Mature woman exercising with kettlebells on the beach to preserve muscle mass in menopause

2 Ways to Prevent Menopause Weight Gain

2 Ways to Prevent Menopause Weight Gain

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

The "M" word—menopause—strikes fear into most women (and their partners!), mainly because of the challenges that come with the transition into this life phase. For most, it is filled with hot flashes, mood swings, low libido and exhaustion. Menopause and the years leading up to it are also when women tend to pack on the pounds, particularly around the middle.

Interestingly, a new study from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that compared with women older AND younger than them, women going through the beginning stages of menopause, had the most abdominal fat and the highest percentage of body fat. This means that even when compared with older, postmenopausal women, women in menopause came out on the bottom, statistically.

But there is good news for women who haven't reached this phase yet: being menopausal doesn't have to translate into weight gain...if you're proactive in the years leading up to and transitioning into menopause, a phase known as perimenopause.

"Perimenopause, which is during middle age, is the most valuable time to make some lifestyle changes," study co-author Abbie Smith-Ryan said in an NBC report. The study authors recommend several ways to beat back that extra body fat so you can stay lean and healthy as you age.

2 ways to prevent weight gain during menopause

The UNC study recommends women entering menopause get ahead of the hormone and metabolic changes that are coming through exercise such as strength training designed to maintain muscle mass. Researchers also recommend perimenopausal women add more protein (without increasing calorie intake) to combat the metabolic changes. That means perhaps swapping out a serving of sweets for some lean meat, or having some eggs or Greek yogurt instead of your usual toast. Sticking to a healthy diet is key.

As for exactly which kind of diet to follow, eating plans such as the Mediterranean diet, keto, paleo, vegan, flexitarian and more have pros and cons. The greatest factor in your decision should be yourself—what you like and will be able to maintain, not whatever diet is trending.

Want more weight loss tips? People who have lost weight—and kept it off—recommend having a comprehensive weight loss strategy. Other studies support slow eating to help keep your calorie count down.

What is the best exercise to preserve muscle mass in menopause?

Women in menopause, resistance training tp help retain lean muscle mass

The study authors encourage women going through the menopause transition to focus on exercise that helps retain lean muscle mass—so things like resistance exercise and muscle-strengthening weightlifting. Resistance training supports muscle health, and just as importantly, it supports bone health and helps prevent the bone loss that often characterizes this life stage.

Although gyms provide plenty of strength-training equipment, you don't need access to a gym to start resistance exercise. Heavy cans of food work like hand-held weights, and elastic resistance bands provide muscle-building benefits in a convenient, portable form. Even cleaning the house can give you the workout you need!

The researchers also recommend high-intensity interval training to boost metabolism. If you're just starting an exercise routine, start slowly. For a beginner, moderate-intensity exercise is better. Save the high-intensity workouts for after you've started to get into shape. A workout buddy can also help!

Keep in mind that targeted abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups and planks, strengthen those core muscles, but they won't help to burn that belly fat unless you combine them with a healthy diet and aerobic exercise. The same caution applies to waist trainers, those modern-day elastic girdles that impart an hourglass shape to your middle through compression. The real work of slimming your profile remains watching what you eat and healthy physical activity.

What are the best nutrients to prevent menopause weight gain?

Woman on a terrace having a drink with supplements that support estrogen metabolism

Because weight gain in menopause is strongly linked to decreased estrogen, encouraging healthy estrogen metabolism through nutrition may help you manage your weight. Lab testing to measure your hormone levels, and talking with a doctor about the best ways to maintain balance in your body are other good ideas. Nutrients that help you stifle the urge to snack and make healthy diet choices might also help with weight management.

In addition, non-hormonal compounds such as a clinically studied Siberian rhubarb extract have been shown to relieve menopause symptoms that might stand in the way of your workout. After all, it's hard to work up the motivation to go to the gym if you're dragging from a restless night.

The health of your gut microbiome also plays a role in weight management. Try to choose nutrients and foods beneficial to the good bacteria in your belly. Not only can a healthy microbiome assist your weight loss goals, it can promote your immune health, heart health, mood and more.

Does menopause cause rapid weight gain?

Woman on a scale talking to a nurse about menopausal weight gain

According to the research out of UNC Chapel Hill, menopausal weight gain usually starts during perimenopause, generally between the ages of 40 and 50. That's when women first start seeing symptoms such as irregular periods, changes in estrogen and difficulty with mood and sleep. This is also when your metabolic rate tends to dip, and many begin to see belly fat building up.

The research looked at 72 healthy women, equally divided among pre-menopausal, perimenopausal and post-menopausal. Unsurprisingly, it found pre-menopausal women had the lowest body fat percentage and lowest abdominal fat compared women during and after menopause.

Why does that happen? Well, the study also found premenopausal women burned fat during moderate-intensity exercise more effectively than the other groups. Not being able to easily achieve a fat-burning state makes those calories count differently and makes weight loss harder. Even worse, other hormonal changes are going on during the menopause transition.

Which hormone causes weight gain in menopause?

Menopause is marked by a decrease in the female hormone estrogen, or estradiol. This dip in estrogen levels often leads to weight gain, as well as the infamous hot flashes of menopause, in addition to night sweats, moodiness and other symptoms. The dip in estrogen also can affect bone health and result in bone loss.

The hormonal changes during this time affect women in different ways, which is why some (about 30 percent, according to a Life Extension study) do not gain weight. It also explains why some see changes in their hair and skin, digestion and sleep patterns, while others are more bothered by mood swings, depression and stiff joints.

Where do you mostly gain weight in menopause?

The weight gain in menopause tends to be around the abdomen—the dreaded belly fat. Not only does this weight gain make your jeans fit too tightly, but abdominal fat is associated with a number of health challenges. This makes belly fat more of a concern than fat elsewhere on your body (hence the often-used "apple" and "pear" body composition types).

Unfortunately, abdominal fat can be hard to lose. Research shows belly fat affects your heart health and cell energy levels, which can create a cycle encouraging even more belly expansion. So getting ahead of this negative trend is important.

 

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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.