Maintaining and building muscle is key to successful weight loss. Muscle is an energy hungry organ and building muscle will help to restore your metabolic rate and burn off those calories more effectively. Do resistance training 2-3 times per week either using free weights or resistance bands. You can do this easily at home or you can go to the gym and engage a personal trainer for motivation and guidance. If lifting weights doesn’t appeal then try yoga or pilates sessions which are also great for muscle strengthening.
Hot flushes and mood swings can be improved by doing moderate intensity aerobic activity such as walking, swimming, cycling or running. Moderate intensity means getting your heart rate up but not being so breathless you can’t hold a conversation. Consider joining a hiking club or other sports club where you can exercise and socialise with others at the same time.
Try tai chi, chi gong or meditation for relaxation, stress management and general improvements in mental wellbeing as well as improvements in balance and coordination.
Do weight bearing exercise for improving bone density such as walking up/down hills, jogging, dancing, tennis and climbing stairs. Unfortunately cycling is not a weight bearing exercise and will not improve bone density.
Improve your sleep! Poor sleep impacts negatively on metabolism, increasing insulin resistance and diabetes risk as well as making you too tired to exercise the next day. Follow a good sleep hygiene routine: go to bed and get up at the same time every day, don’t drink caffeine after 12.00pm, make sure your bedroom is cool and dark at night, stop looking a screens at least 2 hours before bedtime and switch off your mobile phone overnight if possible.