Are you worried about gaining fat during menopause?
This is understandable because many women gain body fat as they age, with a significant weight gain occurring during the menopausal transition. Women also tend to lose muscle mass, which creates a perfect storm for health problems and increasing fatness.
Previously, scientists blamed these body composition changes in estrogen without much analysis as to what exactly was happening. Fortunately, more recent research has clarified the impact of biochemical changes and how to prevent the typical weight gain. Instead of gaining an average of 5 pounds of body fat during menopause, it’s completely reasonable to maintain body composition and prevent weight gain through diet and exercise (1-3).
This article will provide an overview of why many women gain fat during menopause and provide nutrition priorities for avoiding it.
Why Do Many Women Gain Body Fat During Menopause?
Fat gain is a result of an energy imbalance: Too many calories coming in and not enough being burned. During menopause, several factors come together to make it more likely that this will happen:
First, during menopause, women tend to become less active. One 4-year study of women going through menopause observed a 200 daily decrease in calories burned due to the women being less physically active (4).
Second, women’s bodies appear to downregulate energy expenditure during menopause so that they are burning fewer calories at rest. Basically, their resting metabolisms take a hit so that they burn roughly 50 fewer calories a day (4).
Third, hormonal changes impact food intake. Estrogen sends messages to the brain that blunt appetite and promote satiety. With menopause, estrogen levels drop, leading many women to eat more and choose less healthy, hyperpalatable foods, such as fried foods or those containing sugar and refined carbs, which are easy to overeat (5). In one study, perimenopausal women gained 4.4 percent body fat and replaced foods typically recommended for managing hunger (protein, fiber, fish oils) with processed foods higher in saturated fat (4).
Fourth, as estrogen drops, insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance decline and women end up burning less fat for energy (5). In one trial, fat oxidation over 24 hours decreased by a whopping 32 percent (6). Instead of burning fat, the women experienced a significant increase in the amount of protein used for energy, with protein oxidation increasing by 41 percent. This is the opposite of what you want for metabolic health body because it means the body is burning lean tissue and losing muscle.
Nutrition Priorities For Menopause
Just like at any other stage of life, there’s no one single way to eat that will prevent fat gain. Any approach can work if you stick to it. The key is to identify nutrition priorities and then figure out what works best for you:
Priority #1: Prevent A Calorie Excess
Because women going through menopause are prone to exceed their energy needs due to changes in food preferences, you need to have an eagle eye on calories. Whether you choose to count calories is a personal decision, but it’s worthwhile to identify a strategy for monitoring how much you are eating while keeping an eye on body composition, either with a scale, circumference measurements, or more sophisticated body fat assessments.
Priority #2: Maintain Muscle Mass
Muscle is the engine for your metabolism, requiring significant calories to maintain daily. The best way to maintain muscle mass is to combine strength training with adequate protein intake. Studies continually show that most aging adults are not consuming enough protein in a pattern that optimizes lean tissue: Instead of loading up on protein at dinner, protein should be evenly distributed at meals throughout the day with an aim to get 1.6 g/kg of body weight daily. For a 140-pound woman, this equals 100 grams of protein a day.
Priority #3: Get Nutrients That Support Detoxification
We’re not talking about a one-off detox here. Rather, your body goes through detoxification on a daily basis, eliminating waste products, including excess hormones that raise cancer risk. The catch is that detoxification is a nutrient-dense process and if you aren’t eating a wide range of protein and high-fiber foods from green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and dark-colored fruits, you won’t be giving your body the reserves needed for elimination. Foods such as broccoli, leafy greens, and sesame seeds contain unique nutrients that specifically help you metabolize excess estrogens that can be a problem during perimenopause.
Priority #4: Support The Adrenals & Balance Stress Hormones
Many women find menopause to be especially stressful and changing estrogen levels can wreak havoc on balance of the stress hormone cortisol. Poor eating habits, either due to meal skipping, junk food, or too much coffee or sugar will stress the adrenals and exacerbate your experience of stress. It’s worth making the effort to manage stress by nourishing the body with high-quality meal choices and a regular eating schedule that allows you to minimize hunger and cravings.
Priority #5: Moderate Blood Sugar & Insulin
One thing women have going for them pre-menopause is that their bodies are fairly capable of burning fat. But once the menopausal transition starts, fat burning goes way down and they become more prone to burn muscle. Combining this metabolic misfortune with high insulin, a hormone that stores glucose (from carbs) and turns “off” fat burning, puts women at risk of overshooting their calorie intake so they gain fat and develop insulin resistance.
What Do These Priorities Look Like In Real Life?
You have freedom to adjust your nutrition to meet your preferences but what follows are some general guidelines for preventing fat gain during menopause:
Adopt A Meal Frequency & Stick To It
If you’re new to healthy eating, choosing three meals and one to two snacks per day can help keep hunger at bay. For others, fewer, larger meals can save time and allow for better blood sugar regulation. Intermittent fasting is another option that can help shift the body into fat burning mode, but the key is to ensure you aren’t over-consuming calories due to extreme hunger.
Include Protein At Every Meal
Eating high-quality protein in the form of meat, fish, eggs, or dairy will fuel protein synthesis for better maintenance of muscle mass. Shoot for a minimum of 20 grams of protein per meal. Instead of loading up at dinner, spread your protein throughout the day. For example, if you are eating 100 grams of protein a day, aim for about 33 grams at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Add Green Or Other Low-Carb Vegetables To Every Meal
Leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, etc., help manage hunger and provide fiber and antioxidants to protect the body from stress.
Include Healthy Fats At Every Meal
Healthy fats from fish, nuts, avocado, and olive oil provide protective nutrients like omega-3s and omega-7s that support metabolic health and fight inflammation.
Stop Drinking Your Calories
Soda, juice, sports drinks, and alcohol all pile on the calories and are associated with fat gain.
Avoid Refined Carbs & Junk Food
Choosing quality complex carbs (fruit, boiled grains, root veggies like sweet potatoes) over bread, sweets, cereal, and junk food helps with hunger management and makes it easier to avoid an energy excess. That said, complex carbs shouldn’t make up the bulk of your calories—partly because high-carb diets end up replacing the protein and healthy fats your body needs and partly because they still contain glucose and fructose, which can negatively affect hormone balance if over-consumed.
Coffee has many benefits, but if you’re drinking it all day long, it will elevate cortisol and may worsen your experience of stress.
Get Enough Protective Nutrients
Supplements can fill nutritional holes and provide the body with what it needs to maintain muscle mass, manage inflammation, and keep stress at bay. Magnesium, vitamin D, fish oil, and probiotics, are all foundational nutrients to consider.
Final Words: Preventing fat gain during menopause is especially important because this is a stage when fat is deposited in abdominal area, which confers added health risks. Optimizing your diet is a nourishing way to manage body composition during this time and protect you from increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.