By Jillian Smith, B.S., Dietetic Intern
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Have you ever wondered if menopause causes weight gain? If you have, you are not alone. Women typically go through menopause between 50 and 59 years of age. And studies show that the average woman gains about 1 pound per year around the time of menopause. As a result, we tend to assume that menopause causes weight gain. However, research suggests that this is not true.
In this article, we will explore how menopause affects weight and why some women gain weight in midlife. Then we'll review tips to help prevent weight gain.
A Shift in Where Fat Is Stored
At menopause, the ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Research suggests that the fall in estrogen levels is associated with fat moving from the hips to the abdomen (belly). This shift in fat stores does not cause an increase in weight. However, it may change how women carry their weight.
If weight gain does occur around menopause, it tends to be added to the abdominal area. Abdominal fat is associated with many serious health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
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Factors Associated with Weight Gain
Body composition refers to the amounts of muscle, fat, water and bone in the body. As women age, muscle mass decreases and fat mass increases. This slows a woman’s metabolism. As a result, the body burns fewer calories. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, women in midlife need about 200 fewer calories per day, compared with younger women.
Naturally, how much you eat affects your weight in midlife. How often you eat also affects your weight.
Many women's eating patterns change around menopause, due to other changes in their lives. For example, when children move out of the house, some women may no longer cook or eat dinner regularly. Eating infrequently or skipping meals can slow metabolism. Along with the increase in fat mass, a change in eating pattern may significantly change your body's ability to burn calories. To decrease your risk of weight gain, try eating every 3 to 4 hours. You're less likely to get hungry and overeat. You’re also less likely to choose foods that are less healthy. Read more about eating frequency and weight loss.
Physical activity level
Being inactive also can contribute to weight gain. The more physically active you are, the less likely you are to be overweight. Also, research suggests that strength training can help to preserve muscle mass. And muscle burns more calories than fat. Middle-aged women should aim for 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, along with at least 2 sessions of strength training per week.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 61% of menopausal women have sleep problems. These include trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Lack of sleep may alter the hormones that regulate hunger. You may feel hungrier before meals and less full after meals. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night.
Stress may play a role in weight gain. At menopause, the decrease in estrogen reduces the body's ability to regulate the hormone cortisol. This hormone helps to manage stress. If cortisol levels are high, you may feel stressed more easily. The increase in cortisol levels at menopause also may trigger an increase in appetite.
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Tips to Ward off Weight Gain in Midlife
1. Eat a healthful diet.
- Make sure your diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and low-fat dairy.
- Try soy foods with isoflavones (soy milk, tofu or edamame). They have estrogen-like properties and may offset the effects of decreased estrogen levels.
- Be mindful of how much alcohol you drink. Alcoholic beverages add calories to your diet. For example, one 8-ounce margarita has about 335 calories.
- Meet with a registered dietitian to create a food plan that works for you.
2. Practice portion control.
- Read the nutrition facts labels on packages. You may find that some packages contain more than one serving.
- Balance your meals. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, green beans, carrots), one-fourth of your plate with whole grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, whole grain bread), and the rest of your plate with lean protein (fish, chicken breast, lean beef, tofu).
3. Be consistent.
- Eat at regular intervals (ideally, every 3 to 4 hours) and avoid skipping meals.
- Choose healthy snacks, such as:
- a medium apple with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
- 1/2 cup of veggies with 2 tablespoons of hummas
- 1 string cheese with 10 whole-grain crackers.
- 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup of fruit
4. Have fun while being physically active.
- Join your local YMCA or fitness center.
- Take part in a walking group in your neighborhood or at the local shopping mall.
- Get the family together for an afternoon nature walk or a Saturday bike ride.
- Park away from the store entrance; take the stairs rather than the elevator.
- Mow the lawn with a push mower.
5. Manage your stress.
- Go for a walk or a jog.
- Take a yoga class.
- Pamper yourself with a day at the spa.
- Read your favorite book.
6. Get enough sleep.
- Set a regular sleep schedule. Continue this routine on the weekends.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol close to your bedtime.
- Turn off your television and other electronics.
- Try a noise machine or earplugs.
- Reserve your bed for sleep and sex.
These tips may help you to maintain your weight. Even better, they may help you lose weight before, during and after menopause. Avoiding excess weight gain will lower your risks of diabetes and heart disease. It also will help you to live a more healthful life.
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Jillian Smith graduated with a Bachelor of Science in nutrition and dietetics from the University of New Hampshire and is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
How much sleep is enough? National Institutes of Health website. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/howmuch.html. Updated 2012. Accessed June 26, 2014.
Stress and menopause. Menopause Health Hub Web site. http://www.avogel.co.uk/health/menopause/symptoms/stress/. Accessed June 26, 2014.
David A, Castelo-Brano C, Chedraui P, et al. "Understanding weight gain at menopause." Climacteric. 2010;15:419.
Greer S, Goldstein A, Walker M. "The impact of sleep deprivation of food desire in the human brain." Nature Communications. 2013;4:2259.
Macrcason W. Nutrition to keep you healthy. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Web site. http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442469861. Updated 2013. Accessed June 24, 2014.
Palmer M, Capra S, Baines S. "Association between eating frequency, weight, and health." Nutrition Reviews. 2009;67(6):379.