Unless you've never experienced the horror that is hormonal acne or fits of rage around that time of the month, you know that, as a woman, hormones can take quite a toll on you—and that rings especially true once you hit menopause.
While, yes, menopause isn't all bad (hi, no more spending money on tampons or remembering birth control), the side effects, like hot flashes and mood swings, aren't exactly a welcome development. Another not-so-great side effect? Weight gain.
That's right, going through the change can make your body put on some extra pounds—but why, and is there any way to make sure you maintain a weight you're comfortable with once you hit menopause? Health spoke to experts to find out what you need to know about menopause weight gain, and which changes to your diet can benefit you during this transitional phase.
Remind me again, what is menopause?
Technically, menopause is a point in time, marking 12 months since your last period. So, when people say they're "going through menopause," that means they haven't actually hit menopause yet—they're actually experiencing perimenopause, or the lead-up to menopause.
That also means women experience the majority of their symptoms (again, hot flashes, mood swings, etc.) during perimenopause, which can last, on average, for four years. (Remember: You may be having irregular periods during this time.)
Okay, so can menopause lead to weight gain?
Margaret Nachtigall, MD, an ob-gyn at NYU Langone, tells Health that decreasing estrogen levels play a role. "[Your] estrogen levels are low to almost nothing" once you hit menopause, she says. And there's some research to back this up: According to a 2014 review in the journal BioMed Research International, a decrease in estrogen has been linked to a less active metabolism.
However, lifestyle changes (and aging in general) can also cause weight gain around the time of menopause, suggests Julian Peskin, MD, an ob-gyn at Cleveland Clinic. The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) echoes this sentiment, adding that lean body mass decreases with age while body fat accumulates throughout adulthood. Because of that, Dr. Nachtigall says, if you maintain the habits you had before hitting menopause, you’ll likely notice a change in your body.
Weight gain aside, menopause may also cause a woman's body to redistribute its fat, says Dr. Peskin. “That [fat] distribution changes. That’s why women tend to gain weight around their belly,” he says. According to the NAMS, this transition from a pear shape to an apple shape is associated with an increased amount of fat around the abdomen around the time menopause hits. More research needs to be done to figure out exactly why this is, the society says.
Is there any way to prevent menopause weight gain?
If a few extra pounds due to menopause makes you feel uncomfortable, following a few simple rules can keep you fit, says Keri Gans, RDN, a New York-based nutritionist.
Remember, though: Few diet and exercise tips are one-size-fits-all, and these are no exception to that rule. What works for most women might not work for you, and if you’re struggling to maintain your weight post-menopause, you might want to consider speaking with a nutritionist about how you can best help yourself.
1. Focus on your muscles.
“As [women] age, they start to lose muscle mass. They don’t burn as many calories as they might have before,” says Gans. It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough protein after you hit menopause, since protein helps you maintain muscle mass. What does this mean for your day-to-day life? “Making sure [you] have adequate protein in [your] diet at every meal,” says Gans.
That also means adding a few more weight-training days to your workouts too, in addition to your favorite cardio exercises.
2. Cut a few calories—but no more than 500 a day.
Because you're not burning as many calories as you used to, you can start cutting back on extra calories, where you see fit. It's not about being drastic, but being mindful. Cutting back on calories for you, for example, might mean eliminating that second glass of wine every night or substituting one snack each day for low-cal fruit or veggies. “I still feel that a woman can eat whatever food she enjoys eating. But be mindful,” says Gans.
3. Add an extra workout day to your schedule.
If you do cardio three days a week, try adding a strength-training or weight-lifting session to your weekly mix—not just to help pump your muscles but to add a few more calorie-burning minutes to your schedule. “As you age, you might want to add an extra day [of working out] if you can, if you can find the time,” says Gans. “Be a little bit more active. Definitely, once you hit menopause, you’ve got to be mindful. It makes it harder, but it doesn’t mean we should give up.”
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