Dara Duff-Bergeron: Sweaty Mummy


Menopause And Weight Gain

Blame Hormones. But Not For Everything

Menopause is often blamed for the middle-age "spread" that affects many women. But does menopause actually cause weight gain? Maybe you've noticed the pounds creeping on since your cycle got a little less regular. Or maybe your own mother has warned you how it all goes down hill after the "change of life."

(Who invented that creepy term anyway? I am going to go ahead and say that getting knocked up and giving birth was the "change of life" for me... as in, used to have one and now "WTF happened to my life?")

Cranky? Bloated?

Thanks, uterus. Thanks a lot.

The question here is not whether women tend to gain weight as they age. The question—to be clear—is whether the hormonal changes of menopause, the cessation over several months or years of menstruation, causes women to gain weight.

Drum roll....

No. No it doesn't.

A recently published review of the evidence in the journal Climacteric determined that weight gain in midlife is not due to menopause. Before you call your mom and tell her to lay off the doughnuts and stop blaming the "change of life" (shudder) for her lack of fitness, there is one other finding. Hormonal changes in menopause DO cause a shift in body fat storage, leading to more abdominal fat storage and less fat in the typical areas of earlier life (i.e., the badunkadunk).

Professor Susan Davis, who led the review, sums it up:

"It is a myth that the menopause causes a woman to gain weight. It's really just a consequence of environmental factors and aging which cause that. But there is no doubt that the new spare tyre many women complain of after menopause is real, and not a consequence of any changes they have made. Rather this is the body's response to the fall in estrogen at menopause: a shift of fat storage from the hips to the waist."

How does this happen? Menopause causes a decline in estrogen levels. Estrogen is one of the female sex hormones and is responsible for expression of female characteristics, such as big childbearing hips built to carry a 35-lb toddler AND a full laundry hamper at the same time. As estrogen declines in menopause and if fat is gained, that fat is stored less in the hips and more in the abdomen than it would have been before menopause.

I have often discussed with clients in the 40+ category how hormones in both genders tend to come more to a middling ground around middle age. Men have less testosterone and seem to put on fat in what might be considered "feminine" areas (a bit more on the butt, maybe a little man-boob action) and women have less estrogen and seem to put on fat in the typically "masculine" storage area (the gut).

The study authors recommend women begin preventive lifestyle changes before menopause. Specifically, they recommend:

  •  eat less
  •  exercise more

Revolutionary, right?

It's not a joke, though. Women in middle age tend to gain an average of 1 pound per year as they age. The more abdominal fat, the higher your odds of metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms that includes overweight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, and which makes you very susceptible to heart disease, adult onset diabetes and even cancer.

You can't fight menopause. Believe me, if there were a way, female scientists would have figured it out by now. I've gathered hot flashes are no laughing matter.

You can fight weight gain. Do some strength training 2-4 days each week. Sleep 7-8 hours each night. Make healthy food choices and eat appropriate portions, according to how active you really are. Add activities you enjoy, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, gardening and playing with your kids, to every single day. Enjoy life and enjoy being active, and you can avoid being just another menopause statistic, trading in your favourite jeans for sweatpants. Unless you, like me, have already lived in sweatpants since the age of 18.

Have you experienced a shift in your fat stores and other changes in your body shape as you've aged?