Does menopause cause weight gain?
As if hot flushes, intimacy challenges and the mood swings that can occur during menopause weren't enough for women to get their heads around, many fret that their clothes will inevitably start feeling too tight as well. But the good news is that menopause doesn't have to equal weight gain – a few simple lifestyle tweaks can help you steer well and truly clear of weight gain later in life.
What is menopause?
Menopause refers to the natural and permanent cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle – something many of us will hardly be complaining about – and usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. Peri-menopause is the stage when periods become irregular and can last several years in the lead up to menopause. Post-menopausal refers to a woman who hasn't had a period for 12 months or more.
It’s a time of physiological change when oestrogen levels decrease, affecting how fat is stored in the body. Symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats and anxiety can also be experienced. “Until menopause, the main hormone operating in women is oestrogen and that tends to protect us from being apple-shaped like men and therefore protects us against heart disease,” explains Dr Lauren Williams, University of Newcastle senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics. “So, even if you don’t gain any fat, the fat that you already have will redistribute itself from the hips and thighs to the tummy.”
Lean muscle mass also decreases at this time, which in turn affects metabolism – muscle burns the energy we eat, whereas fat burns a lot less. “Women approaching menopause need to realise that their energy requirements will change and drop, and they can compensate for that by doing more exercise,” Dr Williams adds. They can also compensate for this natural reduction by eating less.
Changes in oestrogen hormone
While it’s true that a drop in the hormone oestrogen at menopause changes the way your body stores fat, experts say you can avoid gaining more fat during your middle years. Where you once may have gained weight around your hips and thighs, after menopause it tends to move to your waistline. “We go from being a pear shape with our weight mainly on our hips to an apple, where we put on weight around the middle,” explains Associate Professor Amanda Vincent, president of the Australasian Menopause Society.
An apple shape doesn't only make your waistband tighter, it’s also a more dangerous type of fat, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis and depression. “That fat raises cholesterol and triglycerides and makes you less able to process glucose properly,” says Professor Lauren Williams, Griffith University Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, making it clear why weight maintenance in middle age is important to a long, healthy life.
The good news is that Williams’ research showed that only 40 per cent of menopausal women gain weight, and more often than not, this weight gain is preventable with lifestyle change. “My studies also showed a trend towards emotional eating in women who gained weight in menopause, and an increased likelihood of working full-time, which led to buying more meals outside of the home,” she says.
Slowing metabolism tips
We can thank aging – not menopause – for a naturally slowing metabolism and reduced kilojoule requirement. “After the age of 27 or 28, our engines slow down so we get a drop in the number of kilojoules we need for our bodies,” says Williams. “If you think about your body like a car, you need less petrol as you age.”
The menopausal drop in oestrogen also leads to a reduction in bone and muscle mass, which reduces our energy requirements. “Bone and muscle requires more energy,” Williams explains. “As soon as you shift to having more fat and less bone and muscle, you actually need fewer kilojoules every day.”
By the time women reach menopause, Williams says they will need about 418 kilojoules less per day than when they were in their 20s – which is about the equivalent of cutting out a fun-size Mars Bar or one glass of wine. That said, physical activity – strength training in particular – helps improve our bone and muscle mass to help us expend more energy throughout the day. “Activity is really important for bone health because after menopause your risk of osteoporosis increases,” Vincent adds. “You want to aim to do 150 minutes a week. It’s best to do a variety of exercises – some strength and some aerobic to get all of the benefits.”
Five menopause pick-me-ups
1. Slow down
“Be aware if you’re emotionally eating,” Williams says. “Slow down your rate of eating, because you get a lot more out of mindfully eating a couple of squares of chocolate than you do from mindlessly eating a whole block.”
2. Eat more fish
Add some canned salmon or sardines (with bones) to your weekly menu for a dose of calcium to prevent osteoporosis, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which may help with hot flushes. Aim for two to three serves a week.
3. Think long-term
With the average woman living well into her 80s, now is a great time to put good habits in place. “Often menopause is a good time for women to take stock of their health to set themselves up for healthy ageing into the future,” Vincent points out.
4. Up your nutrition
“When you get to that period of menopause your total energy requirement drops in a subtle but consistent way, and unless you make dietary change, you will gradually gain weight,” says Williams. “Aside from activity, the most important change you can make is to eat five serves of vegetables a day with lots of variety and colours.”
5. Get organised
Research shows nearly one in four meals Aussies eat are prepared outside the home, and Williams says it’s a recipe for weight gain. “Try to rely less on foods that are prepared outside the home, because they always have more fat, sugar and salt,” she says.