One of the most dreaded symptoms of the menopause. Many women find that they put on weight during this time which is very difficult to shift especially after the menopause.
Can this be avoided or is it to be expected?
Well, around 90% of women find that they put on weight during the menopause. In many ways this is a normal part of the process and something that you have to expect.
It can be attributed to your lifestyle and the type of diet you follow but changes in hormone levels are equally responsible.
What you will find is that the weight goes on over time and is very difficult to lose. This increase in weight will show itself as a few extra pounds around your stomach which results in an ‘apple shape’ rather than the traditional ‘pear shape’ often associated with women.
The apple shape is associated with men who tend to gain weight around the stomach during middle age.
What is even worse is that it becomes harder to shift this excess weight. You may be eating a healthy diet and exercising on a regular basis but none of this appears to work. This excess weight cannot be shifted which is both annoying and frustrating.
Causes of weight gain
The most obvious cause of weight gain is calorie intake. If you consume more calories than you use then you will gain weight. Likewise, if you burn off more calories than you ingest then you will lose weight.
Sounds simple doesn’t it: yet it is not always as straightforward as that…
Lifestyle does play a part. Many women find that they are less active in middle age than in their youth and this coupled with a lower metabolism means that those pounds sneak on over time.
But it looks like shifting hormone levels are to blame. This is the reason why it is difficult to lose those extra pounds and to maintain your weight in general.
Hormones and weight management
The female hormones oestrogen and progesterone plus the male hormones testosterone and androgen are fluctuating during this transition which means that you have a battle to lose weight.
Oestrogen is responsible for ovulation and the regulation of your menstrual periods. But levels of this fall once you start the menopause which stops ovulation.
Your ovaries normally produce oestrogen but once they start to decrease their ability to do so your body then looks for other sources of this hormone.
One of these sources is fat cells. Fat cells in your body produce oestrogen which means that your body works harder than before to covert calories into fat which will increase oestrogen levels.
So the more calories you consume the more likely these will be converted into fat to enable the body to access oestrogen.
But fat cells are less effective at burning calories compared to muscle cells which means that it is easy to gain weight.
This is why it is important to monitor the amount of calories you consume each day to ensure that your calorie intake does not exceed calorie expenditure.
This also falls during the menopause. Symptoms of low levels of progesterone include bloating and water retention which is also associated with pre-menstrual tension (PMT).
This bloating causes an increase in weight although this usually returns to normal once progesterone levels settle down. This ‘weight gain’is not a true increase in weight as in an extra few pounds: it is ‘water weight’caused by bloating which soon disappears.
If you notice that your stomach is swollen, you feel heavier than normal and clothes feel tighter then you have low progesterone levels.
This is a male hormone which is also present in small amounts in women.
Men have small amounts of oestrogen and progesterone.
This hormone is responsible for lean muscle mass and the ability to burn off more calories than fat cells. This is why it is favoured amongst athletes and sportspeople for its muscle building, fat burning qualities.
Increased muscle mass means an increased metabolism which is why weight training is recommended as a means of losing weight as well as building a lean body.
But levels of this fall during the menopause which means less muscle mass. Less muscle mass means a slower metabolism and less calories burnt.
This is why those people with a faster metabolism burn off more calories than those with a smaller metabolism and remain slim at the same time.
This is another male hormone which is also present, in small amounts, in women. But levels of this rise during the menopause which means a change in fat distribution which shifts from the female ‘pear’ shape (hips, thighs and buttocks) to the male ‘apple’ shape (stomach).
This is why men tend to develop a paunch also known as ‘middle aged spread’.
An increase in androgen levels means that weight is gained around the abdomen instead of the hips, thighs and buttocks. This weight is extremely difficult to lose.
Other causes of weight gain during menopause
Hormone imbalances and/or overeating are the main causes of weight gain during the menopause but there may be other reasons which include:
- Insulin resistance
This is where the body becomes immune to the effects of insulin which can lead to a range of health problems which includes diabetes.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which joins together with cells in the body to remove sugar from the bloodstream and convert this into energy.
This sugar is formed from the breakdown of carbohydrates.
But a diet which is high in refined sugars and carbohydrates means that, over time, these cells are less able to respond to insulin –hence the name ‘insulin resistance’.
As a result of this the pancreas produces more insulin which leads to high blood sugar levels and the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Another problem with this is increased glucose storage which leads to weight gain and increased fat storage especially around the abdomen.
A healthy diet and exercise may be able to reverse the effects of insulin resistance.
Someone suffering from elevated stress levels may find that they have a tendency to gain weight.
If you become stressed during the menopause then what can happen is that your body shuts down and goes into a ‘famine’ mode.
It perceives this as a threat and as a result slows down your metabolism as a response. This means that any extra calories consumed will be stored as extra weight.
Another factor is that stress may cause you to overeat as a form of compensation which also causes weight gain.
Look at ways of reducing your stress levels such as exercise, yoga and meditation. Keeping a food diary can help as it enables you to track what you eat on a daily basis.
Treating weight gain
The fact of the matter is that weight gain is a part of the menopause but there are women who manage to maintain a healthy weight before, during and after the menopause.
This is due to a healthy lifestyle which has been followed before the menopause and continues to do so during the transition.
There are women who manage to maintain a sylph-like figure and fitness throughout the menopause but this is due to a healthy diet, reduced calorie intake and regular exercise.
If you have not started the menopause then it is a good idea to plan ahead and adopt a healthy regime which will stand you in good stead during the menopause and afterwards.
The aim is to minimise any weight gain.
Have realistic expectations about your weight. It is normal to gain a few pounds so accept that this does happen but not every woman gains weight which is usually due to a healthy diet and taking regular exercise.
The metabolism slows down as you get older but this does not mean that you will become overweight as a result.
But if you continue to consume the same amount of calories as you did in your teens then you will put on weight. If this is coupled with a sedentary lifestyle then it is more than likely.
So rather than try to regain the figure you had in your teens it may be better to maintain a healthy weight and improve your fitness levels. Watch what you eat and try to limit your intake of high fat, sugary foods.
Try and stay positive about your weight gain. As long as your weight is considered acceptable and you are fit and healthy then there should not be a problem. This is not an easy thing to do but it is better to have a positive outlook than starving yourself to achieve a physical ideal which is unrealistic and unattainable.
If you find that you have put on a large amount of weight then this may be caused by something else apart from the menopause. It might be a problem with your blood sugar levels, an under-active thyroid or poor eating habits.
Consult with your GP if this is the case.
For more information visit our menopause self help section.
- Guide to Menopause
- What is the menopause?
- Female hormones and menopause
- Premature menopause
- Menopause signs
- Menopause symptoms
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Heart palpitations
- Sleep disturbances
- Mood swings
- Urinary changes
- Vaginal changes
- Weight gain
- Lack of interest in sex
- Aches and pains
- Skin changes
- Emotional changes
- Health risks of the menopause
- Heart disease
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Menopause treatment
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Benefits of hormone replacement therapy
- Risks of hormone replacement therapy
- Alternatives to hormone replacement therapy
- Vaginal lubricants
- Menopause self help
- Nutritional supplements
- Complimentary therapies
- Botanical products
- How to survive the menopause
- Menopause myths
- Menopause FAQs