In March 2013, Rachel Cutler’s husband Mick tragically died from brain cancer. Mick had been…
Menopause. It’s the bittersweet conclusion to what was 40 odd years of monthly bleeding, and then the body changes yet again.
After 14 years of helping people lose weight, I’ve found that menopausal women often feel the most out of control. Their body is changing. It’s gradually putting on weight, thickening around the waist and feeling less like the body they spent the past 30 years in. Worst of all, they’re often left guessing as to the best way to stop it.
Does menopause cause weight gain?
I’m frequently asked if the weight gain experience during midlife is the result of menopause.
It’s often touted that the hormonal changes experienced with menopause are the key drivers of weight gain and the shift in body composition that women experience around this time. And it makes sense to come to this conclusion as the two things happen simultaneously.
What’s interesting is that researchers have concluded that menopause is not to blame. They found that, on average, women do put on half a kilogram each year between the ages of 45-55 and that this is attributed to age and not menopause after all.
Increased fat storage around the abdomen
A common complaint of women who’ve gone through menopause is an increase in body fat stored around their stomach. Is this caused by menopause?
Animal studies do conclude that hormonal changes do lead to changes in body composition and fat distribution. In particular, research indicates that a decrease in oestrogen (the female hormone that drops during menopause) favours fat being stored around the stomach.
In human studies, some researchers concluded that central obesity (fat stored around the tummy) was associated with BMI and not menopause. However, there is evidence that indicates that although weight gain may not be associated with menopause that a shift in where the body stores that fat is.
To summarise: gradually putting on weight happens with age and menopause means that this extra weight is more likely to go to your stomach as opposed to your hips and thighs. This means, from a lifestyle perspective, that if you can maintain a healthy weight, through physical activity and healthy eating, you can travel through midlife without the extra tummy fat.
Other influences on weight gain
It’s a common mistake to blame our weight gain on one aspect of our lives, ie: menopause or aging. In reality, weight gain is a complex interaction of many aspects of our lives: diet, physical activity, stress, culture, social demographic and genetic factors all play their part.
It may be menopause, however, you may also be putting on weight because the past two years you’ve been dealing with family stress, became more sedentary, started emotionally eating and dramatically changed your shopping, cooking and eating habits.
Regardless of how you got to the current state of health that you’re in what’s important is that you are taking realistic, sustainable steps to address it rather than looking for a quick fix.
Research shows that regular physical activity, combined with consistent high diet quality that provides the right amount of energy, can prevent weight gain experienced with aging and the subsequent shift in tummy fat that may come with menopause.
There really is value in consistently nailing the nutrition fundamentals and creating habits that help you repeat these behaviours each and every day before exploring drastic measures such as supplements, prescription drugs or restrictive diets.
Here are some good places to start:
- Consistently eat 5 serves of vegetables each day. This is 4-5 cups worth each and every day. They will give you fibre, nutrients, boost your gut health and immunity plus help you feel full on fewer calories. Track it in a diary and get some good awareness, we’re often not as consistent as we think we are!
- Conduct a drinks audit. We can easily consume too much energy than we need each day through our drinks. Coffee, juice, soft drink, alcohol, protein shakes, flavoured milks… they all quickly add up. How much are you drinking each day and could you swap some of them to water?
- Boost your protein intake. Increasing the protein concentration of the diet can help you stay in control of your appetite and manage your weight better. Ensuring that you include a good source of protein like diary, eggs, tofu, meat, poultry or seafood at your main meals is a good place to start.
- Deal with emotional eating. If stress, negative emotion and other situations trigger poor eating behaviours, then it’s time to invest some time and kindness into helping sort this out. Life’s too short to deal with shame, guilt, disappointment, fear and hurt. Seek professional help to get to the root of the problem and live your post midlife free of the baggage!
If you need help with your diet, check out The Healthy Eating Hub to find out more about the best dietary approach for you!
Understanding weight gain at menopause, Davis et al, Climacteric, 2012;15:419–429
Women’s Healthy Lifestyle Project: A randomized clinical trial: results at 54 months, Kuller et al. Circulation, 2001 Jan 2;103(1):32-7.