fat gain menopause

How To Stop Fat Gain During Menopause

 

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

Betty Friedan

Getting older brings challenges for everyone. For women going through menopause it is a uniquely bittersweet experience due to the fact that many women gain a significant amount of body fat during this time. The upside is that weight gain is not inevitable. There are actions you can take to maintain leanness and stay healthy.

How Much Fat Do Women Usually Gain During Menopause?

Menopause is a time of changing hormone levels. Women experience a drop in their levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Combined with changes in physical activity and metabolic health, these hormonal changes lead many women to gain fat during menopause. The degree of fat gain during menopause varies but the average is about 5 pounds (1-3).

Unfortunately, women also lose muscle mass during this time, which compounds the negative effect on body composition. Additionally, much of the fat gain occurs in the abdominal area. This is a health concern because belly fat is metabolically active. It releases harmful cytokines that cause inflammation and increase risk of heart disease and stroke.

Why Do Many Women Gain Weight During Menopause?

We know from the first law of thermodynamics that fat gain is always about an energy imbalance: If you are gaining weight, you are consuming more calories than you are expending.

Several factors contribute to the energy excess during menopause. First, during menopause, women tend to become less active. For example, a 4-year study that followed women going through menopause found a decrease in daily energy expenditure of about 200 calories a day or 9.3 percent (1). Researchers note that the women were exercising less and burning fewer calories doing things like fidgeting, getting up and down off the couch, or walking.

Interestingly, women also experience a drop in resting energy expenditure, burning fewer calories overnight while they are sleeping. One study found that postmenopausal women experienced a 1.5 times greater reduction in energy expenditure over 4 years compared to those who remained pre-menopausal (1). Combined with the drop in physical activity, this equates to a 30 percent decrease in calories burned over a-24 hour period.

A second factor is food intake.

Estrogen impacts appetite, reducing food intake (6). As estrogen declines with menopause, women tend to eat more and they often choose more hyperpalatable, less healthy foods that are associated with overeating. In one study, women going through menopause decreased their intake of protein, fiber, and polyunsaturated fats, replacing them with higher intake of saturated fat, gaining 4.4 percent body fat in the process (1). Protein, fiber, and polyunsaturated fats are considered healthy foods that help moderate appetite and could prevent fat gain over time.

A shift to less healthy foods is accompanied by changes in hormones that affect where the body stores extra fat. When estrogen drops during menopause, women end up burning less fat for energy (5). In one trial, fat oxidation over 24 hours decreased by a whopping 32 percent. 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 (4). This is the opposite of what you want for metabolic health body because it means the body is burning lean tissue and losing muscle.

Why Is There Such A Radical Metabolic Shift During Menopause?

Research is still in the early stages but we do know that estrogen influences levels of fat burning enzymes, leading to a drop in the body’s ability to use fat for energy (5). Menopausal women are also known to have higher levels of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that promotes fat storage, particularly within fat cells in the abdominal region. Conversely, estrogen replacement therapy has been shown to prevent belly fat gain in favor of subcutaneous fat that is right below the skin and considered benign (6).

Is There Any Good News Regarding Fat Gain During Menopause?

First, fat gain around the belly area appears to stabilize once the menopause transition is complete (1). This narrows down the time frame during which extra vigilance is crucial. The key is for women to enter the perimenopausal stage with habits that prevent fat gain firmly in place.

Second, gaining body fat is largely preventable through nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle habits. In one year-long study of women going through menopause, engaging in a vigorous exercise program largely prevented the women from gaining body fat (4). Compared to a control group that gained 2.5 pounds of body and decreased resting metabolic rate by 45 calories a day, the 88 women enrolled in a strength-based exercise program were able to decrease visceral belly fat while maintaining muscle mass. They also maintained resting energy expenditure and had a small increase in fat mass of 0.5 pounds. By adding in nutrition and lifestyle habits, it’s likely the women could prevent the small fat gain that occurred.

How To Prevent Mid-Life Fat Gain

Although you can’t control the natural changes that occur during menopause, you can take actions that support metabolic health and help balance hormones.

Start With Nutrition

We all know the importance of replacing processed junk with healthier whole food options from meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, etc. This is especially important during menopause when our body’s ability to regulate hunger and handle stress can get a little out of whack. Avoiding these poorer quality food options helps regulate blood sugar and insulin while making you less like to overshoot your calorie needs.

Choose High-Quality Protein

High-quality protein is a top priority to help maintain muscle and regulate appetite. Research suggests shooting for 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight (0.73 grams per pound), which for a 140-pound woman is about 100 grams of protein. Ideally, protein should be spread out throughout the day, with the goal of consuming at least 20 grams at every meal. One palm size serving of fish or meat, a cup of Greek yogurt, or 4 eggs will meet that threshold.

Eat Vegetables & Other High-Fiber Foods

Veggies are necessary to feed your healthy gut bacteria and help the body eliminate excess estrogen. Aim for 30 to 45 grams of fiber per day by including high-fiber vegetables at every meal. Green veggies in particular are a great food choice because they contain nutrients that help the body to metabolize excess hormones that lead to hormonal imbalances during the menopausal transition. These foods also have anti-cancer effects and can help you detox chemicals that mimic estrogen but have negative side effects.

Incorporate Exercise

Weight training is your go-to exercise mode because it will help you maintain muscle mass while improving levels of enzymes involved in fat burning. It also keeps you mobile while helping to reset the adrenal axis for better stress management.

Staying active throughout the day is another priority. Evolutionary biology shows that humans evolved to be active throughout the entire lifespan, however, today, older adults spend an increasing amount of time in sedentary behavior. In addition to burning calories to prevent a calorie excess, physical activity turns on a broad range of repair mechanisms that counter the effects of aging. Whether you adopt a regular cardio routine, do interval training, take walks, or use a step counter, the key is to “turn on” your muscles and metabolism with frequent movement throughout the day.

Focus on Lifestyle Factors

Lack of sleep and chronic stress are partners in crime when it comes to gaining fat. Both increase cortisol and stimulate your tastebuds for hyperpalatable, high-calorie foods, making it easy to overshoot calorie needs. And even though it seems like you might be less stressed as you enter middle age, many women find hormonal changes to be challenging. Therefore, it is often worthwhile to employ habits that actively help lower stress and promote good sleep, such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. This can keep cortisol in check just as the body becomes more susceptible to its muscle-degrading, fat-storing effects.

Final Words

Fat gain during menopause is common but not inevitable. Understanding the science behind this phenomenon will help you put habits in place that can keep you lean and healthy for life!

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