Difficulty maintaining weight during menopause is one of many common side effects of this life stage due to the hormone changes occurring. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests that this process usually starts the year leading up to menopause, during perimenopause. Women, on average, gain about 1 lb. a year during this time and it tends to accumulate around the abdomen. Often the methods of weight management that worked for them for years are suddenly ineffective. If you are suffering from such problem, associated with menopause, you are not alone, since weight gain in the abdomen is one of the most common complaints of perimenopausal women. While there are the popular urban myth that an extra 10–15 pounds is simply a rite of passage at this time of life and they should just accept their “middle-age spread”, you should think twice before accepting that as unavoidable (because it’s not).
As with most of other symptoms of menopause, weigh gain may be mostly associated with hormonal changes during this phase as well. Many women are quite shocked and frustrated when they begin to notice those extra pounds graciously provided by menopause. You may be eating and exercising exactly the same as you always were but still can't seem to maintain your weight. As you enter the early stages of menopause, maintaining weight becomes more and more difficult, and losing weight becomes almost impossible. This is because of the fluctuation in your hormones.
Your body's hormones have a direct impact on your appetite, metabolism, and fat storage. This is why it is so difficult to control your weight during menopause no matter what you do, fluctuating estrogen, testosterone, and androgen levels will fight you all the way. Let’s review the hormonal changes influence in more details:
- Estrogen. Estrogen is the female sex hormone that is responsible for causing monthly ovulation. During female menopause, your estrogen levels decline rapidly, causing your body to stop ovulating. However, estrogen also seems to play a big role in menopausal weight gain. As your ovaries produce less estrogen, your body looks for other places to get needed estrogen from. Fat cells in your body can produce estrogen, so your body works harder to convert calories into fat to increase estrogen levels. Unfortunately for you, fat cells don't burn calories the way muscle cells do, which causes you to pack on the unwanted pounds.
- Progesterone. During menopause, progesterone levels will also decrease. Like estrogen, lower levels of this hormone can be responsible for many of the symptoms of menopause and that includes weight gain, or at least the appearance of it. Water retention and menopause often go hand in hand since water weight and bloating are caused by decreased progesterone levels. Though this doesn't actually result in weight gain, your clothes will probably feel a bit tighter and you may feel a bit heavier. Water retention and bloating usually disappear within a few months.
- Androgen. This hormone is responsible for sending your new weight directly to your middle section. In fact, weight gain during menopausal years is often known as "middle age spread" because of the rapid growth of the mid-section. Often, one of the first signs of menopause is an increase of androgen in your body, which causes you to gain weight around your abdominals instead of around your lower half.
- Testosterone. Testosterone helps your body to create lean muscle mass out of the calories that you take in. Muscle cells burn more calories than fat cells do, increasing your metabolism. In natural menopause, levels of testosterone drop resulting in the loss of this muscle. Unfortunately, this means a lower metabolism. The lower your metabolism is, the slower your body burns calories.
- Insulin Resistance can occur during your menopausal years. This is when your body mistakenly turns every calorie you take in into fat. Most women follow a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet. After time, processed and refined foods may make your body resistant to insulin produced in the blood stream. This is often a cause of weight gain after the age of 40.
- Stress is also a contributing factor in weight gain in menopause. Stress hormones can prevent weight loss as they signal to your body to go into a storage mode. This is referred to as the "famine effect" - your body, thinking it won't get food again for a long time, stores every calorie it takes in causing weight gain.
- During menopause, your digestion changes and can become sluggish, which some nutritionists believe leads to IBS, allergies, weight gain, lack of energy and other digestive problems.
- Statistically, menopausal women tend to exercise less than before, which can lead to weight gain. In addition, muscle mass naturally diminishes with age. If you don't do anything to replace the lean muscle you lose, your body composition will shift to more fat and less muscle — which slows down the rate at which you burn calories. If you continue to eat as you always have, you're likely to gain weight.
- For many women, genetic factors play a role in weight gain after menopause. If your parents or other close relatives carry extra weight around the abdomen, you're likely to do the same.
- Sometimes, different important life changing events, such as children leaving — or returning — home, divorce, the death of a spouse or other life changes may contribute to weight gain after menopause. For others, a sense of contentment or simply letting go leads to weight gain.
Health Troubles with Belly Fat
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Unfortunately, gaining weight during menopause has more negative health impact than less attractive body appearance (which is for many a huge drawback by itself).
The trouble with belly fat is that it's not limited to the extra layer of padding located just below the skin (subcutaneous fat). It also includes visceral fat — which lies deep inside your abdomen, surrounding your internal organs.
Although subcutaneous fat poses cosmetic concerns, visceral fat is associated with far more dangerous health consequences. That's because an excessive amount of visceral fat produces hormones and other substances that can raise blood pressure, negatively alter good and bad cholesterol levels and impair the body's ability to use insulin (insulin resistance). An excessive amount of any fat, including visceral fat, also boosts estrogen levels. All of this can increase the risk of serious health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
Recent research also has associated belly fat with an increased risk of premature death — regardless of overall weight. In fact, some studies have found that even when women were considered a normal weight based on standard body mass index (BMI) measurements, a large waistline increased the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes.
What to Do?
There's no magic formula for preventing — or reversing — weight gain after menopause. Simply stick to weight-control basics:
- Rule out a thyroid problem. Hypothyroidism, which often develops in women at midlife, can contribute to weight gain, so have a thorough checkup if you are rapidly gaining weight.
- Move more. Aerobic activity can help you shed excess pounds or simply maintain a healthy weight. Strength training counts, too. As you gain muscle, your body burns calories more efficiently — which makes it easier to control your weight. As a general goal, include at least 30 minutes of physical activity in your daily routine and do strength training exercises at least twice a week. If you want to lose weight or meet specific fitness goals, you may need to increase your activity even more.
- Eat less. To maintain your current weight — let alone lose excess pounds — you may need about 200 fewer calories a day during your 50s than you did during your 30s and 40s. To reduce calories without skimping on nutrition, pay attention to what you're eating and drinking. Choose more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Opt for lean sources of protein. Don't skip meals, which may lead you to overeat later.
- Reduce calories from beverages. Hidden calories and added sugar are in the majority of beverages, including juice, smoothies and lattes. Reduce or eliminate liquid calories in the diet to achieve weight loss during menopause. Also high in calories is alcohol, which when consumed can increase the frequency of hot flashes and add extra pounds to the waistline. The American Heart Association recommends limiting alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women.
- Improve your liver's health. This vital organ cannot metabolize fat properly when it is stressed. Hormones, along with coffee, sugar, acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs, trans fats, sugars and sweeteners, can overload the liver. Cut liver stressors and add detoxifying herbs and spices such as cumin, cilantro, garlic and ginger.
- Lower your insulin level with a balanced diet. Insulin is a fat-promoting hormone. Choose lean proteins and rely on slow-burning carbohydrates, such as vegetables and whole grains. Good meats include low-fat, grass-fed beef, omega-3 enriched eggs, lamb and two weekly servings of salmon.
- More fruits and vegetables. Boost consumption of fruits and vegetables that detoxify and have fiber, vitamins and minerals. Great veggies include asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, watercress and zucchini. Especially increase intake of leafy greens. Fruits that detoxify are apples, berries and peaches.
- Consume natural fat burners. Utilize lemons, limes and cranberries, because they are natural fat metabolizers. Lemons and limes help your body digest fats. Cranberries and 100 percent cranberry juice are high in four organic acids that act as digestive enzymes. These help gobble up little fatty deposits that get stuck in the lymphatic system. Use 8 oz. unsweetened cranberry juice daily.
- Include fatty acids in your diet. Make sure you get all types of essential fatty acids. Omega 3s are best found in chia seeds, flaxseed oil and fish oil. Omega 6s include gamma linolenic acid, or GLA. Rich sources are black currant seed oil and evening primrose oil. Omega 9s are found in olive and macadamia nut oil. Such monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, are high in oleic acid and keep the belly slim.
- Drink green tea. Green tea is believed to be filled with plenty of antioxidants, and water really helps women to feel more energetic. It also cleans out the body and assists women to lose weight during and after menopause.
- Avoid crash diets. Starvation will only cause your metabolism to slow down, causing you to gain more weight later on. Be careful loosing large amounts of weight. Being very thin can lead to an increased chance of developing osteoporosis. Yes, it takes more time and efforts to lose weight at this age. But remember: if you lose weight slowly, you're more likely to keep it off.
- Assess your hormones. Check your hormone levels with your doctor to see if you suffer from estrogen dominance. If you do, make sure to get enough zinc and magnesium and take a multivitamin with vitamins B, B6, D and E. Supplement with 500mg black currant seed oil after food twice a day and add citrus fruits to your diet, because they are rich in hesperidin, a bioflavonoid that increases capillary strength to help reduce hot flashes. Discuss using a natural progesterone cream with your doctor or naturopath.
- Avoid emotional eating. As mentioned, stress and associated emotional eating are quite common in menopause, causing cravings for high-fat, comfort foods. Stress also releases the hormone Cortisol and elevated levels of Cortisol can contribute to abdominal weight gain along with elevated glucose and insulin levels. To avoid weight g during this period, try to relax with healthy stress reduction. Meditation, sauna, physical exercises, dancing, healthy sex, and outdoor activities - all are proper ways to reduce your stress levels.
- Check your medications. Some prescribed medications, such as anti-depressants, for example, may cause your weight increase. Discuss with your primary physician potential side effects of the meds you are taking and seek for the alternative solution, if you suspect, they are responsible for your weight gains.
- Seek support. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones who'll support your efforts to eat a healthy diet and increase your physical activity. Better yet, team up and make the lifestyle changes together.
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