Many women think weight gain is part of menopause, but it’s more likely due to ageing and associated lifestyle changes. Weight gain and increased belly (abdominal) fat is common among women at midlife. But there are things you can do to lose weight if needed.
What causes weight gain in midlife?
On average, women between the ages of 45 and 55 gain about half a kilo per year. Many things can contribute to weight gain in midlife.
Ageing causes a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in fat, which slows down your metabolism. So, if your diet stays the same, you are likely to gain weight.
Menopausal symptoms can make it hard to focus on achieving a healthy weight. Disturbed sleep, mood fluctuations and hot flushes can lead to reduced physical activity and poor food choices, which can cause weight gain.
Menopause doesn’t cause weight gain, but studies show that changing hormones, such as reduced oestrogen, might mean you carry more weight around your belly rather than your hips and thighs.
In postmenopausal women, belly fat accounts for 15% to 20% of total body fat, compared with 5% to 8% before menopause.
Risks of belly fat
It’s not healthy to carry too much weight, but weight around your belly has more significant health risks. Fat stored in this part of your body is also known as 'visceral fat'.
Excess visceral fat is linked to:
- an increased risk of heart disease (one of the leading causes of death in women in Australia)
- type 2 diabetes
- breast cancer
Increased belly fat also increases menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes.
What you can do
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight during the menopause transition is very important. There are many things you can do to reduce weight gain and the associated risk of chronic disease. If you need to lose weight, aim for an initial goal of 5% to 7% of your body weight, as this has many health benefits.
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a healthy diet will improve your energy levels, keep your blood glucose stable and help to maintain a healthy weight. A low-calorie or low-carb diet can help you lose weight. This is especially the case if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes. Talk to your doctor or see a dietitian for advice.
Do regular physical activity
Physical activity can reduce the risk of chronic disease, falls and osteoporosis. It can also help you manage your weight and menopausal symptoms.
If you want to lose weight, you will need to combine regular physical activity with reduced calorie intake.
It’s recommended you are active on most (preferably all) days of the week. Weekly exercise recommendations include:
- 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity (e.g. brisk walking, golf, mowing, swimming)
- 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity (e.g. jogging, aerobics, fast cycling, playing team sports).
Or you can do a combination of the above.
Muscle-strengthening activities are also recommended two days per week. These can include body-weight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats or lunges, weightlifting or household activities that involve lifting, carrying or digging.
Sleep disruption is associated with eating more food and making poorer food choices. Try to develop good sleep habits and aim for at least seven hours of sleep each night.
Reduce or stop drinking alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol can cause weight gain, interfere with your sleep and make menopausal symptoms worse (e.g. hot flushes and night sweats).
When to see your doctor
Talk to your doctor if your symptoms affect your daily life. For example, if:
- you are overweight and find it hard to lose weight
- you have problems sleeping
- you experience strong emotions, anxiety or depression
- you need help to reduce or stop drinking alcohol.
For more information, resources and references, visit the Jean Hailes menopause web page.
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