Menopause and Weight Gain: Understanding the Connection

It happens to many women during menopause: Unwanted pounds start creeping on, especially around your belly. You may feel you’re gaining weight for no apparent reason, especially if your diet and exercise habits have stayed the same.

If you’ve ever wondered: “Why am I gaining weight in menopause?” read on. Here are some explanations for what causes weight gain during menopause, and how to prevent menopausal weight gain.

What Is Menopause?

Menopause is when you stop having periods. You’re officially in menopause if you haven’t had a period for 12 months. Women typically experience menopause between age 45 and 55. The average age of menopause in the United States is 51.5 years old.

Menopause happens because your ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen levels actually begin dropping before menopause, during the phase known as perimenopause. These changes can begin as early as age 40.

Signs of menopause include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Body aches.
  • Depression.
  • Headaches.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Hot flashes.
  • Incontinence.
  • Insomnia.
  • Loss of interest in sex.
  • Memory fog.
  • Mood swings.
  • Night sweats.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Vaginal dryness.

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What Causes Weight Gain During Menopause

Weight gain during menopause happens for a combination of reasons.

Reduced estrogen can lower your body’s metabolic rate — the speed at which it burns calories. This hormonal change may also result in lower energy levels, meaning you may feel more like taking a nap than exercising. Both can contribute to weight gain.

However, lower estrogen levels aren’t the only culprit. Extra pounds are more likely a perfect storm of hormonal changes and other factors. They include:

Aging — you naturally lose some degree of muscle mass as you get older. Since muscle burns more calories than fat, your metabolism slows down. If your diet and activity levels remain the same, you’re likely to put on pounds.

An unhealthy diet — when you’re younger and burning more calories, you may be able to get away with eating junk food. But by menopause such habits will catch up with you in the form of extra pounds.

Genetic factors — if your mother and grandmother had extra belly fat, it’s more likely you will too.

Not exercising — many people become less active as they age. If you burn fewer calories than you take in, you’re going to gain weight.

Health Problems From Belly Fat

The hormonal changes of menopause cause extra weight to collect around your belly, instead of hips and thighs. Doctors link belly fat to a variety of serious health conditions. They include:

  • Asthma and other breathing problems.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Depression.
  • Heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Lymphedema.
  • Osteoarthritis.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Type 2 diabetes.

How to Prevent Menopausal Weight Gain

Doctors may prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help you deal with symptoms of menopause. The most common symptom HRT treats is vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes. You can talk to your doctor about whether HRT is right for you. But HRT won’t cause you to gain or lose weight.

The good news is that by making some simple lifestyle changes, you may be able to stave off menopause weight gain. By making healthy choices, you’ll also improve your overall well-being. You’ll feel better, look better, and have more energy.

To minimize or prevent menopause weight gain:

Cut down on alcohol

Drinking alcohol can interrupt sleep and is a source of empty calories. Also, alcohol loosens inhibitions. After a few drinks, it’s easy to overeat, leading to more weight gain.

If you drink alcohol at all, limit it to one drink per day. (One drink equals 5 ounces of wine, 8 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.)

Eat the healthiest diet you can

You’ve heard it before, but it’s still true: A diet rich in whole grains, lean protein, and lots of fruit and vegetables is best. Eliminate (or at least cut down on) fried foods, sugary drinks, and processed meats.

Menopause-friendly foods include:

  • Fiber-rich foods like beans, lentils, and whole grains keep you feeling full longer.
  • Fish with heart-healthy omega-3 fats, like salmon, sardines, and canned tuna.
  • Nutrient-rich veggies like broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, and celery.
  • Nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and avocado — all sources of healthy fats.
  • Vitamin-packed fruits like apples, pears, oranges, berries, and peaches.

Fine-tune your sleep habits

Between hot flashes and night sweats, many menopausal women have trouble sleeping through the night. Your body needs deep sleep to be healthy, and interrupted slumber can lead to gaining belly fat. To get better sleep:

  • Develop a soothing bedtime routine (a warm shower, chamomile tea, gentle yoga, or a book).
  • Don’t eat a big meal too close to bedtime. Leave a few hours to digest your food.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
  • Shut off your screens (phone, iPad) at least an hour before bedtime.

Move your body

Regular exercise will help you burn calories, improve your digestion, and boost your mood. It can also help you sleep better at night. Make sure to include:

  • Balance and flexibility moves like yoga or tai chi several times a week. The better your balance and flexibility, the more likely you are to stay active long-term.
  • Strength-building workouts at least twice a week. This includes any weight-bearing exercise, like pilates, free weights, and exercise bands.
  • Thirty minutes of cardiovascular activity at least 5 days a week. It can be walking, jogging, swimming, dancing, playing tennis, or biking. Even gardening and doing household chores can be good cardio workouts.

Quit smoking

Smokers tend to have higher rates of obesity than non-smokers. In menopause, smoking can also damage your bones, contribute to heart disease, and raise your risk of getting many types of cancer.

Stress less

Stress weakens your immune system, making you susceptible to disease. And finding stress relief in food and alcohol can contribute to binge eating and weight gain.

It pays to develop simple stress management techniques. Find something that works well for you. You might try taking a walk with a friend, reading a book, or taking a few minutes for prayer or meditation each day.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Menopause and Your Health, Link

National Library of Medicine, Menopause: What you need to know, Link 

The North American Menopause Society, Changes in Weight and Fat Distribution, Link 

American Council on Exercise, The Connection Between Exercise and Menopause, Link, Menopausal Weight Gain, Link

Forbes, How to Reduce Menopause Weight Gain, According to Experts, Link

National Library of Medicine, Weight Management Module for Perimenopausal Women: A Practical Guide for Gynecologists, Link

NHS, Side effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), Link

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.