Menopause Belly: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention￼￼
One of the most frustrating effects of menopause is often the stubborn middle-aged spread. Even if you exercise and eat well, you will likely notice weight gain mostly around your middle, aka “menopause belly.” Is there any way to stop or reverse menopause-related weight gain and belly fat? Read on to learn more.
Like most uncomfortable and troublesome symptoms of menopause, menopause belly is caused by decreasing estrogen levels, and low estrogen causes your fat distribution to change. Instead of storing fat in your hips and thighs, for example, it tends to settle in your midsection. Even women who are not gaining weight elsewhere on their body may see an increase in belly fat.
Not only that, but visceral fat, the fat stored deep in your abdomen around your organs, increases in menopause. Researchers have noted up to a 44% increase in visceral fat in menopausal women. This kind of fat can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol levels, and even diabetes, and it can also widen your waistline.
Low estrogen can also cause a decrease in muscle mass. Losing lean muscle can slow down your metabolism and make it harder to keep off extra fat.
Menopause can cause disruptions in your sleep pattern. Interrupted sleep and not getting enough sleep can cause an increase in stress hormones like cortisol. High cortisol levels infamously encourage the development of belly fat, whether a person is in menopause or not.
Last, the hormonal changes of menopause (and disrupted sleep) often cause significant fatigue. This can lead to a reduction in physical activity levels, thus compounding the problem of weight gain during menopause.
All women can expect to see some weight gain as they age or at least notice difficulty in maintaining their weight, and it’s estimated that women will gain an average of 12 pounds within eight years of menopause. That being said, there are factors involved that determine how much weight gain will occur.
Genetics plays a significant role. Look at your close relatives and see if they carry extra weight around their middle. If so, you will likely have a genetic predisposition for developing belly fat with menopause and aging.
Experts agree that age brings with it a small amount of weight gain. As we age, whether in menopause or not, our bodies undergo changes in muscle mass and energy utilization that lead to small amounts of weight gain. These changes appear to take place regardless of activity levels, although active older people tend to gain less weight than more sedentary people.
Diet and exercise remain essential elements of weight management during perimenopause and after menopause. If you’re active daily and routinely choose healthy foods and moderate portion sizes, you’re more likely to avoid significant weight gain in menopause. You may never develop the dreaded menopause belly.
If you have always exercised and entered middle age and menopause with a high level of muscle mass, you are at an advantage compared to your less active peers. It will be easier to maintain a healthy amount of lean muscle and avoid some of the body recomposition that happens with menopause and aging. Research shows the benefits of strength training and weight-bearing exercise to your health and waistline no matter where you are on your fitness or menopause journey. It’s never too late to start lifting weights. And, no, lifting weights won’t make you look like a bodybuilder!
Experts say that added sugars account for an average intake of 300 extra calories per day. Limiting alcohol, soda, and sugar consumption can remove unnecessary calories from your diet and help you maintain your weight. Download the Midday menopause app and try our mindful eating programs or 7-day Sugar Swap designed by nutrition experts to help you curb sugar cravings for good.
Don’t lose hope! There are proven ways to minimize belly fat and preserve your health.
Check Your Diet
Eat a healthy diet full of fiber, lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy oils. Researchers have found the traditional Mediterranean diet effective at managing weight gain in menopausal women. As mentioned before, cutting back on alcohol, soda, and added sugars is also a good idea. This will minimize extra calories and help keep your blood sugar stable.
Portion Sizes Matter
The changes our bodies undergo during menopause and natural aging lead to a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR.) This means that we need to use less energy to maintain the function of all our body processes. It may take some trial and error to figure out the right balance of energy coming in versus out for you and your body, but chances are you will need to eat a little bit less. Calories do matter as we get older.
Aim for some physical activity every day. The best activity is one you enjoy and can commit to regularly doing, although resistance training is most protective of bone health and muscle mass.
Be proactive in addressing sleep challenges you might be having because of menopause. Improve your sleep hygiene by creating a bedtime routine, making sure your room is at a comfortable temperature, limiting napping and caffeine intake, and turning screens off well before it’s time to sleep.
Hormone therapy is not intended as a weight loss tool, but it can help to minimize symptoms like hot flashes that can interfere with sleep. If you are sleeping better, you may feel more energy to exercise and eat more healthy foods. Hormone therapy may also help with redistributing belly fat to other areas.
Weight and body composition changes can be expected for most of us as we go through menopause. Some factors cannot be changed, like genetics and age, but you are not powerless in maintaining the appearance and health of your body. Giving your body the nutrition, activity, and rest it needs can help you look and feel great for the rest of your life.
Jennifer Turkyilmaz, RN, BSN, is a medical writer who worked for many years in women’s health as a high-risk pregnancy nurse. She is also a newly menopausal woman who wishes she had known more about what to expect before it happened to her.
Sign up for more unique women’s health content