Weight loss and the menopause
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to menopause. Symptoms and the degree to which they occur can vary amongst women and include continual tiredness, hot flushes, erratic sleep patterns, forgetfulness, and anxiety which all have a significant impact on day-to-day life. Some of these symptoms, especially anxiety and forgetfulness are early indicators of perimenopause. They are not recognised to the detriment of women’s well-being.
All symptoms of menopause can impact self-esteem, but one that resonates with many women is the difficulty in maintaining body weight.
What’s the deal with age and body weight?
The particularly delightful term ‘middle-age spread’ is commonly used when referring to age and body weight. This originates from the fact that most of the excess weight we gain (both men and women) occurs after forty. Factors such as lifestyle, work, and family responsibilities can get in the way of the motivation required to hit the gym or cook a meal from scratch. However, hormones can play a role that is even more relevant during menopause.
None of us need to be reminded of the importance of maintaining a healthy body weight and its impact on our health in relation to its link to chronic disease. Still, the fact remains that the sooner you address the issue, the better equipped you will be a future-proofing your long-term health. This is especially relevant to women whose risk of poor bone and heart health increases because of lower oestrogen during menopause.
Metabolism is often touted why people cannot lose weight in middle age. However, a comprehensive study published in the journal Science revealed that metabolism remained constant between the ages of 20-and 65 years old1. While metabolism may not slow down, preserving muscle mass through exercise and diet is essential as muscle burns more calories than fat. This is especially relevant to women during menopause, which is associated with increased visceral fat and a decrease in muscle mass.
Is there any science behind the ‘meno-middle’?
While diet and lifestyle play a role and are hugely beneficial for many areas of health, including that of the heart (a risk factor that increases after menopause due to the absence of oestrogen), research has suggested that other factors may also influence the ‘meno-middle’ effect.
According to researchers from the University of Ohio, an enzyme called Aldh1a1 encourages fat thickening around the middle and a build-up around the internal organs (increasing the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease)2. The female hormone oestrogen suppresses this enzyme, but as it drops during menopause, its effects are thought to increase, causing weight gain.
Don’t dismiss the importance of sleep
Sleep is an issue for many women during menopause. Anxiety is a critical factor in dealing with night sweats and hot flushes. Research proves that sleep is just as crucial to our health as diet and exercise, and it may even impact body weight. Research has suggested that people who do not get enough sleep may have higher levels of the hunger hormone called ghrelin and lower levels of the satiety hormone called leptin3. The combined effects of these hormones may stimulate appetite, encourage overeating and result in weight gain.
Another basic explanation for sleep and weight gain is that the fatigue associated with not sleeping well can influence the motivation to exercise and eat well. However, it’s worth pointing out here that this research is not definitive, and just because you don’t get a good night’s kip doesn’t mean you will gain weight.
How does the approach to weight loss change during menopause?
Maintaining healthy body weight is important as you age, but the approaches you may have taken in your early years may not be the best ones at this stage in your life. Quick-fix diets that are hugely calorie restrictive or cut out many food groups may help you lose weight in the short term. Still, it would help if you considered their impact on your body. These diets may exacerbate a loss in muscle mass which may be challenging to regain post-menopause. Such diets may also deprive you of crucial nutrients that could impact things such as bone density.
While your knee-jerk reaction might be to find the quickest way to lose weight, this is a time in your life when it may be wiser to focus on long-term health rather than numbers on the scales. Start by making simple changes to the way you eat and focus more on adopting a healthy way of life that can be sustained in the long term.
A healthy dietary approach
How you choose to lose weight is up to you. With experience, I would always instead support someone to lose weight the way they wish than preach a way they will not stick to. So, if you want to embark on a very low-calorie diet or one that cuts out food groups, then my advice is to do it most sensibly. This means making every meal hugely nutritious to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs. If you are cutting out food groups, then be smart about it and find alternatives to replace lost nutrients, such as plant-based sources of calcium, when cutting out dairy. I would also recommend a basic multivitamin and mineral supplement.
A low-carb way of eating is helpful for women during menopause when trying to lose weight. This doesn’t mean starving yourself but simply focusing on including protein with every meal (lean poultry, fish, tofu, beans, and pulses) alongside plenty of plant-based foods such as vegetables and healthy fats (oils, avocado, nuts, seeds), small amounts of wholegrain carbohydrates (oats, brown bread, brown rice, quinoa) and good sources of calcium including green veggies, dairy or alternatives (fortified), soy, dried fruits, and spices.
All of these foods and this way of eating a natural diet of unprocessed foods may also help to combat the symptoms of menopause, such as hot flushes.
Maintaining a healthy weight after menopause is easier if you adopt a healthier lifestyle; rather than
embarking on extreme diets that can limit essential nutrients and starve the body of too many calories, focus on habit changes that will promote good health in the long term.