Menopause is a natural stage of a woman's life, which usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55. As oestrogen levels in the body decline, eggs are no longer released and periods cease, meaning women can no longer get pregnant. The time from the first onset of symptoms leading up to the menopause is known as perimenopause. In the UK, over 15 million people are currently peri- or post-menopausal. The average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51.
It is a hugely significant change and the hormone balance in the body is drastically altered, leading to a wide range of symptoms. On top of hot flushes, night sweats, anxiety, brain fog and joint pain many women experience, another commonly reported side effect is unfortunately, weight gain.
What causes weight gain around the menopause?
With age, our calorie needs begin to change. It's estimated we need around 200 calories a day less at 65 than we do at 45. That may not sound much, but it's significant enough to have an effect on our weight. There are a couple of reasons for the reduction in calorie requirements:
- After the age of around 40, we begin to lose muscle mass. This age-related muscle loss is known as sarcopenia. Research suggests this may happen at a rate of about 8% every decade after 40. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue whereas fat is not, meaning that muscle actually requires energy - it burns calories - so as we lose muscle mass, we use less energy and therefore require fewer calories from our diet.
- We tend to become less active as we get older. We're unlikely to be in a physically demanding job, or any job at all once we retire, and probably past running around after young children. Age-related aches and pains may also deter us from taking exercise.
These factors mean that our body requires less energy than in younger years. By continuing to consume the same number of calories we're used to, we're likely to store the energy we don't need as fat, leading to weight gain.
Plus many of the symptoms we experience during menopause don't encourage us into feeling we want to be more active. Anxiety, low mood and brain fog can sap our energy and result in a lack of motivation to exercise or eat well. Additionally, this is a life stage for many women which brings other stressful factors – caring for elderly parents, children leaving home, work/financial worries, other family issues, life can feel overwhelming. Many of us turn to food and wine as a source of comfort, which may unfortunately promote weight gain further.
Changes in body shape
The menopause also affects how weight gain is distributed too. Before the menopause, women are more likely to store fat around the hips and thighs, due to higher levels of the hormone oestrogen. However as oestrogen levels begin to drop, excess weight begins to settle around the tummy region instead, promoting a more rounded apple-shaped body as opposed to a pear shape. By storing fat around the torso in this way, even small changes in weight can make a big difference when it comes to clothes sizing. It also means that your fat storage is closer to important organs, so there may be an increased risk of raised cholesterol and heart disease.
7 top tips to manage your weight during the menopause
Many perimenopausal women report feeling as though their bodies are working against them, but there is hope! There are lifestyle factors that can really help to prevent weight gain associated with the menopause and ageing - it doesn't have to be a given, but it may require some changes.
- Scale down your serving size: As our calorie needs reduce as we get older, we should be reflecting this in our portion sizes. However, a smaller portion should still be nutritious – when we're eating slightly fewer calories, it's even more important to meet the recommended daily nutrient targets for good health and disease prevention.
- Choose less processed: Heavily processed foods like ready meals, crisps, sweets, cakes and other convenience foods are more likely to be high in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar, all nutrients we need to be eating less of. By choosing natural ingredients and opting for homemade over fast food, you have more control over what you're fuelling your body with, which is especially important as your body chemistry begins to change. Apparently it's possible to run a car on old chip oil - but it's a no-brainer that it will perform loads better if you fill the tank with premium quality fuel instead!
- Ease off the alcohol: Alcoholic drinks have little to no nutritional value besides calories - you've probably heard the term 'empty calories'. So reducing your intake or banishing booze all together could really be doing your waistline a favour. Abstaining from alcohol has also shown to reduce the intensity of hot flushes – an added bonus to bringing your calorie intake down.
- Cut back on caffeine: Like alcohol, caffeine may also exacerbate hot flushes. It may also worsen menopause-induced anxiety and stress, which are common reasons for comfort eating.
- Address stress: It's believed that cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress, may encourage fat storage, particularly around the tummy area. Where you can, find ways to help you relax that aren't centred around food: go for a walk, run yourself a warm bath, try meditating. It's important to open up the conversation with your partner, family members, friends and colleagues to help them understand what you're going through so that they can accommodate and support you, as well as reaching out to your GP to discuss whether treatment options might be right for you.
- Move more: This is so important. We know regular exercise is good for everyone as it has many benefits, but even more so during the menopause. Cardio-based exercises are great for boosting short-term calorie burn (and mood!), while resistance training and lifting weights helps to build and preserve muscle mass, which is important to combat sarcopenia and keep your metabolic rate up in the long term. Plus, working on your muscles can help you feel toned and strong, which can be an excellent confidence boost!
- Lift more weights: Many women are put off using weights as they believe it will make them bulk up. This is simply not the case as we do not have the right level of hormones in our body for this to happen (look at how hard men also find it to build muscle, and they do have the hormones!). So don't let this be the reason you don't give it a go – try weight training or resistance training (where you are using your own body weight). Think of it as an investment in maintaining a good metabolism and helping your body to burn more calories! We've talked about how our energy requirements reduce as we get older, the answer to counter this is exercise, not trying to keep eating less and less, which is just not sustainable (or healthy) long term.
Although the menopause may feel like a negative phase of life, it doesn’t have to be. It could be the time in your life where you can motivate yourself to make healthy changes to be the best version of you. The lifestyle changes we make in our middle years have a lasting effect and can really help us to age well. By eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking regular exercise, you’ll be helping to reduce your risk of diseases as well as managing your weight.
Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focussed approach to taking control of their health.