How to Lose Weight During Menopause
Many women notice changes to their weight and body composition as early as perimenopause and into postmenopause. While this can be frustrating, rest assured it is common, and you are not alone. This unwanted shift of the scale can be attributed to several factors that can be combated with lifestyle changes.
Weight Gain Is Common
Weight gain is a prevalent trend seen in both perimenopausal and menopausal women. During midlife, women gain an average of 1.5 pounds per year. In the United States, nearly two-thirds of women between the ages of 40-59 and three-fourths of women 60 and older are considered overweight. Furthermore, half of these groups are considered obese.
While weight gain is nearly always on the list of menopause symptoms, weight gain is not caused by menopause. It’s a function of aging. What menopause does cause is what is commonly referred to as “belly fat.” During the perimenopausal period, most women carry adipose tissue, or body fat, in their lower bodies. When the transition into menopause occurs, fat storage often shifts into the abdomen. Fat in the midsection that accumulates around internal organs is known as visceral fat. An increase in weight combined with visceral fat can exacerbate menopausal symptoms and increase the risk of other medical conditions. This unwanted weight gain can also contribute to poor emotional health and self-image.
Why Am I Gaining Weight?
During the aging process, muscle mass decreases, especially in women, and your fat mass increases. Fat is less metabolically active than muscle, so you need fewer calories to maintain fat than muscle.
As women enter menopause, their levels of estrogen decline. Estrogen helps to regulate both glucose and lipid metabolism. Lowered levels of estrogen can lead to an increase in total body fat and a decrease in lean body mass. This may put you at increased risk for other metabolic disorders like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Many perimenopausal and menopausal women experience sleep disturbances. This can be attributed to factors including hot flashes, sleep apnea associated with weight gain, and stress and mood disorders. Sleep deprivation often leads to increased fatigue during the day and lowered levels of physical activity. It is easy to see how this ultimately contributes to weight gain. If you are experiencing frequent sleep disturbances, it may be beneficial to seek treatment from your doctor.
What Can I Do?
While it is challenging to lose weight, it’s not impossible. Time, patience, and tried and true methods, not fad diets, are key to sustained success. The following are three proven weight loss and maintenance strategies.
Modify Your Diet
In order to lose weight during menopause, it is necessary to be in a calorie deficit. This means you are consuming fewer calories than your body expends. For most people, this is around 500 calories per day. However, it is important to discuss this number with a healthcare professional as it varies based on factors like injury or comorbidities.
While it may seem logical to cut calories drastically for weight loss, this is not recommended. Research has found that an extreme reduction of calories can decrease muscle mass and, in turn, slow down your metabolism. While it may take the weight off initially, it will be harder to keep it off.
Instead, it is beneficial to focus on dietary changes that are effective and sustainable. This may include reducing your portions of added sugars and ultra-processed foods like cookies and potato chips. During mealtimes, focus on incorporating more nutrient-dense plant foods into your diet, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. A relatively easy change is to swap out sugary beverages, including coffee drinks, and give infused or sparkling water and black unsweetened coffee and tea a try. These small changes can have a huge impact on total calorie intake and weight, and small changes add up to a big health payoff over time.
Many of these healthier foods provide added benefits for menopausal women. For example, leafy greens, like spinach and kale, are low in calories but high in magnesium and folate. A high intake of magnesium has been shown to reduce the severity of hot flashes, while folate may help with feelings of depression. Because we are losing important muscle mass, eating adequate amounts of protein is of utmost importance. Protein is the building block for lean body mass and helps keep you full. Opt for lean protein, including chicken, fish, and legumes, and reduce your intake of red meat, pork, and processed meats.
The importance of staying physically active has been well established by the literature. Not only does regular movement ward off unwanted weight gain, but it also can brighten your mood and help reduce the risk of disease, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While physical activity is important for everyone, it can be especially beneficial during perimenopause and beyond. The sooner you start exercising, the better. Studies have shown that physical activity has an inverse relationship with weight and waist circumference which is independent of menopausal status and age. Therefore, an active woman who approaches menopause with a lower BMI and greater muscle mass may be at an advantage.
Strength training or resistance exercises provide many benefits. It simultaneously increases muscle mass while decreasing abdominal fat. This increases your metabolism, making weight loss easier. Furthermore, strength training exercises can help slow bone loss after menopause, which reduces your risk for osteoporosis. Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking or swimming, promotes cardiovascular health and can decrease the frequency of hot flashes, improves sleep, and provides important mental health benefits.
To see the effects, recommendations suggest at least 150-300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity. Try to incorporate both aerobic and strength-building exercises for optimum results. This may include walking with a friend or lifting light weights. High intensity interval training (HIIT) combines aerobic and strength training into one workout. Another great option would be to try a yoga class. Yoga and pilates can help build strength and flexibility while promoting relaxation and stress relief, but these workouts won’t provide the aerobic benefits needed for weight loss.
Practice Mindful Eating
Mindfulness is another powerful yet underutilized strategy in the weight loss tool kit. Many people have developed habits over the years, such as binge eating, overeating, and giving in to cravings that make weight loss challenging. Intuitive eating is a mindfulness framework that helps you tune out external messaging and learn to recognize your body’s hunger signals. In the Midday app, we offer several weight management mindfulness programs developed by an expert registered dietitian using the principles of intuitive eating that help you change any weight-promoting eating patterns.
While many women experience unwanted weight gain during their transition into menopause, it is possible to ward off those pesky pounds with lifestyle changes. By adding movement into your daily routine, prioritizing healthier foods, and eating mindfully, weight loss becomes achievable, sustainable, and gratifying.
Erin Stanton, RDN, MPH, is a registered dietitian and certified lactation counselor residing in Atlanta, Georgia. She puts her master’s in public health degree to good use as a freelance writer focusing on various health and wellness topics, especially those pertaining to women and children.
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