In my role as Resident Coach Expert of Over 40 Women’s Health here at Breaking Muscle, I have been receiving many questions from readers, so I decided to address one particularly common theme that really can be very frustrating for women: hormone changes and fat gain during menopause.
Here is the question that gave me the topic inspiration:
“I just read your article concerning women and hormonal changes. I’m also a personal trainer and am 62. I’ve been doing a lot of research this summer trying to understand weight, not only for my clients but for myself as well. In the past few years, I’ve been struggling to keep myself looking the way I want to (and have been used to). Like you, I could eat whatever I wanted with no weight gain. Even five years ago, I was feeling pretty good. But now the weight is slowly creeping on. It’s hard to know what to do when the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore. I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle with the hill getting steeper with every passing year.”
Why Do We Gain Weight During Menopause?
Nine out of 10 American premenopausal and menopausal women will gain weight (as will 70 percent of all women worldwide, due to varied diets and other cultural influences), says Amos Pines, MD, former president of the International Menopause Society. Women can expect to gain 10-20 pounds, which translates into the need for clothing that’s one or two sizes larger. Many menopausal women become frustrated, discouraged, annoyed, and angry as they gain the weight.1
As with most forms of weight gain it’s not usually a single factor that’s to blame, but it’s multi-layered. Women who never gained weight (that was me) suddenly do, and it’s a mind-fuck. So I feel your pain—the struggle is real.
During menopause our bodies produce less estrogen from the ovaries, but still need estrogen to function, so fat cells begin to produce hormones. Because of this change in prodcution, you tend to put on a few pounds to keep up with the estrogen demand. These few pounds begin to show themselves especially around the mid-section. The truth is that your body needs some fat to have normal hormone health, but not too much fat because that may lead to health issues such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Dr Jade Teta says, “At menopause both estrogen and progesterone are low. It’s less volatile, but this combo means increased deposition of belly fat since insulin and cortisol are wreaking havoc and brain chemical changes, which means increased hunger and cravings. Postmenopause sees low estrogen and progesterone, but higher relative testosterone because ovaries keep producing testosterone. This accelerates belly growth.”
Therefore, one of the first steps you need to do is acknowledge that your hormonal functions and the way your body copes with them are not what they were (stating the bloody obvious), and what you do moving forward has to change, too. The old ways won’t work anymore.
Hormone Disruption and Stress
We also know that low estrogen impacts your ability to cope with stress, and if you are in a constant heightened state of stress then you produce more cortisol and likely become more insulin resistant. This state of being leads to weight gain. Studies have shown the impact of estradiol (our most active estrogen) and fat storage—we burn less fat than we did prior to peri-menopause and during menopause. We are not only likely to store more fat, but will also have an inability to part with it as easily as we did before.3
Other independent risk factors for stress during menopause include poor sleep, negative life events, lack of employment, change in family dynamics, and the acceptance of the natural aging process, which can certainly contribute to higher levels of stress, even depression. It’s important to recognize these deep biochemical level changes and the impact they have on your body.
Are You Making the Problem Worse?
We will gain weight so, as women, the knee-jerk reaction is to eat less and work out harder, that’s what we did 20 years ago, so it should work now. Right? The problem is that this approach isn’t going to work. In fact, eating less and working out harder might be making the problem worse. Are you guilty of any of the following?
- Over-exercising, so stressing out an already stressed out body.
- Not resting enough to allow your body to recover adequately before it is stressed again through exercise.
- Not doing enough self-care, finding the time for mindfulness or meditation.
- Eating like a sparrow. It is very common in women to think less food will mean they will lose fat, yet because of the metabolic disruption they are experiencing this will mean rather than eating less, they need to eat more intelligently.
The solution to weight gain during menopause needs to be considered from a lifestyle/mindset standpoint and not from nutrition alone. Here are some ways you can start to make small changes that will have lasting, impactful results:
- Exercise intelligently. Your exercise schedule should be designed so that you incorporate strength work to build lean muscle with some metabolic overload for aerobic conditioning and metabolic adaptation.
- Practice self care. This is one of the important pieces of the puzzle that is overlooked by women because they feel it is too time consuming and not important enough, yet we know that stress is a massive factor for fat gain, so taking the time to unwind, destress, restock, whatever you want to call it, is very important.
- Rest adequately. Interrupted sleep, which can occur frequently during menopause, will also affect your stress levels. Don’t be afraid to take it easy on the days when you are tired. Take a nap and change your workout to be more movement based rather than high intensity. Do less.
- Eat in moderation with your nutrition goals in mind. Proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbs in the form of fruit, vegetables, and grains (fiber) are your best friend right now. Sugary starches and junk food really are the bad girls on the playground.
- Play the long game. You simply have no choice. We know that weight loss and body composition changes during this phase will take longer, but they are still attainable. Your changes should be focused on long term goals, quick fix diets will do you more harm than good.
- Find a community. Everything’s easier when you know you are not alone. Menopause can make you feel very isolated and as though nobody truly understands what you are experiencing. Find a group of women who can support you, listen to your issues without judgement, and help you feel better about the journey. I have a community group called Menopausing So Hard that does all of this and is proving to be a great help to many women.
Enjoy the process of introducing new habits into your life that you know will eventually have you back to feeling your best. Know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can do this!