Home » Why weight gain happens during menopause and tips to help avoid it
Menopause is a natural part of aging, and typically occurs between the ages of 45 to 55. However, we are humans, not robots, and it can occur outside of this age range for many women too, with early-onset menopause happening before age 40 and late-onset menopause happening after age 60.
People with a uterus often notice changes in their bodies such as hot flushes, sleep disturbances, mood swings, vaginal dryness, and a decreased libido. Weight gain is also quite common during this period. All these changes can make menopause a difficult experience and understandably lead you to feeling uncomfortable within your body.
When folks start menstruating, and throughout child-bearing age, they tend to store fat around their hips and thighs as subcutaneous fat, which doesn’t increase the risk of disease as much as visceral fat, which is the fat that builds up around internal organs. However, during menopause, low oestrogen levels can promote fat storage around the stomach areas in the form of visceral fat, which is linked to various health conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Abildgaard et al., 2021; Mauvaise-Jarvis et al., 2013).
To prevent weight gain, it is important to know the root cause of it. This article will discuss menopause and weight gain, how it might affect you, and what you can do about it from a non-diet approach.
Weight gain is caused when the calories consumed through food exceeds the calories being burned by our body through basic functions and activity. However, we know that it is not always that simple as our hormones, health status and so many other factors play a massive role too.
Weight gain during menopause is multi-factorial, meaning it is not attributed to one thing but a combination of changes. Hormone imbalances and sleep disturbances can lead to poor nutrition intake, lack of exercise or a change in lifestyle habits such as drinking more alcohol or being more sedentary, and these factors can contribute to weight gain during this period.
Our reproductive system requires energy to function, which is why in severe calorie deficits, women may lose their period and their fertility can be affected as the body shuts down this system to conserve energy.
With this system shutting off during menopause, you may naturally require less energy, and therefore you may notice some weight gain during menopause if your intake remains the same.
Menopause is associated with significant drops in oestrogen levels, which can affect body fat distribution, but also lead to water retention and bloating, which may look like weight gain.
There is also an increase in cortisol levels, which is ‘the stress hormone’, and this encourages the body to store fat as opposed to using it. This can be increased due to mental stress, but also physical stress such as lack of sleep and not eating enough (Nedeltcheva & Scheer, 2014).
Sleep disturbances are common during menopause, and this may lead to tiredness throughout the day, which might make you feel less like exercising. Exercise and general activity increase calorie output, and if your intake is higher than your output, it can result in weight gain.
Due to a lack of sleep, or changes in hormone levels, you may find that you are eating more food to give you a sense of energy or pleasure. Various studies have concluded that people who do not get enough sleep are more likely to have a higher calorie intake without an increase in energy output (Grander et al., 2014).
Sleep deprivation is a common cause of weight gain (Wu et al., 2014). When you are tired, you may find that you reach for more fast-acting carbohydrates, which give you instant energy, but this energy is not sustained, so it means you seek more food to feel energised. This is an example of how sleep can lead to eating more, and thus lead to weight gain.
If you don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels increase, which makes the body resistant to weight loss. Lack of sleep can also lead to decreased energy output due to lack of exercise.
You can try to improve sleep by improving your sleep hygiene or pre-bed routine. This might look like creating a sleeping environment that is conducive to sleep i.e., dimmed lighting, cool room, clean bed sheets, or implementing some strategies to help you wind down such as putting away your phone an hour before going to bed, doing some meditation, reading a book, or having a bath.
It can be difficult to accept the decline in energy and changes in your body during menopause, and you may find having a lack of energy frustrating. Fighting against your body will not get you the results you desire, so instead of increasing your levels of cortisol more by perhaps exercising when you’re tired, try to listen to what your body needs a bit more and be gentle during this adaption i.e., perhaps try a gentle walk if you didn’t sleep well or try some other low-intensity form of movement such as yoga.
Weight gain may feel uncomfortable, and you may feel compelled to restrict your intake or to go on a diet. Menopause aside, we know that crash diets can lead to weight gain in the long run due to the increased likelihood to overeat when the diet ends, and the effects of dieting on the body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.
Prioritising a balanced diet can help to keep blood sugar and energy levels balanced, which can mean you are less likely to overeat or to rely on processed food for energy. Ensure that you include foods you enjoy regularly, so that you don’t feel restricted and crave them, as this can lead to binging or overeating when you are next presented with that food.
Choosing carbohydrates which are rich in fibre can help to keep us to feel fuller for longer. Fibre-rich carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes and fruits and vegetables, release energy slowly, keeping us energised for longer and our blood sugar levels stable; to minimise urgent cravings.
Eating plenty of protein and including some dietary fat can help keep you satiated and provide essential nutrients to nourish your body.
As mentioned above, cortisol increases when we feel stressed. By actively trying to reduce or manage stress better, you can reduce the likelihood of weight gain due to stress.
Also, eating is a common coping mechanism for stress, and whilst it is not necessarily a bad thing to eat when stressed, it can become an issue if it is your only coping mechanism.
If you experience high levels of stress in your work or personal life, it’s important to recognise how this may be negatively impacting your relationship with food. Our top tips are to set healthy boundaries, schedule breaks in your day and make it a priority to include activities you love. Mindful movement can be useful to help you to get out of your head and into your body. Check in with yourself, practice a gentle yoga flow or challenge yourself to go for a walk without anything in your ears. Take a breath and reconnect with nature.
If you feel as though you are struggling with the changes during menopause and it is having a detrimental effect on your relationship with food and your body, book your free discovery call with us and it will be our pleasure to guide you on this journey.
Elle, R.D, BSc, MSc
Team EHL x
Embody Health London champions food freedom, positive body image, mental health and emotional wellbeing through a uniquely blended scientific and holistic approach. The EHL team specialises in treating chronic dieting and eating disorders by coaching clients to build confidence and reduce anxiety around their eating habits and food choices.
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