Hormones have a major impact on women’s lives: Puberty in adolescence is just the beginning – between monthly cycles And pregnancy, hormonal changes are practically a part of everyday life. And as you age, there will be a new layer of hormonal fluctuations to experience during menopause.
Menopause occurs 12 months after a woman’s last period, according to National Institute of Aging. Menopause can be accompanied by many symptoms, but a few well-known (and often dreaded) ones are hot flashes, night sweats, and “menopausal belly.”
The not-so-glamorous term might make you think of boring weight gain that doesn’t seem to go away no matter what you do (hello, weight loss plateau) or constantly feel and watch swollen. But what Exactly is the ‘menopausal belly’ and why does it happen?
Meet the experts: Naomi Parrella, MDis chief of lifestyle medicine at Rush University in Chicago.
Anel Pla is a Certified Personal Trainer at Simplexity Fitness.
Here’s everything you need to know about the major hormonal changes that happen during this stage of life, how they can potentially affect your abdomen, and what you can do about them.
What causes weight gain during menopause?
There are many potential causes of “menopausal belly” and weight gain in general, says Naomi Parrella, MDchief of lifestyle medicine at Rush University in Chicago.
First, hormones, and specifically estrogen, influence where excess weight is stored. With a good amount of estrogen flowing, excess fat is distributed between the breasts, buttocks, hips and legs. However, after menopause, when there is a lack of estrogen, this fat tends to spread around the waist.
People also tend to become less active as they age, says Dr. Parrella: “In combination with the loss of the effects of female sex hormones, this results in a loss of lean body mass (bone and muscle) which reduces daily energy requirements. In addition to slowing down your metabolism, if you move less, you need less fuel, so it’s easier to overeat compared to what you can burn.
On top of that, stress and other factors that come with aging can lead to irregular eating (and a craving for foods that promote inflammation and weight gain compared to healthy foods) and, potentially, metabolic dysfunction, says Dr. Parrella. In particular, alcohol consumption often increases around midlife in women (and men) and this leads to abdominal weight gain.
Exacerbating any actual fat gain around the midsection is bloating, another common symptom of menopause. “Many people suffer from food intolerances (which can be temporary) during this time,” Dr. Parrella notes.
While you probably won’t wake up one day suddenly gluten or lactose intolerant or sensitive, Dr. Parrella notes that there appear to be changes in the microbiome during this time of life that can affect how we digest food and our sensitivity to certain foods.
What are the risks of menopausal belly?
For starters, there are two types of abdominal fat: subcutaneous and visceral. The first is the kind you can feel and pinch that sits just under the skin. The latter is the most dangerous type that is associated with increased risks of cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc., says Dr. Parrella. In fact, it’s a slight increase in this visceral fat that’s responsible for women’s cardiovascular risks starting to match those of men after menopause, she adds.
So how do you know if you’re dealing with visceral or subcutaneous fat (or both)? An increasing waistline (think: your pants are tighter) or using a body fat composition scale or other tool will be your best guides since the weight on the scale isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of what’s going on metabolically. “Muscle loss (from being less active or not eating enough protein) can present as weightloss or no weight change, but it’s still not good,” shares Dr. Parrella.
“Waiting for the weight on the scale to start increasing means waiting for the fat mass gain to be large enough to outweigh the amount of muscle lost,” she continues. “That’s why fat mass weight gain is sometimes silent because people can lose muscle and bone density.”
So if you notice your waistline increasing, with or without actual weight gain, talk to your doctor, advises Dr. Parrella. Other symptoms to look out for are fatigue or pain that makes you less active, which could be a sign of insulin resistance.
“The earlier you intervene, the easier and faster it will be to get back on track and do what you can to prevent future health issues so you can live the life you want, with freedom,” notes Dr. Parrella.
When does menopausal weight gain start and how long does it last?
“That’s a tough question because most people can’t tell what date they felt their menopausal changes started,” says Dr. Parella. “Once hormones start to fluctuate, fat cells and weight gain can begin.” However, often the NIH ratings that the menopausal transition begins between the ages of 45 and 65. It usually lasts between 7 and 14 years.
How to prevent and treat menopausal belly
Prevention is key because losing fat is always harder than keeping it off, says Catherine Hansen MD, MPHMenopause Manager at Pandie Health, a birth control service founded by women, run by women, and run by doctors. “Quarantine is a wake-up call and all women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond might be thinking about their health holistically.”
Many of the best ways to prevent menopausal belly are also solid ways to treat it. A few tactics:
1. Eat a balanced diet.
“Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is key to supporting your body through this transition,” shares Anel Pla, certified personal trainer at Simplexity Fitness. “Focus on whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, high-quality lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats.” Also, be sure to limit alcohol, processed foods, and sugary snacks. A good example would be the Mediterranean diet.
2. Prioritize proteins.
“While protein needs don’t necessarily increase, it’s important for busy middle-aged women to pay attention to their diet and ensure an adequate intake of lean, healthy protein,” says Dr. Hansen. “Proteins are the building blocks of all cells and this includes bones, brain, endocrine system (hormones), heart muscle, skeletal muscle and skin,” she says.
A good general recommendation is to aim for 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
3. Maintain your muscles.
Sad but true: Women lose lean muscle mass over time starting in their 30s, and muscle loss can lead to poor balance, endurance and strength, Dr. Hansen says, as well as reduced metabolism and increased risk of fracture due to bone loss.
To combat this, do resistance training and high-impact exercises (with your doctor’s approval!). “It’s the stress that’s placed on the bones that causes them to respond with greater strength and greater bone mass,” says Dr. Hansen.
This content is imported from the survey. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, on their website.
4. Track cardio.
Cardio exercise also continues to be important for heart health to maintain blood pressure and lower cholesterol. “Walking appears to be more effective for weight management (as well as bone and heart health) than intense cardiovascular exercise for middle-aged women,” says Dr. Hansen.
5. Consider hormone therapy.
Hormone therapy has been shown to reduce core fat, aka “menopausal belly.” How? It likely reduces inflammation and stabilizes hormones that increase belly fat, according to Dr. Hansen. “Hormones also stabilize mood, which can therefore help reduce food cravings, emotional eating and increase appetite,” she adds. If you want to know if hormone therapy is the right option for you, make an appointment with your doctor.
6. Reduce stress and get enough sleep.
Easier said than done, but cortisol, the stress hormone, supports hormonally active fat accumulation, according to Dr. Hansen, so reducing it is key. To do this, get restful sleep for seven to eight hours a night and intentionally create stress management practices.
Dr. Hansen recommends a daily wellness practice that involves moving the body, feeding the mind something positive, and calming the soul (think: a walking meditation). “Daily exercise may seem hard to fit in, but it’s essential because it’s not only good for the body, but also for the mind and soul, which fuels overall well-being and productivity throughout the day.”
Ashley Martens is a Chicago, Illinois-based wellness writer. With a background in digital marketing and her knowledge of general nutrition and a lifelong passion for all things health and wellness, Ashley covers topics that can help people live happier, healthier lives.