In this blog we’re going to look at what to do about weight gain in menopause. We’ll look at the validity of some common solutions put forward by the diet and wellness industry and consider effective strategies for managing our weight in menopause.
But first, let’s take a moment to reflect that the female body is constantly evolving. In pregnancy the body changes shape and form and everyone accepts it as the norm.
Similarly, as women approach their perimenopausal years, the body changes again, to adapt to fluctuations in hormones and to meet the demands placed on it.
Changes in our bodies through perimenopause, especially if they’re related to body size, are less welcome. We often spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about how our body looks, rather than how it actually feels.
We get blinded by supposed solutions and things we must be doing wrong and lose sight of what is actually within our conscious control. What is physiologically just part of the process of the menopausal journey and what do we have control over?
Let’s explore weight gain in menopause
Firstly, it’s important to consider the biological and hormonal changes occurring.
Understanding weight gain in perimenopause
Our clever bodies detect declining levels of oestrogen and look for ways to compensate for this. Our fat cells produce a weak form of oestrogen, as the body thinks that by producing more fat cells, it can get its hands on more oestrogen.
This can cause fat cells to multiple, especially around our middle, to produce a reserve of oestrogen. Changes in oestrogen also influence how we use different fuels within the body, but we need more research to interpret these findings in a meaningful way.
Is insulin resistance something to do with perimenopausal weight gain?
In some women, an increased number of fats cells around the middle can also contribute to how the body responds to insulin. Insulin is the hormone needed to metabolise carbohydrate (glucose). Insulin acts as a key, unlocking cells and allowing glucose to pass in to be converted to energy. You can understand this better by reading this blog on Insulin Resistance specifically.
As we age, some of us will develop an element of insulin resistance, whereby the lock on the cell, becomes less responsive to the actions of the insulin ‘key’ – so the body responds by releasing more insulin to do the same job.
This can make weight loss more challenging, as insulin is essentially a hormone that the body associates with storage. Insulin resistance is complex though, and many things affect it, most notably our genetics.
It is also really important to note that avoiding carbohydrates or trying to stick to very low carb diets even if you have insulin resistance, is not ideal, despite what you may hear.
Whatever approach we take, It’s important to consider what is sustainable long-term. My Belly Fat 101 masterclass is a great starting point.
What happens to our metabolism during menopause?
Falling oestrogen and testosterone levels impact our muscle mass which in turns influences our metabolic rate. Muscle ‘burns’ more calories than other body parts, which means as our muscle declines, our capacity to burn energy, even at rest, is less.
It’s important to put it in perspective though – changes in muscle mass like these, could mean the difference of only around 100 calories less per day being used.
What happens if we have dieted for years, before entering the perimenopause?
A lot of the women I work with have dieted for many years. When our body weight fluctuates and we go through periods of restriction, followed by a more liberal eating style, it plays havoc with our body composition, and specifically our muscle mass.
When we put our body through a strict diet, it has to find ways to cope. Muscle stores are broken down and used as fuel. It’s common for many of us to try various diets in an attempt to get rid of belly fat; find out what’s going on behind the claims in this blog on diets for eliminating belly fat.
Higher protein intakes and resistance exercise seem to guard against this to some degree, but there’s no doubt, large calorie deficits spell can bad news for body composition long-term.
Meeting your fuel needs and keeping you alive is your body’s number one priority and it doesn’t care that it has to use up some muscle stores to do this.
Women heading into their perimenopausal years, with a long dieting history behind them, will therefore probably already have a lower muscle mass to contend with.
How does exercise affect perimenopausal weight loss?
Dieting and exercise get tangled up together so often, whereby we’re either ‘on it’ for both behaviours or feeling like we’re failing at both. We enter into diet plans alongside gruelling exercise regimes, none of which are sustainable.
The fallout from this is when we’re not focussed on ‘being good’ with our food intake, our exercise regimes also tail off. We get trapped in the idea of having to earn our food choices or burn off our ‘naughty slip ups’ and our relationship with exercise deteriorates.
Exercising when you’re in a calorie deficit is also much harder so things feel more effortful, and we don’t remember it as a positive experience.
So, taking all this into consideration, let’s look at:
How to lose weight during menopause
Firstly, I would encourage you to pause and look at the bigger picture. We’re all hunting for the solution that is going to restore our bodies to their former selves, but, in reality, our body’s will change shape over time and that is normal.
The diet industry vultures will always circulate, with their hollow promises – but I believe in our 40s and 50s we owe our body compassion, nourishment and sustainable approaches.
Be curious, rather than judgey; look at the circumstances that contribute to your eating habits in the first place and start there.
Significant contributors to weight gain in menopause
Looking at how you cope with and manage stress is priority number one. If you are constantly feeling in flight, fight, freeze mode, this will be impacting the amount of cortisol your body is exposed to.
Cortisol itself is not bad news. It’s a hormone that has many roles in the body, including helping us to wake up in the morning, but fluctuating levels of oestrogen can make us more susceptible to it’s affects and if we don’t put ourselves into the calmer ‘rest and digest’ state often enough to counterbalance it, we get out of whack quite easily.
Let’s be clear – you don’t have to have a bubble bath every day, but you do have to remember to breathe and not inhale your food as a starting point. This is a huge subject in itself and one that I support women with.
Linked to this is sleep. Often the perimenopause will rob us of this precious commodity, and we’ll talk more about that another time. For now, have it on your radar as a significant contributor to this menopause weight gain puzzle.
Even small tweaks, like reducing screentime before bed, or giving yourself permission to go to bed on time, can make all the difference.
Does HRT cause weight gain?
There is no evidence that HRT causes weight gain, so assessing your need for some sort of hormonal replacement could form a key part in your perimenopausal journey.
Final thoughts on weight gain in menopause
Irrespective of hormone shifts in menopause, muscle mass will decline with age.
Being physically active, to include some weight bearing exercise, and eating enough protein help to guard against the amount of muscle mass we lose. Get clear on your protein needs here.
It’s also really important we look after our muscles to aid our posture and balance – whenever I type sentences like these, I always automatically sit up straighter!
Here are my final tips for weight gain in menopause:
- Reduce stress
- Improve sleep
- Eat well
- Move with intention
- Avoid strict calorie deficit diets
- Make informed decisions about replacing your hormones and consult a menopause specialist GP
It can be helpful to monitor all symptoms so that you can get context for any changes in your body weight. The balance app is a really good way to do this.