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Weight gain at menopause: Are hormones to blame?

It can be tempting to put midlife weight gain down to the hormonal changes of menopause. After all, the two often coincide. But there’s more to the story.

Up until midlife, Leanne Vandeligt had always been slim and fit. Weight gain was unusual for the personal trainer and health coach.

But from around age 50, she started to notice a change in body shape. “My weight started sneaking up and I could see and feel a thickening around my waist and back,” says the now 55-year-old.

Leanne’s change in body weight isn’t uncommon. Research suggests that women gain roughly half a kilo every year between the ages of 45 and 55.

Within this decade, menopause often occurs, although it can happen earlier or later. For women in Australia, the average age of menopause is 51 and the lead-up to it is called ‘perimenopause’.

During perimenopause, female hormone levels fluctuate. But, as you get closer to menopause, these hormone levels decline substantially.

The question is, do these menopausal hormone changes cause weight gain?

Interestingly, research suggests hormones are not the main cause of weight gain. But they do change where your body carries weight.

According to Jean Hailes Endocrinologist Dr Niloufar Torkamani, women often carry weight on their hips and thighs before menopause. However, come menopause, fat storage tends to shift to your waist due to these hormonal changes, including a drop in the hormone oestrogen, she explains.

Unfortunately, studies show that carrying too much belly fat can increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and even dementia.

So what causes the weight gain?

Dr Torkamani says the reasons are varied and complex.

“Ageing is a factor – as we age, our muscle mass decreases and there are changes in how our body metabolises [processes] fat,” she says. As a result, it can become easier to put on weight.

There’s also genetics. Studies have shown that our genes can play a role in obesity, but more research is needed.

Midlife can also be a tricky time for prioritising self-care, with many women juggling career and relationship changes, potential health issues and the care of ageing parents and growing children, she adds.

Leanne thinks that her weight gain came about largely due to lifestyle changes. “During COVID lockdowns, I was fatigued and worried, helping teens with home schooling. I was less active. I took up a part-time desk job and started enjoying a sneaky vodka or gin at night.”

Menopausal symptoms also didn’t make it easy for Leanne to stay healthy. “The low moods and fatigue [linked to menopause] stop you from wanting to move, and when you feel glum or flat you’re less likely to eat well,” she says.

Dr Torkamani says that although menopause doesn’t directly cause weight gain, the symptoms can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

“A lot of menopausal women get aches and pains that reduce their ability to move,” she says.

“Depression and anxiety are also common around menopause, and some of the medications used to treat these issues can contribute to weight gain too.”

How to take action

If possible, the first step is to prevent unwanted weight gain during the menopause transition, says Dr Torkamani. “If you see your weight is going up, even if it’s two, three or four kilograms, address it early.”

She says it’s worth visiting your GP every six months for a health check and to identify any important changes.

As for losing unwanted weight, Jean Hailes Naturopath Sandra Villella recommends reducing your intake of carbohydrates and favouring healthy sources of protein, such as lean meat, cottage cheese, tinned fish or eggs. She also offers these dietary tips for a healthy weight:

  • Crowd your diet with healthy food choices so you have less room for unhealthy ones.
  • Snack on a handful of raw nuts instead of treats during the afternoon slump.
  • Enjoy a palm-sized source of protein at main meals to aid fullness and to keep blood sugar levels steady.
  • Swap sugary drinks for plain water, and limit alcohol.
  • Watch your portion sizes by eating slowly and mindfully.

Another option, she says, is to try a reliable intermittent-fasting eating plan, such as the 5:2 Diet. It involves following a balanced, unrestricted diet five days per week and restricting your eating to roughly 3300 kilojoules (800 calories) on the other two non-consecutive days (for example, on Mondays and Wednesdays).

Also, remember to move as much as your body allows. Resistance exercises, like squats, push-ups and weight training, increase your muscle mass. “The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you burn,” says Ms Villella.

For some women, treatment might also include medication that encourages weight loss, adds Dr Torkamani. Talk to your GP about the best approach for you.

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Last updated: 
15 January 2024
 | 
Last reviewed: 
15 April 2024