The challenge of weight gain with menopause is one that affects up to 90% of women.1 But does menopause 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 gain with menopause, or is it something more?
With so many menopause myths circulating – including a lot of misinformation about menopausal weight gain – it can be hard to separate fiction from fact. To start, let’s look at some common misconceptions about gaining weight in menopause.
Does Menopause Cause Weight Gain?
By far the most common misconception about weight gain with menopause is that weight gain is always a symptom of menopause. Many women are curious to know why they seem to be gaining weight in 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 perimenopause and 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 with 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.”
What Does Contribute to 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 perimenopause weight gain or menopausal 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 that can contribute to weight gain with menopause? 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.
Gaining Weight in Menopause Isn’t Inevitable
Another misconception about perimenopause weight gain or menopausal weight gain is that many women see it 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 your hormones (whether with prescription medications 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 combatting menopausal weight gain. 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 weight gain with menopause or even stop menopausal 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.
Can Menopausal Weight Gain Affect Other Symptoms?
This is actually a fact about gaining weight in menopause: 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 experience weight gain with 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 which signals that weight can affect your menopause experience.
“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.”
How to Stop Gaining Weight in Menopause
As mentioned earlier, it’s a general misconception that menopausal weight gain is inevitable – it’s one of the more prevalent menopause myths. How you choose to live your life can have a big impact on your ability to maintain a healthy weight or even help when trying to lose weight after age 40 and beyond. 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 with menopause becomes a problem.
Nurse Brasil recommends women in their 40s start thinking about how their bodies will change during menopause, and to plan accordingly, especially if they’re looking to lose weight after 40 or maintain a certain weight. 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 menopausal weight gain. You absolutely have the power to support your body during this natural transition.
Hear more from Bonafide Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Alyssa Dweck, on ways to combat menopausal weight gain, below: