When you’re younger, it’s easier to bounce back from weight gain. But after menopause, it may be more challenging. Before you tackle weight loss after menopause, it’s important to understand how your body changes during this life transition. You can lose weight after menopause, contrary to popular opinion.
Menopause comes with lots of pesky symptoms. But for some women, weight gain is the issue that takes the cake. If you’re struggling to lose weight after menopause, then you should know you’re not alone. Countless women deal with the same thing. Below, we will explain why losing weight after menopause is so difficult- and how to finally shed those extra pounds.
Couple physical changes from aging with the hormonal changes brought about by menopause, and it may seem that losing weight after menopause feels really hard for most women.
But as you glide through the big M, you may also notice something else: Even if the number on the scale is not rising considerably, any weight you do gain ends up accumulating around your abdomen, leaving you with what sure looks like someone else’s beer belly.
“After menopause, your ovaries stop producing estrogen, and the only place where it can be generated is in your abdominal fat cells,” explains Deborah Clegg, M.D., a professor of internal medicine at the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. As a result, “your body naturally gravitates towards storing fat in that area, in an effort to get estrogen,” says Clegg, who notes that the stomach’s been called “the third ovary.”
You may have heard weight gain in middle age is unavoidable, or that weight loss is impossible after the transition. However, research has shown it is possible to lose weight after menopause, and it’s a smart choice if you’re overweight and want to improve your health.
“Weight gain is a problem for many women, despite maintaining the same diet and exercise routines that they’ve had for years,” says JoAnn Pinkerton, M.D., executive director of the North American Menopause Society. “Even if the number on the scale doesn’t change, women complain of a shift in fat to the midsection after menopause.”
What Is Menopause?
Menopause is a period in a woman’s life when weight maintenance may be particularly difficult. Obesity is more common in men than in women before 45 years of age, but, after this point, the trend reverses. It is estimated that women gain an average of 1–2 kg during the perimenopausal transition. During the menopause, there is a shift in fat distribution and storage from the hips to the waist. There are a number of hormonal changes, such as decreased levels of estrogen and increased levels of circulating androgens, that lead to weight gain, particularly in terms of visceral fat. In consequence, visceral fat mass increases by 44% during menopause, and the mass of gynoid fat rises by approximately 32%.
In addition to hormonal variations, it is relevant to consider the contribution of environmental factors such as reduced physical activity, Westernized eating patterns and common emotional eating disorders related to psychological discomfort. Thus, various lipid metabolic disorders may lead to the development of metabolic syndromes including cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. For this reason, metabolic syndrome is found in menopausal women three times more often than before the menopause. This increased risk seems to be caused more by changes during the menopausal transition than by postmenopause.
Proper nutrition plays a fundamental role in the prevention of chronic degenerative diseases during the menopause. In a study of women aged 50 to 60 years, fruit, vegetables and wholemeal bread were the most frequently consumed products in the healthy diet group. Significant correlations were observed with mental health, functioning in society, emotionality, vitality and well-being. However, modest associations were observed for some single nutrients or food items with ovarian reserve and age at menopause. Dietary intervention plus exercise provided better body weight and body composition (BC) parameters than calorie-restricted diet interventions alone in overweight and obese peri- and postmenopausal women.
Few studies have compared the efficacy of diet therapies in promoting weight loss in postmenopausal women. The aim of this study is to assess whether menopausal status affects weight loss and BC changes in a homogeneous group of women over 45 years of age undergoing a traditional Mediterranean-type low-calorie diet.
Why Menopause Makes Weight Loss So Hard
Menopause officially starts when a person hasn’t had a menstrual cycle for 12 months. Around this time, it may be very hard to lose weight.
In fact, many people notice that they actually start putting on weight during perimenopause, which can begin a decade prior to menopause.
Several factors play a role in weight gain around menopause, including:
- Hormone fluctuations. Both elevated and very low levels of estrogen can lead to increased fat storag.
- Loss of muscle mass. This occurs due to age, hormonal changes, and decreased physical activity (3, 4).
- Inadequate sleep. Many women have trouble sleeping during menopause. Poor sleep is linked to weight gain.
- Increased insulin resistance. Women often become insulin resistant as they age, which can make losing weight more difficult.
What’s more, fat storage shifts from the hips and thighs to the abdomen during menopause. This increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (9).
Therefore, strategies that promote the loss of abdominal fat are particularly important at this stage of life.
How to Lose Weight After Menopause
Regular exercise is an excellent way to promote weight loss and overall physical health.
Many people experience decreases in muscle tone as they get older, and a loss of muscle tone can cause an increase in body fat. Exercise is a key way to build muscle and prevent age-related muscle loss.
Research shows that aerobic exercise can decrease body fat after menopause. Another study has found that resistance training three times a week can improve lean body mass and reduce body fat in postmenopausal women
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that people should aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity every week and that people should do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days each week.
A combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training will help reduce body fat and build muscle.
Menopause-related weight tends to settle around the abdomen. Find tips for losing belly fat here.
If a person is not already active, they may find it easier to increase their activity levels gradually. Little ways to build more activity into the day include:
- doing yard work, such as gardening
- taking a dog for a walk
- parking farther away from the building entrance
- taking the stairs instead of the elevator
- standing up to take phone calls
- going for a walk or getting another type of exercise at lunchtime
The Low Carb Diet
Many studies have shown that low carb diets are excellent for weight loss and are also able to help reduce abdominal fat.
Although perimenopausal and postmenopausal women have been included in several low carb studies, there have only been a few studies looking at this population exclusively.
In one such study, postmenopausal women on a low carb diet lost 21.8 pounds (9.9 kilograms), 27.5% of their body fat, and 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) from their waists within 6 months.
What’s more, carb intake doesn’t need to be extremely low to produce weight loss.
In another study, a paleo diet providing roughly 30% of calories from carbs produced a greater reduction in abdominal fat and weight after 2 years than a low fat diet. The low fat diet provided 55–60% of calories from carbs.
Increasing Exercise May Be a Key to Success
The old adage of eat less and move more certainly applies to weight loss after menopause, but the ratios may have to shift to see results.
“Cutting calories is necessary for weight loss, but increasing exercise will help sustain weight loss, prevent weight gain and lead to favorable changes in body composition,” Pinkerton says. “The general recommendation is 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days per week.”
You don’t have to get that all in one session each day, she adds. You can divide it up over two 15-minute high-powered sessions if that helps fit it into your day more easily.
Low estrogen levels during menopause makes it harder to build muscle. To give your metabolism a boost and prevent muscle loss, consider lifting weights more often. Because muscles are metabolically active, they burn more calories than fat. Research has shown that women lose about 10 to 15 percent of their strength every decade in middle age. “Physical inactivity, reduced protein intake, and stress are the most significant reasons for declining muscle mass during this period,” says Tobin.
Aim to do two to three full-body strength training workouts per week. Not sure where to start? Tobin recommends three different types of strength training: hypertrophy training (doing three sets of 10 reps of total-body exercises like weighted squats, bench press, and deadlifts); strength training (five sets of three to four reps of similar exercises at a heavier weight); and power training (three to four sets of three to four reps of max-intensity exercises, like box jumps, squat jumps, or medicine ball throws).
Crank It Up
If you’re sedentary, starting an exercise program will help you shed pounds as well as relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, according to a study published last year in the medical journal Menopause. But if you’re already active, you’ll need to crank things up a notch. The best way to do this is through a short duration of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where you alternate brief periods of intense physical activity with more relaxed recovery periods.
Obese postmenopausal women who did 10 minutes of HIIT five times a week lost twice as much weight as those who did more traditional endurance exercises, like brisk walking, according to a University of Scranton study published last October in Menopause. “This doesn’t have to be a lot — it can just be tweaking your morning walk to throw in some hills,” says Peeke.
Know Your Calorie Limit
It’s an inconvenient truth, but trial and error is an unavoidable part of the weight-control process, and women over age 40 will need to adjust their food intake to avoid menopausal weight gain. “We hate the thought of counting every calorie, and we realize that the thought of doing that can trigger bad memories of dieting. However, everyone has a calorie ‘budget,’ and simply eating a plant-based diet may not be enough if you aren’t aware of your limits,” Ward said.
Eating Nutrient-Rich Foods
To lose weight, people need to consume fewer calories than they use up. Making dietary changes is a key part of losing weight.
Healthful, nutrient-dense foods should be the basis for all meals and snacks. A person’s diet should contain a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.
A Mediterranean-style diet is a very popular and effective diet for health. A 2016 study has reported that this diet can improve heart disease risk factors, such as blood pressure and lipid levels, and result in weight loss.
People should make a point to eat:
- a variety of fruits and vegetables
- lean proteins, from beans, fish, or chicken, for example
- whole grains in bread and cereals
- healthful fats, such as from olive oil or avocados
People should avoid processed foods and those containing high amounts of trans or saturated fats. Some examples include:
- white bread
- pastries, such as cakes, cookies, and donuts
- processed meats, such as hot dogs or bologna
- foods with a lot of added oils or sugar
Reducing the consumption of sweetened drinks — such as sodas and juices — can also help. Sugar-sweetened beverages carry a lot of extra calories.
A dietician or nutritionist can help establish a healthful eating plan and track progress.
A Vegan Or Vegetarian Diet
Vegan and vegetarian diets have also shown promise for weight loss (21).
Older studies in postmenopausal women reported significant weight loss and improvements in health among a group assigned to a vegan diet.
A 2018 survey found that vegans in perimenopause experienced less severe vasomotor symptoms (such as hot flashes) and physical symptoms than omnivores.
However, a more flexible vegetarian approach that includes dairy and eggs has also been shown to work well in older women
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
One study found that women who followed HIIT workouts lost twice as much weight and improved their body composition more than endurance exercisers. A second study found that HIIT-style exercise training can reduce abdominal fat.
“Bump up the intensity of your aerobic exercise, slowly at first, until you get in better cardio shape,” Upton says. “Think about trying high-intensity functional fitness like CrossFit or a boot camp-style workout.”
“As we get older our sense of thirst becomes less precise, so it can be easy to forget to drink enough water, which is a natural appetite suppressant,” says Ansel. If you’re not drinking as much as you used to, smartphone apps can help you track your fluid intake so you don’t forget to stay hydrated—which for most of us means about six to eight cups of water per day, or more if you’re working out. Invest in an insulated water bottle to fill up on H2O throughout the day.
Stop Eating After 7 P.M
Research shows that intermittent or alternate day fasting, where you eat normally for a day and restrict calories dramatically the next, can work. People who slashed their calories to between 750 and 1,100 for five days a month for three months lost significantly more abdominal fat — and improved blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels — than those who didn’t, according to a University of Southern California study published last year.
But since that’s hard to stick to, “I generally recommend that my patients only eat during a 12-hour window each day — for example, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then put the kitchen on lockdown after that,” says Peeke. “They’ll get some of the health benefits of intermittent fasting without the hassle or excessive hunger.”
Controlling Portion Sizes
Portion sizes in restaurants have increased over the years, and people are eating out more, so it can be difficult to gauge how much food a person actually needs per meal and per day.
To determine how much to include in a meal, it can help to understand standard serving sizes of some common foods. For example, some standard servings are:
- bread – 1 slice
- rice and pasta – ½ cup cooked
- fruit – one small piece
- milk or yogurt – 1 cup
- cheese – 2 ounces, or the size of a domino
- meat or fish – 2 to 3 ounces, or the size of a deck of cards
The following tips can help people control portion sizes:
- Measure out snacks instead of eating them from the bag.
- Avoid eating in front of the television — sit at a table instead.
- When eating out, opt for less bread and fewer appetizers.
- Use a kitchen scale and measuring cups to measure portions at home.
Get Enough Shut-Eye
Not catching enough zzz’s doesn’t just feel awful, it leads to weight gain over time. One study showed that women who slept less than five hours a night had a 30 percent higher risk of gaining 30 pounds over a 16-year period, compared to those who got a full seven hours. “Lack of sleep causes your hunger hormones to go haywire: It lowers the levels of leptin, which suppresses appetite, and increases ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite,” says Peeke.
If getting the rest you need is made challenging by, say, menopausal hot flashes, one option to consider is a short course of cognitive behavior therapy, a type of counseling where you’re taught new behavioral techniques to help promote sleep.
Both menopausal and postmenopausal women who used this technique showed a significant reduction of insomnia two to three months later, according to a study published this past January in the medical journal Sleep. Hormone replacement therapy, certain antidepressants such as low-dose paroxetine (Brisdelle), venlafaxine (Effexor), or escitalopram (Lexapro), or the migraine drug gabapentin (Neurontin) are all also options to discuss with your doctor, says Pinkerton.