It’s a natural stage of life that just happens to have a few unwanted side effects. HFG dietitian Melissa Meier weighs up weight management for menopausal women.
Hot flushes? Night sweats? How about thinning hair and mood swings? Welcome to the world of menopause. Oh, and did we mention, the frustration of trying to maintain a healthy weight, too? The average woman can put on half a kilo a year between 45 and 55.
The good news is that some simple lifestyle changes can help you keep kilogram creep at the level you’re happy with. Here’s what you need to guide you along the way.
Weight creep during menopause
Among the cluster of physical and emotional symptoms that can develop, many women notice their weight starts to creep up – and, if they’re not happy with it, they find the weight frustratingly harder to shift than they once did.
A big reason for weight gain during this time is that women tend to become less active with age. This leads to a loss of muscle mass which, in turn, slows down your metabolism – so you don’t need as much energy to maintain your body weight as you previously did. The problem, however, is that although kilojoule requirements lessen, many people don’t adjust their eating habits – so they put on weight over time.
Some research also suggests that about the time of menopause (perimenopause), levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin become elevated, which can drive women to eat more than usual.
In conjunction with this, levels of the hormone oestrogen drop during menopause. This makes women more prone to gaining weight around their mid-section rather than around their hips, bottom or thighs’.
How does it affect you?
Entering menopause can be challenging, but middle-age spread is not inevitable during this time. Maintaining a healthy weight is a priority, because gaining too many unwanted kilos can have serious health implications, such as:
Increased risk of disease
Carrying too much weight increases your risk of many serious chronic diseases. These include heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes, sleep apnoea, fatty liver and a number of cancers, such as postmenopausal breast cancer and liver cancer.
Worsened menopause symptoms
Weight gain can exacerbate some symptoms experienced during menopause. Increased weight can worsen joint pain, hot flushes and night sweats.
Increased visceral fat
An expanding waistline is more dangerous than gaining weight around the hips and the thighs.
That’s because fat clustering around the abdomen can wrap around vital organs – this is called visceral fat. This fat has a much greater effect on your metabolism and disease risk than the fat lying immediately under the skin (which is called subcutaneous fat).
A strong correlation is known to exist between people’s waist circumferences and the amount of visceral fat they have – so for most women a waist measurement of 80cm or more could indicate too much visceral fat.
Life stages explained
The 30 to 40 years following the onset of puberty when a woman is fertile and can reproduce.
The time span when menopause symptoms arrive. It usually occurs in a woman’s 40s, and can last from just a few years to more than a decade. Progesterone – a hormone produced by the ovaries – slowly declines. In early perimenopause, oestrogen levels are erratic, while in late perimenopause, oestrogen levels are low, and periods become irregular.
This is defined as the time 12 months after a woman’s last period. The average age when women reach menopause is 51. While symptoms may continue for some time they are usually less intrusive than during perimenopause
The stage of life after menopause.
Maintaining bone health after menopause is important for a long, active life.
Dose up on dairy
During menopause, our loss of bone mass can speed up due to the drop in oestrogen, so stay on top of your calcium intake. Most people need two to three daily serves of dairy, but from around age 50, women will need an extra serve each day, such as a small tub of unsweetened yoghurt, two slices of cheese or a glass of milk, to get the calcium they now need.
As you age, your skin’s ability to produce vitamin D after it is exposed to sunlight declines, which then impacts calcium absorption. With sun safety in mind, head outdoors daily at a time when the UV index is 2 or below. You can also top up your levels with eggs, oily fish, and mushrooms that have been left in the sun. But remember, our biggest source of vitamin D is from sun exposure.
How to beat belly fat
Lose weight the healthy way — and keep it off — with these dietitian-approved tips.
No quick fix
It’s pretty simple: diets don’t work. They fuel a vicious cycle, starting with food restriction, which can cause feelings of deprivation and later guilt, when willpower runs out. This cycle repeats itself again and again. Fad diets that cut out whole food groups deny your body many nutrients it needs to function at its best.
Balance food groups
A much better alternative is to follow a balanced eating plan for gradual weight loss. By incorporating all food groups – whole grains, lean protein, reduced-fat dairy, fruit and vegetables, and healthy fats – and being mindful of portion sizes, you’re giving your body all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and function at its peak. It’s a much more realistic and sustainable approach.
Sweat it out
Doing enough physical activity is vital not just for weight loss, but also for your overall health. It helps you burn kilojoules and build lean muscle mass, which speeds up your metabolism. Weight-bearing exercise is particularly good for keeping your bones strong. Aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, and start now.
If you’re chronically stressed, your body is bathing in the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to fat being stored around central organs. So, it’s important to include stress-relieving activities in your weekly routine, such as a yoga class, a relaxing bath, or curling up with your favourite book.
Catch up on shut-eye
Intake of sugary sweets, fast carbs and salty snacks can increase by 30 per cent when you’re tired, compared with the food choices you make when you’ve had eight hours sleep. Without enough sleep, your hunger hormones can also become unbalanced and make you feel hungrier than normal. So set yourself a firm lights-out time, and stick to it.
What’s the deal with soy?
Soy foods such as tofu, soy milk and soy beans contain phytoestrogens – compounds that act like the hormone oestrogen, but have a weaker effect. Because of this, it was initially thought that soy products could help manage the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause – however research results are conflicting.
Nonetheless, as part of a balanced diet, some women find soy products helpful in menopause management, so chat to your doctor to see if they’re right for you.
Pop these foods on your shopping list to boost nutrition and feel great.
Whole grains are a great source of quality carbohydrates to fuel your busy day. With a low glycaemic index (GI), rolled oats will keep you going and help avoid the dreaded 3pm slump.
Evidence suggests people who regularly eat legumes are less likely to be overweight. Brimming with muscle-building protein and gut-loving fibre, legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils keep you feeling full and satisfied for longer.
A high-protein choice to bust hunger pangs, yoghurt is a great between-meals bite. Choose a low-fat, high-protein, plain variety, and add sweetness with fresh fruit and berries to minimise added sugar.
Filling half of your plate with non-starchy veges is a great way to fill up while keeping weight in check. As well as containing key vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, veges are low in kilojoules and high in hunger-busting fibre.
A body of research shows nuts can help with weight management. They are especially rich in heart-healthy fats, fibre and protein, which all help to manage appetite. Enjoy a 30g handful as a tasty, portable snack.
New research suggests a higher-protein breakfast may help to regulate eating later in the day by keeping you satisfied longer. With 13g in two eggs, they’re an ideal high-protein breakfast ingredient and spreading protein throughout your day is great for your muscles.
Soft drinks, alcohol and sugary smoothies can quickly add excess energy to your diet without you realising it. So, make the switch to water and reap the rewards.
Regular exercise helps prevent weight gain and slows bone loss
Fad diets may slow your metabolism in the long run.
Article sources and references
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Risk factors to health, aihw.gov.au Accessed May 2019https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/biomedical-risk-factors/risk-factors-to-health/contents/risk-factors-and-disease-burden
- Australian Menopause Society, menopause.org.au Accessed May 2019https://www.menopause.org.au/
- Better Health channel. Menopause and weight gain, betterhealth.vic.gov.au Accessed May 2019https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/menopause-and-weight-gain
- Chang CR et al. 2019. Restricting carbohydrates at breakfast is sufficient to reduce 24-hour exposure to postprandial hyperglycemia and improve glycemic variability. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 105:1302-9https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30968140
- Macdonald HM et al. 2003. Longitudinal changes in weight in perimenopausal and early postmenopausal women: effects of dietary energy intake, energy expenditure, dietary calcium intake and hormone replacement therapy. International Journal of Obesity 27:669-76https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12833110
- Nutrition Source, Harvard. T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Straight talk about soy, hsph.harvard.edu Accessed May 2019https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/soy/
- Sowers MFR et al. 2008. Change in adipocytokines and ghrelin with menopause. Mauritas 59:149-57https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18280066