For some women, going through menopause at midlife can lead to a bigger midsection. You may notice a little extra padding around your belly that you didn't have in younger years.
Is this just a natural part of the midlife change that women have to accept? The encouraging answer is no.
"Menopausal weight gain doesn't have to be inevitable," says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "With an active lifestyle and a healthy diet, you can feel more comfortable during this stage of your life."
Your body is changing
Menopause is a natural part of aging, a time when women slowly stop having periods. The process typically starts in your 40s or 50s. You're considered through with menopause when you've gone a full year without a period. This process can take several years.
A woman's ovaries produce female hormones. During menopause, the production of female hormones drops significantly. These changes may cause you to experience mood swings, hot flashes and problems sleeping, among other symptoms.
But it's not known for certain if lower hormone levels play a direct role in putting on weight. Hormones may play a role in where fat settles on your body. You may notice more belly fat, a "spare tire" rather than extra weight in your hips or thighs.
Why worry about a few extra pounds?
Weight gain in midlife and beyond has greater implications than no longer being able to fit into a favorite pair of jeans. Excess weight in older women is a risk factor for a host of health problems. These include heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
You may start to develop fatty tissue where you once had muscle. "We naturally lose muscle mass as we age," Sheth says. "If you don't replace that lost muscle, your body will have less muscle and more fat, which will slow your metabolic rate."
Carrying around extra weight can also be a risk factor for certain types of cancer, such as cancer of the endometrium, breast, colon and gallbladder.
The risk of breast cancer, in part, is tied to the female hormone estrogen. Before menopause, most of the estrogen in your body is produced by your ovaries. Fat tissue produces a small amount. After menopause, it's the opposite. With the ovaries no longer producing estrogen, your fat tissue is thought to produce most of this hormone.
Some research shows that your estrogen level rises along with the more fat tissue you have, but results are not conclusive. This could raise your risk of breast cancer. But the connection between weight and breast cancer is complex. It is still being researched.
As easy as it would be to blame menopause, midlife weight gain appears to be mostly related to these lifestyle changes:
- More calories eaten, fewer burned. You may find yourself snacking more or eating out more often. Or you may just burn fewer calories due to a decrease in activity or slowed metabolism. In fact, many women complain that they eat the same (or even less) and are still struggling with their weight. "In general, you need 200 less calories a day to maintain your weight during your 50s," Sheth says.
- Lack of exercise or a decrease in exercise. As we age and our metabolism slows down, so does our energy expenditure. Studies have shown that women who keep active have less body fat, maintain smaller waists and gain less weight than those who are not physically active.
How to battle the bulge
So it comes back to the basics: A healthy diet and exercise.
Careful attention to diet and exercise can help you maintain muscle and minimize belly fat that can be a troublesome issue during this stage of your life. Here's how:
- Eat a balanced diet of wholesome, unprocessed foods. Get plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Avoid empty calories in sugary drinks and alcohol. "Small changes in your diet can help prevent menopausal weight gain," Sheth says.
- Avoid crash or fad diets. You may be tempted to slash your calories, especially if you feel you are eating less but still gaining weight. Don't skip meals, which can make you overeat later. Starving yourself will only fuel hunger and more weight gain. Keeping a food journal can help you monitor your calories and fat.
- Get moving! If you are not currently exercising regularly, get started. "Staying active in your 40s and 50s helps keep your metabolism humming," Sheth says. Regular activity will help keep your weight down and improve your sleep. Make fitness "part of your daily routine," Sheth recommends. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity and at least two days a week of strength-building activities. The American Cancer Society says there is evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of breast cancer. Check with your doctor first about a safe activity level.
- Keep your bones strong. "Not only will muscle-strength training replace your lost muscle mass," Sheth says, "but it also helps to slow mineral loss in your bones which can lead to osteoporosis." Aim for muscle-strength training on two or more days a week.
- If you are already active, think about re-evaluating your routine. You may need to change things up a bit. Speak to a qualified trainer who can help guide you.
- If you smoke, quit. Every single day without a cigarette makes you healthier. Smoking during menopause can trigger hot flashes, weaken your bones and irritate your bladder.
- Minimize your stress. Stress is common during midlife and menopause. Reduce your stress with activities like yoga, proper stretching or meditation.
And, Sheth says, keep a bright outlook. "When menopause has you down, remember it's a temporary state," she says. "Approaching menopause with a positive attitude while managing your stress level can help greatly."
Menopause does not have to bring on weight gain. Throw out that excuse and take charge of your eating and exercise routines. "The healthy diet and exercise habits you put in place during menopause will keep you feeling great after the hot flashes, mood swings and sleepless nights pass," Sheth says.
Committing to these lifestyle changes can help you manage your weight as well as keep you healthy through menopause and beyond.
Created on 05/08/2002
Updated on 01/23/2013
- National Institute on Aging. Age page: Menopause.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need?
- Womenshealth.gov. Healthy aging.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Fit and fabulous as you mature.