Age brings many things: perspective, wisdom and, for many people, a few extra pounds.
While age is the biggest factor associated with weight gain, menopause — when you permanently stop having your period, typically between ages 45 and 55 — is also correlated with losing muscle and gaining weight, says Dr. Susan Reed, vice chair for Research at the University of Washington Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“About two years after your last period, in general, the rate of fat gain doubles and lean mass, or muscle mass, starts to decline. On average, women gain 5-8% of their baseline body weight during this time,” she says.
For the sake of simple math, this means if you weigh 100 pounds, on average you will gain five pounds in the two years after your final period. If you weigh 200 pounds, you are expected to gain at least 10 pounds.
Gaining a little extra weight is not necessarily a health concern, but it can be frustrating and, if combined with future weight gain, can lead to disease.
It’s OK if you’re concerned about this weight gain — but try not to be hard on yourself. It’s normal to gain a few pounds during menopause, and there are straightforward lifestyle adjustments you can make to maintain your health.
What causes weight gain during menopause?
“There is no simple answer to this question, and studies are ongoing,” Reed says.
While researchers are still determining specifics, what we do know is that several factors contribute to weight gain during menopause, including lifestyle choices like diet and exercise and slower metabolism caused by aging and changes in hormones. Genetics may also be a factor, though more research is needed to determine their role.
“Changes in reproductive and other hormones likely contribute to weight gain; lower thyroid function leads to weight gain; and your adrenal glands affect your weight. So, it’s not just one thing,” Reed says.
What does this mean for you? While you can’t do much to control your hormones or genes, you can adjust your behaviors to reduce weight gain, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and getting regular exercise.
What is a healthy weight during menopause?
First things first: Try to shift your mindset from focusing on weight to focusing on your lean mass to fat ratio.
“Your pant size does not necessarily correlate with health. What matters is that ratio. It’s about muscle mass and strength,” Reed says.
Muscle mass may increase your weight or size, but it is doing so in a way that improves your health, increases your strength and protects your bones. In contrast, fat gained in menopause tends to be around your stomach or in and around your heart. These fat tissues release inflammatory substances which can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.
A healthy proportion of body fat for women is in the range of 15-23%; a healthy lean body mass is in the range of 77-85%, Reed says. Your doctor can determine your lean mass to fat ratio using scans, or you can use at-home measurement tools like calipers or bioelectrical impedance analysis (aka a fancy bathroom scale) to find your body fat percentage.
Not interested in noodling on numbers? The bottom line is you want to build your muscles and decrease fat, regardless of clothing size or what the scale says.
What can you do to prevent weight gain during menopause?
Again, when it comes to your health, instead of thinking about weight you want to lose, focus on increasing your muscle mass and reducing fat gain.
The kicker? Menopause makes this process trickier than it was in your 20s or 30s, so you’ll need to make some lifestyle changes if you want to prevent weight gain.
“You absolutely cannot continue as you were when you were younger,” Reed says. “You just can’t.”
As for the slew of supplements or quick-fix pills you can find online, Reed says she has not found substantial evidence that these so-called cure-alls actually help. While less exciting and a lot more work, these lifestyle changes do help.
Food: Adjust portions and eat your fruits and veggies
Both your active and resting metabolism slow due to age and menopause, which means you burn fewer calories than you previously did and must eat fewer calories to not gain weight.
- Eat smaller portions of food (think a salad plate rather than a dinner plate) more often to increase your metabolic rate.
- Opt for fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Avoid added sugars and save desserts for special treats.
- Be mindful while you eat, chew slowly and savor your food.
Movement: Build balance and strength
The best way to increase your lean body mass and avoid fat gain is through a combination of different types of exercise.
- Practice yoga, tai chi or Pilates to improve balance and decrease risk of falling.
- Do weight bearing exercises to increase your muscle mass and strengthen your bones.
- Add cardio exercises like walking, running, biking or swimming to decrease fat mass and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Make your movement a community activity — online counts — so you receive support and encouragement.
Treatment: Seek support for menopause symptoms
For those with menopause symptoms like hot flashes or vaginal dryness, that are interfering with everyday life, treatment options such as hormone therapy, psychological support and group behavioral management can help reduce these symptoms. They can also prevent fat gain.
“Hormone therapy can cause a slight decrease in adipose fat tissue in the heart and breast, but you should only do it if you are experiencing menopausal symptoms,” Reed says.
Hormone treatment can be helpful but is extremely individualized, so you’ll want to reach out to your doctor to see what options make the most sense for you.
With so many changes during menopause, it can feel like you don’t have control of your own body — but you aren’t alone in this, and you have options. Be it getting more exercise, cooking more meals at home or seeking treatment and support, there are ways you can increase your strength and avoid gaining fat tissue during menopause.