Here's what you need to know about menopause and weight gain

Good news: menopause doesn't have to equal weight gain.
Published 2 September, 2020

What is menopause?

Menopause refers to the natural and permanent cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle, and usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.

While never having a period again may not be something to complain about, menopause can also result in a range of not-so-pleasant symptoms, such as hot flushes, night sweats and anxiety.

Body fat also has a tendency to redistribute itself around the abdomen during this time, which can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and more. And women often may ask themselves "what is the best diet for menopause?"

Why do women gain weight during/after menopause?

Menopause weight gain may not be so much to do with this life stage as it is to do with age in general.

Our metabolism slows as we age, and the menopausal drop in oestrogen leads to a reduction in bone and muscle mass.

Since muscle burns more calories than fat, you naturally start burning fewer calories, and your energy requirements (i.e. your daily calorie requirements) drop.

We also tend to slow down as we age, which may mean engaging in less physical activity, leading to weight gain, so there is no one quick answer as to how to easily combat weight gaing during menopause and peri-menopause.

In some cases, menopausal symptoms trigger certain behavioural changes that can contribute to weight gain, observes obstetrician/gynecologist Paul Gluck, MD.

Say you're the type of person who turns to "comfort food" when you're feeling blue or stressed out. The mood swings that sometimes accompany menopause could trigger more frequent episodes of overeating, Gluck explains.

Also, if hot flushes keep waking you up at night, you may be too fatigued to exercise during the day.

How does menopause impact body shape?

Decreased oestrogen levels affect how fat is stored in the body. 

Where you once may have gained weight around your hips and thighs, after menopause, weight gain tends to move to your waistline leading to that phrase "belly fat", giving the body more of an apple shape.

“Until menopause, the main hormone operating in women is oestrogen, and that tends to protect us from being apple-shaped like men,” explains Dr Lauren Williams, University of Newcastle senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics. “So, even if you don’t gain any fat during or after menopause, the fat that you already have will redistribute itself from the hips and thighs to the tummy.”

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 Williams.

To burn fat and firm up your middle and reduce menopausal weight gain, add a good mix of cardio and strength training workouts into your week.

How to prevent weight gain during and after menopause

A slower metabolism, plus a drop in bone and muscle mass, reduces your overall 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 need fewer calories every day. Unless you make dietary changes, you will gradually gain weight.”

Gluck also suggests stepping up your physical activity - especially strength training - to build muscle and get your burning more calories throughout the day.

You can maintain or even lose weight during or after menopause with a few simple lifestyle tweaks, like making these healthy swaps or starting your day with a 20 minute workout.

Losing weight could even help with hot flushes and night sweats. A study of over 17,000 women experiencing menopausal symptoms but not taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) found that those who ate a diet low in fat (20% of calories per day from fat) and high in grains (6 servings daily), fruits and vegetables (5 servings daily), and lost at least 10lbs over 12 months were more likely to experience less or no hot flashes and night sweats than those in a control group who maintained their weight.1