Menopause and Weight Gain… An Ongoing Conversation Piece amongst Women during the Fifth Chapter of Life (September 2015)
A number of times each week, women call my office with a lament that goes something like this: “I work out regularly, eat well, haven’t changed my lifestyle, perceive that I am health conscious, and don’t understand why weight is increasing.”
I generally will say to the woman on the other end of the phone line, “How long have you noticed that your weight is increasing?” Basically all the woman can say is that her clothes are progressively fitting too tightly. After a series of important questions that allow us to conclude that her thyroid hormonal output is normal, we decide that she is, in fact, going through menopause. At that point, there is a perfect opportunity to explain to her about intuitive eating and the non-diet approach (the topic of a previous newsletter) but at this moment in time, we are addressing one of the expected outcomes of menopause…weight gain.
It is important to understand not only the hormonal shifts that take place during a woman’s menopausal years but also the ramifications of those shifts. It is common for women to be less active and work out with less intensity. Some may be proud that they made it to the gym even though they were exhausted and lacked the drive to push as hard as they had done in the past. In addition, it is common to have fluctuations in energy levels from day to day. As aging women, we lose muscle mass, and develop achy joints. Busy lives, variations in our choices of foods, and time constraints can put additional demands on our bodies leading to non-desirable results, one of which potentially is weight gain.
Did you know that during menopause, even some women who have healthy relationships with food may gain more than one pound per year? It is true that our nutritional needs decrease as we age; we lose lean body mass as a result of fewer activities or decreased intensity of the activities we do engage in; there is a reduction in resting energy requirements. Researchers say that a reduced energy need by as few as 10 calories per day can pave the way to an increase in our fat stores. All of these factors, collectively, are the reason that I teach my clients how to become mindful and conscious eaters…not to eat out of boredom, mindless eating, or simply because the food tastes good. We all need to listen to our bodies and eat accordingly.
In a study by Brown and colleagues with more than 8,000 Australian women between 45 and 55 years of age, researchers found that menopause, itself, was a risk factor for weight gain. Over the five years of this study these participants experienced an average weight gain of slightly more than one pound per year. Other factors contributing to weight gain included quitting smoking, limited exercise, hysterectomies, and sedentary lifestyles.
In research by Blanck and colleagues the findings were that more than 18,500 postmenopausal women with an average weight gain of ten pounds over seven years, had lifestyles characterized by low activity and low recreational movement. Animal studies have suggested that hormonal shifts such as decrease in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone contribute to weight gain. At this time, similar results have not been confirmed in human studies. It is clear, therefore, that the research needs to continue.
When a client (or a possible client) inquires about what can be the cause of her weight gain, I become very excited about the potential to share the joy of the non-diet approach with her. I have found that many of the women I see had not made any changes in their lifestyles until they went through menopause. The trend in my practice suggests that a lifestyle change does not come until a woman is dissatisfied with the direction her body seems to be heading, i.e. gaining weight. (Note: Menopausal women often times develop increases in abdominal fat which can put them at a high risk for developing various diseases).
The bottom line is that commencement of menopause does not have to mean that a woman will gain a considerable amount of weight as long as she is aware of her lifestyle and asks herself these questions: Am I active enough? Am I present when I eat? Am I eating too much? Am I satisfied after I eat? And likely one of the most important questions: Is it hunger that drives me to eat?
I hope this begins to clarify the confusion about how menopause might be a factor in weight gain.
- Blanck HM, McCullough ML, Patel AV, et al. Sedentary behavior, recreational physical activity, and 7-year weight gain among postmenopausal US women. Obesity. 2007;15(6):1578-1588.
- Brown WJ, Williams L, Ford JH, Ball K, Dobson AJ. Identifying the energy gap: magnitude and determinants of 5-year weight gain in mid age women. Obes Res. 2005;13(8):1431-1441.
- Davis SR, Castelo-Branco C, Chedraui P, et al. Understanding weight gain at menopause. Climacteric
- Lee IM, Djoussé L, Sesso HD, Wang L, Buring JE. Physical activity and weight gain prevention. JAMA. 2010;303(12):1173-1179.
- Panotopoulos G, Raison J, Ruiz JC, Guy-Grand B, Basdevant A. Weight gain at the time of menopause. Hum Reprod. 1997; 12(Suppl 1):126-133.
- Singh P, Haddad E, Knutsen S, Fraser G. The effect of menopause on the relation between weight gain and mortality among women. Menopause. 2001;8(5):314-320.