The challenge of maintaining a healthy weight during menopause is one that affects up to 90% of women.1 But does menopause actually cause weight gain? Why do so many women develop a “menopause middle” even if they exercise and eat well? Is it just hormonal fluctuations that affect weight during menopause, or is it something more?
With so many myths about menopause and weight gain floating around, it can be hard to separate fiction from fact. To start, let’s look at some common myths about middle age weight gain.
What Are the Myths vs. the Facts of Menopausal Weight Gain?
Myth: Weight Gain Is Always a Symptom of Menopause
By far the most common myth about menopause and weight is that weight gain is always a symptom of menopause. It’s actually weight redistribution—meaning where body fat is stored—that’s an official menopause symptom, not weight gain, according to Shannon Brasil, MSN, RN, CNP. She specializes in menopause care, hormones and weight gain after 50, and leads the Women’s Excellence Weight Management Program in the Metro Detroit area.
While hormonal changes during menopause may influence where weight is gained, they are not necessarily the reason behind weight gain itself.2 When considering the facts about menopause, it’s clear that other symptoms like fatigue, sleep problems, and muscle loss; can contribute to weight gain. “All of these things can impact metabolism, which in turn can cause the weight gain many menopausal women experience,” Nurse Brasil says.
Weight redistribution is the reason so many women find themselves gaining weight around the midsection, even if they’ve never carried weight in that area before. A mere five pounds of weight gain during menopause can feel like a lot more when it’s all in the middle, Nurse Brasil explains. “It bothers women more because it’s right in the central region.”
Myth: Hormones Are the Only Factor in Menopausal Weight Gain
Dropping hormone levels of progesterone and estrogen do trigger menopause symptoms like weight redistribution and fatigue, but there are other factors at play when it comes to middle age weight gain. Nurse Brasil says diabetes and other pre-existing conditions that affect blood sugar can contribute to weight problems and menopause body changes. Another big factor? Sleep disorders like insomnia.
“I always ask my patients if they had trouble sleeping before menopause,” Nurse Brasil says. Since research indicates a strong connection between poor sleep and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, it makes sense that sleep problems during menopause can further contribute to weight gain.3
Mental health challenges like depression and anxiety can also make weight management difficult during menopause. If women are already struggling with issues like low self-esteem and exhaustion, they may have a harder time feeling motivated to avoid menopausal weight gain, Nurse Brasil explains.
Myth: Menopausal Weight Gain Is Inevitable
Another myth about menopause is that many women see weight gain during menopause as unavoidable, especially when it comes to the dreaded “midlife midsection.” But while it’s true that your body will change during menopause, weight gain isn’t necessarily inevitable. Nurse Brasil explains that taking steps to balance hormones (whether with prescription medication or natural supplements) can make weight management during menopause, easier.
“When your hormones are balanced during menopause, you sleep better, you have more energy, you're going to be more apt to exercise and treat yourself better,” Nurse Brasil says. “So, secondarily, the weight can stay off.”
Mixing up your exercise routine is also key to maintaining a healthy weight during menopause. What you’ve always done to stay fit may not be enough to keep weight off during menopause, Nurse Brasil explains. “Your body is different, so you have to do something different.”
Since what you eat has a big influence on your weight during menopause, changing your diet may be another way to prevent middle age weight gain. Nurse Brasil tells her patients to start by lowering their intake of carbohydrates. “Carbohydrate intake causes weight gain, especially in the midsection in women,” she says. She also suggests food journaling to make a connection between what you eat and how it affects your body.
What Are the Risks of Weight Gain During Menopause?
This one is a fact about menopause and weight gain: Excess weight generally increases a person’s risk of developing conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure, and these risks may increase for women who gain weight during menopause.3 Estrogen has a protective effect on the heart, so dropping estrogen levels can make women more vulnerable if they have additional risk factors like excess weight.3
“When women start to go through menopause and lose estrogen, their risk for heart disease goes up,” Nurse Brasil says. “Adding weight gain on top of that may exacerbate their risk.”
Preventing Weight Gain During Menopause
As mentioned earlier, it’s a myth that weight gain during menopause is inevitable. How you choose to live your life can have a big impact on your ability to maintain a healthy weight. Balancing your hormones, moving your body, and eating well are all potentially effective tools for preventing weight gain and menopause body changes — especially if you start doing these things before weight gain during menopause becomes a problem.
Nurse Brasil recommends women in their 40s start thinking about how their bodies will change during menopause, and plan accordingly. When you’re already leading a healthy life, your body will be better able to manage the changes that accompany menopause.
If you’re going through menopause now, it’s not too late to make changes that can help you combat middle age weight gain. You absolutely have the power to support your body during this natural transition.
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