Myths and facts about weight gain in menopause

The female body is constantly evolving. In pregnancy the body changes shape and form and everyone accepts it as the norm.

Similarly, as women approach their perimenopausal years, the body changes again, to adapt to fluctuations in hormones and to meet the demands placed on it.

When surrounded by diet culture though, changes in our bodies, especially if they’re related to body size, are less welcome. We spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about how our body looks, rather than how it actually feels.

We get pulled in different directions and caught in the middle of what is actually within our conscious control versus what is physiologically just part of the process of the menopausal journey.

Let’s explore weight gain in menopause

Firstly, it’s important to consider our biology and hormonal changes occurring.

Understanding weight gain in perimenopause

Our clever bodies detect declining levels of oestrogen and look for ways to compensate for this. Our fat cells produce a weak form of oestrogen, so the body thinks that by producing more fat cells, it can get its hands on more oestrogen. This can cause fat cells to multiple, especially around our middle, to produce a reserve of oestrogen.

Is insulin resistance something to do with perimenopausal weight gain?

In some women, an increased number of fats cells around the middle can also contribute to how the body responds to insulin. Insulin is the hormone needed to metabolise carbohydrate (glucose). Insulin acts as a key, unlocking cells and allowing glucose to pass in to be converted to energy.

As we age, some of us will develop an element of insulin resistance, whereby the lock on the cell, becomes less responsive to the actions of the insulin ‘key’ – the body responds by releasing more insulin to do the same job.

This can make weight loss more challenging, as insulin is essentially a hormone that the body associates with storage. Insulin resistance occurs across a large spectrum though, and many things affect it, most notably our genetics.

It is also really important to note that avoiding carbohydrates or trying to stick to very low carb diets even if you have insulin resistance, is not ideal, despite what you may hear. It’s important to understand the ins and outs of this in more detail and do what’s right and sustainable for your body.

This free ebook on getting clarity with carbs might be helpful for you.

What happens to our metabolism during menopause?

Falling oestrogen and testosterone levels impact our muscle mass which in turns influences our metabolic rate. Muscle ‘burns’ more calories than other body parts, which means as our muscle declines, our capacity to burn energy, even at rest, is less.

It’s important to put it in perspective though – changes in muscle mass like these, could mean the difference of only around 100 calories less per day being used.

What happens if we have dieted for years, before entering the perimenopause?

A lot of the women I work with have dieted for many years. When our body weight fluctuates and we go through periods of restriction, followed by a more liberal eating style, it plays havoc with our body composition, and specifically our muscle mass.

When we put our body through a strict diet, it has to find ways to cope. Muscle stores are broken down and used as fuel.

Higher protein intakes and resistance exercise seem to guard against this to some degree, but which ever way you look at it, large calorie deficits, spell bad news as far as your body is concerned.

Meeting your fuel needs and keeping you alive is your body’s number one priority and it doesn’t care that it has to use up some muscle stores to do this.

Women heading into their perimenopausal years, with a long dieting history behind them, will therefore probably already have a lower muscle mass to contend with.

How does exercise affect perimenopausal weight loss?

I also see that dieting and exercise get tangled up together so often, whereby we’re either ‘on it’ for both behaviours or feeling like we’re failing at both. We enter into diet plans alongside gruelling exercise regimes, none of which are sustainable.

The fallout from this is when we’re not focussed on ‘being good’ with our food intake, our exercise regimes also tail off. We get trapped in the idea of having to earn our food choices or burn off our ‘naughty slip ups’ and our relationship with exercise deteriorates.

Exercising when you’re in a calorie deficit is also much harder so things feel more effortful, and we don’t remember it as a positive experience.

So, bringing this back to weight gain during menopause…

How to lose weight during menopause

I would encourage you to pause and look at the bigger picture. We’re all hunting for the solution that is going to restore our bodies to their former selves, but, in reality, our body’s will change shape over time and that is normal.

The diet industry vultures will always circulate, with their hollow promises – but I believe in our 40’s and 50’s we owe our body compassion, nourishment and sustainable approaches.

Rather than having the end goal of weight loss as your focus, look at the circumstances that contribute to your eating habits in the first place and start there.

Significant contributors to weight gain in menopause

Looking at how you cope with and manage stress is priority number one. If you are constantly feeling in flight, fight, freeze mode, this will be impacting the amount of cortisol your body is exposed to.

Cortisol itself is not bad news. It’s a hormone that has many roles in the body, including helping us to wake up in the morning, but fluctuating levels of oestrogen can make us more susceptible to it’s affects and if we don’t put ourselves into the calmer ‘rest and digest’ state often enough to counterbalance it, we get out of whack quite easily.

Let’s be clear – you don’t have to have a bubble bath every day, but you do have to remember to breathe and not inhale your food as a starting point. This is a huge subject in itself and one that I support people with through my online programmes.

Linked to this is sleep. Often the perimenopause will rob us of this precious commodity, and we’ll talk more about that another time. For now, plot it on your map as a priority to work on, to support your menopausal weight loss. Even small tweaks, like reducing screentime before bed, or giving yourself permission to go to bed on time, can make all the difference.

Does HRT cause weight gain?

There is no evidence that HRT causes weight gain, so assessing your need for some sort of hormonal replacement, is key in your perimenopausal journey.

Final thoughts on weight gain in menopause

Irrespective of hormone shifts in menopause, muscle mass will decline with age. There’s no doubt being physically active, to include some weight bearing exercise, and eating enough protein help to guard against the amount of muscle mass we lose is really key.

It’s also really important we look after our muscles to aid our posture and balance – whenever I type sentences like these, I always automatically sit up straighter!

So, take of you –

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve sleep
  • Eat well
  • Move with intention
  • Avoid strict calorie deficit diets
  • Replace your hormones and consult a menopause specialist GP

It can be helpful to monitor all symptoms so that you can get context for any changes in your body weight. The balance app is a really good way to do this.