Why do so many of us gain weight during the menopause – and what can help?
If there’s one subject more than any other guaranteed to trigger a deluge of questions, tips, frustration and commiserations among our Community Forum and Facebook group members, it’s weight gain during menopause. Whether it’s ‘jelly belly’, an expanding waistline, or watching clothes sizes creep upwards, putting on weight and struggling to lose can make you feel miserable, not least when you add it any other menopausal symptoms you may have.
We’re taking a look at why so many of us tend to put on weight during menopause. Is it the fault of those fluctuating hormones or could other things be affecting your weight? And if you are gaining weight, what can you do to get the kilos back under control.
Is the menopause making me gain weight?
‘I am 50, I have piled on two stone in last couple of years . . . I walk my dogs 4 kilometres a day, I exercise in the gym, I ride horses. So I’m generally fit. I don’t eat stupidly, eating pretty sensibly most of the time... I’m doing dry January.’ Live Better With Facebook group member
As you move into perimenopause and onwards into full menopause, changes in your hormone levels – and in the ratio of hormone levels to each other – mean that you could start to gain weight, especially round your abdomen, and find it harder to lose weight. That’s not the case for everyone; your weight may not change at all but, even if you do notice an increase, it could be due to other factors, including:
- Ageing generally – as we get older we lose muscle mass (8% for every decade after 40 - it’s called sarcopoenia) while our body fat increases; less muscle makes it harder to burn calories.
- Lifestyle – if you’re still eating as much or more than you did when you were younger, without increasing your physical activity, you’ll put on weight. Other lifestyle factors, such as stressful jobs, working night shifts, and care responsibilities can have an impact too.
- Genes – if your parents tended to put on weight as they got older, especially around the middle of the body and were an apple shape, rather than pear-shaped, you’re more likely to gain weight.
- Lack of sleep – not getting enough sleep (a problem for many women going through menopause) can make you more likely to snack during the day and evening, which pushes up your calorie intake and you’ll gain weight.
- Not being active enough – there’s a direct ink between calories in and calories out; if you take in more calories than you burn through everyday activities and exercise, you’ll gain weight.
- An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) – women are much more likely to suffer with thyroid problems than men; an underactive thyroid slows down your metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories), making you more likely to put on weight. Other symptoms include constipation, dry skin and hair, fatigue, lethargy, low mood, and poor concentration – similar to many menopausal symptoms, which can be confusing. If you think a sluggish thyroid might be the cause of your weight gain, do consult your GP. They can check your thyroid hormone levels and, if necessary, prescribe thyroxine to get your levels back to normal.
What can help me lose weight during menopause?
We’ve all seen those articles on the latest ‘miracle’ diet but, of course, there are no miracles. Nor is there a one-size-fits all solution; what works brilliantly for one woman, may do nothing for another. But, when it comes to weight loss, there are some basic, well-established principles:
Eat less, eat better
If you’re in your 50s, you should be eating 200 fewer calories a day than you were to maintain a normal, healthy weight in your 30s and 40s. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re not over-eating but if you’re unsure, try keeping a food diary for a few weeks and check your calorie intake – there are plenty of free apps that can help with this.
If you’re used to large portions, try cutting down your portion size. Aim to eat a healthy diet, that’s mainly plant-based; the Mediterranean Diet is ideal and can be easily adapted to suit vegetarians and vegans or a kosher or halal regime. Pack your plate with colour and flavour; you’ll enjoy your food more and it will help to maintain a healthy gut, which is vital for your general health.
Keep sugar to a minimum
It’s hard if you have a sweet tooth but sugar, especially hidden added sugar in flavoured water, juices, and soft drinks is no friend of weight loss. However, if you are eating more healthily, you may find your sweet tooth is disappearing! If not, try making a shake with this great-tasting chocolate flavour plant protein powder? It’s packed full of vitamins and minerals and is sugar, gluten, soya and dairy free.
Keep a check on alcohol
All alcoholic drinks are loaded with calories, so keep your alcohol level to a minimum or avoid alcohol completely. Drinking more than you should affects your general health too.
This is especially important if you are sitting down for most of the time in your job, even if you are on the move outside of work. Try to find an exercise regime that you enjoy and that suits your lifestyle and make sure that you include some aerobic activity and strength training. If you enjoy working out at a gym, that’s great, but you can also put together a simple home gym on a budget and exercise at a time that suits you. And swimming, running or jogging can cost little or nothing. Exercise alone won’t shift excess weight though; you need to combine it with eating less and eating healthily.
Live Better With has some simple, space-saving exercise equipment, like a digital pedal exerciser and these exercise resistance bands, which you can use at home – ideal to get you started on your fitness journey.
Have a weight-loss buddy
Losing weight can be a lonely journey and it’s tempting to give up if your weight loss is slow. Teaming up with a friend or family member who has a similar goal can make a world of difference; you’re there for each other when the going gets tough – and you can celebrate together when you reach your goal weight!
Losing weight during menopause – can fasting help?
There’s growing scientific evidence to suggest that it’s not just what we eat but when we eat that can make a difference. There are different approaches, all of which come under the heading of intermittent fasting. They include 5:2: eat normally for five days of the week but restrict your calorie intake for two non-consecutive days and 16/8 – eat only within an eight-hour window each day, choosing a eight-hour span that works best for you, for example 9am to 5pm or noon to 8pm.
Several of our Community Form and Facebook group members, have found that intermittent fasting has worked for them:
‘Try 5:2 it’s brilliant. I lost two stone with regular diet (took me 18 months). I’ve since started 5:2 and lost 1 stone in a fraction of that time… I gave up alcohol totally in August 2017, best thing I ever did.’
Losing weight safely during menopause
We always recommend that you consult your GP or health practitioner before starting any exercise regime or diet, including intermittent fasting, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions, to ensure that your diet and exercise plans are suitable for you.
Live Better With Menopause has an excellent range of recommended books, products, and aids, all designed to help you manage your diet and weight.
Visit the Live Better With Menopause Community Forum and Live Better With Menopause: Coping with Side Effects Facebook group for information, advice, and tips, and to share your own questions and suggestions.