Firstly, What is post menopause?
There are 3 main stages of menopause; peri-menopause, menopause and post menopause (). Peri-menopause is the time leading up to a woman’s last menstrual cycle. Hormonal changes that occur during peri-menopause may result in symptoms such as hot flushes, irritability, sleep disturbances and irregular menstrual bleeding. Menopause is a point in time where a woman has not had her period for 12 months. Post menopause is the time after menopause and the stage a woman remains in for the rest of her life. Women will usually go through menopause and enter the postmenopausal phase between the age of 45-55 (2).
Why do women experience weight gain after menopause?
The average weight gain women experience during the menopausal years is approximately 500g per year (3). While this may not seem like a lot, the menopause years can last from anywhere to 7-14 years, making weight gain 3.5-7kg based on this time frame.
Here are some of the main factors that explain why women experience post menopause weight gain:
Muscle mass loss: As we age, we naturally experience a loss in muscle mass (otherwise known as sarcopenia), with research indicating a loss of 3-5% of muscle loss each decade after the age of 30 (6).The rate of muscle loss is even higher after the age of 60, partly due to hormonal changes post menopause (6). But how does losing muscle impact our weight? Put simply, our muscles consume energy (calories) even at rest. With less muscle your metabolism begins to slow down and excess calories are stored as fat, contributing to weight gain. The loss of muscle mass and resulting weight gain is reduced in women who participate in strength training (6).
Lifestyle changes: By the age of post menopause, you may have reduced your working hours, become less active and more social. You may choose more convenience food options as your children leave home and you no longer need to cook for the family. Mood changes, increased stress levels and poor sleep can occur in the perimenopause phase and persist into the post menopausal years (7). Those that have poor sleep and high stress levels are likely to make poorer food choices, have less motivation to exercise and have increased levels of the hormone cortisol- which promotes weight gain around the middle (8)!
Hormones: As you progress through the stages of menopause, there is a shift in hormone levels and a notable drop in the hormone estrogen (4). While this may not have a direct result in weight gain, the fall in estrogen contributes to where we store our fat (4). That’s why during menopause, you may notice a weight shift from your hips, thighs and bottom to your mid section – aka your waist and stomach area. Unfortunately, this accumulation of fat around the stomach can increase your risk of many health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other metabolic conditions (5).
What can I do to prevent post menopause weight gain?
Although it may seem that your metabolism, hormones and life’s stressors are working against you, there are many things you can do to combat post menopause weight gain.
Tune in to your eating habits
There are many ways you can promote weight loss, without cutting out the nutritious foods e.g.
Include protein in every meal: Protein rich foods – like meat, fish, eggs, low fat dairy products, tofu, lentils and beans offer a number of health benefits. Not only do they keep us feeling fuller for longer, but they help to support muscle mass, helping your body to lose fat, not muscle as you lose weight. Aim for a palm sized portion of protein at each meal and protein based snacks like nuts, cheese and crackers, or a low fat greek yoghurt.
Eat more plant foods: Aim for 2-3 fruit serves per day and ½ a plate of salad or vegetables at each meal. Include grain foods (rice, pasta, whole grain bread, oats etc), as well as legumes, nuts & seeds. These foods not only provide your body with energy, vitamins and minerals, but they’re rich in fibre which helps you to stay fuller for longer.
Reduce your intake of processed food: Packaged products, takeaway foods, chips, chocolate, cakes and pastries are high in ‘bad’ fats and added sugars which can quickly lead to weight gain. You dont have to give these foods up altogether, just simply enjoy them on occasions.
Reduce your alcohol intake: Alcohol is energy dense, meaning it can sabotage weight loss efforts, if drunk in excess. Enjoy alcohol in moderation, and try opting for zero or low alcohol drinks, or a mineral water between each drink to slow you down.
Be mindful when eating out: Foods prepared at cafes and restaurants tend to be higher in fats, sugars and energy – that’s what makes them taste so good! When dining out, try sharing a meal with friends, and ordering salads or veggie based sides to help balance out our meals.
Physical activity is important in maintaining a healthy weight while also benefiting your mood and reducing the risk of chronic disease. Find an activity you enjoy, join a class, or find an exercise buddy! Any sort of movement will be better than none. However, incorporating some strength training is recommended, especially post menopause to assist with building muscle mass and bone density (9).
Manage your stress and get more sleep:
We often reach for comfort foods when feeling tired or emotional. Managing your stress and getting proper sleep will help you to be motivated and energised to make healthy food choices and participate in movement. To manage stress, try techniques include yoga/meditation, deep breathing or making time for a daily walk. If you’re finding it difficult to manage with lifestyle strategies alone, you may benefit from seeing a psychologist or counselor. Some simple strategies to assist sleep include; having regular sleep and wake times, sleeping in a cool and dark room and avoiding screens 1 hour before bed.
The take home message
Post menopause is a time in your life you want to enjoy and be in the best health possible. While aging, hormones and lifestyle changes can all contribute to post menopause weight gain, there are many lifestyle changes you can implement to prevent this and improve your health.
If you’re struggling with weight gain during menopause, seeking personalised support from an Accredited Practicing Dietitian is the key to long term success. Book your free assessment and learn more about our Mastering Menopause program by speaking to one of our friendly staff today!