What is Menopausal Weight Gain?
Between 80-90% of women experience menopausal weight gain during menopause and the years leading up to it, but what is menopausal weight gain? Menopausal weight gain is the name given to sudden, unexplained weight gain, which is most noticeable in your 40’s.
Although we tend to generally talk about menopausal weight gain, strictly speaking, most weight gain actually occurs during perimenopause. So what is the difference?
Perimenopause and Menopause Explained
Menopause is the term used to mark the end of female reproduction. A time when oestrogen levels are so low that eggs are no longer released by the ovaries. This, in turn, also causes your period to stop. Once you have not had a period for a full year, your doctor will normally diagnose menopause.
Perimenopause, on the other hand, is the transitional time leading up to menopause. So it actually occurs before menopause. As mentioned previously, Perimenopause is the time when it is most likely that sudden and unexplained weight gain happens.
However, for the sake of simplicity, the terms perimenopausal and menopausal are interchangeable throughout this article. Both will be used to refer to the period leading up to and including menopause.
Why does Menopausal Weight Gain occur?
There are a number of reasons why menopausal weight gain occurs. We have listed below some of the more common reasons that affect some 90% of menopausal women:
1. Changing Hormone Levels
This is likely to be the number one cause of weight gain, as hormones fulfil a host of complex functions within the body, including that of weight control.
We have already established that oestrogen levels are low as a woman starts to enter the stage building up to menopause. As a result of this, the body tries to obtain oestrogen from other sources in order to keep a good hormone balance.
Oestrogen is also produced by fat cells. Unfortunately, this means that the body treats fat as being of greater value, and will make more of an effort to turn calories consumed into fat, in order to increase the levels of oestrogen available. We know that fat cells are not as efficient as muscle cells when it comes to burning calories, so this invariably means a gain in weight occurs.
This often confuses many people as progesterone has actually been linked to weight loss. However, progesterone actually diminishes in the body at over 100x faster than oestrogen. Therefore, despite low levels of oestrogen, progesterone levels are even lower, thus creating an oestrogen dominance which leads to weight gain.
In addition, decreased levels of progesterone leads to greater water retention and bloating. Whilst this in itself is not strictly weight gain, it often seems that way as clothes may feel tighter.
Another effect of decreasing levels of both oestrogen and progesterone is an increase in appetite. One study showed a 67% increase in the amount of calories consumed in women with low levels of these hormones.
At the onset of menopause, the amount of testosterone in the body increases. Unfortunately, higher testosterone levels make it more likely that fat deposits will be more concentrated around the abdominal area than the hips. This is clearly seen in men, who naturally have higher levels of testosterone, as they tend to be prone to what is commonly known as a beer belly.
The accumulation of more fat around the middle is also a vicious cycle as belly fat leads to more belly fat. If you add into the mix high levels of the stress hormone (cortisol), and fluctuating blood sugar levels, which are both more likely during menopause, then you get an even greater imbalance of oestrogen and testosterone, which means yet more fat build up.
2. Aging Process
Unfortunately, the process of getting older also brings with it other natural physiological changes that contribute to weight gain. It is estimated that between the ages of 35 – 55, women will add around a pound or two in weight every year. The average woman gaining 12 – 15 pounds in weight between the ages of 45 – 55.
As we covered above, as a result of hormone imbalances, the additional weight does not tend to distribute itself evenly throughout the body. Instead, it tends to accumulate around the abdominal region, resulting in a bigger belly.
From about age 30, this increase in body fat, is accompanied by a decrease in muscle mass. The loss of muscle mass means our physical abilities also decline, so the body becomes less able to burn calories. This process continues up until around the age of 60 – 70.
During this period our metabolic rate also slows down. So if we continue to consume as many calories as we always have, without undertaking more physical activity to use up more calories, yet more weight will be gained as fat.
Another reason menopausal weight gain occurs is down to our lifestyle choices. For many people, being in their 40’s and 50’s means they tend to be more sedate and enjoy some of the finer things in life. We may eat out more, and drink more wine of an evening, etc. What we are less likely to do is exercise.
In the US, around 60% of adults are not active enough. This figure increases the older we get. This goes some way to explaining why nearly 40% of all adults, and 19% of children in America are officially classed as obese, and why the US accounts for 13% of the global total.
Even if you do exercise, the rate at which your body uses energy is less than when you were younger. The amount and intensity of exercise you need to do to burn the same calories will need to increase.
As already touched on, stress is also a major factor. If you have a stressful job, you may have disturbed nights and not sleep so well. A lack of sleep has been shown to increase the likelihood of snacking, resulting in weight gain.
4. Genetic Factors
The final reason menopausal weight gain can occur is due to genetics. It is quite likely that if you have any parents or close relatives who are prone to excess weight around the belly, you will be too.
Dangers of Menopausal Weight Gain
We hope we have given you a clearer insight into exactly why menopausal weight gain happens. But what about the risks associated with it?
Unfortunately, menopausal weight gain can have some major effects on your health. Many can become quite serious if it is not dealt with. They include:
A. Menopausal Weight Gain and Breast Cancer
A 2013 study showed that weight gain was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. In particular, results suggested that weight gain before and around menopausal age may be particularly important for breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women.
An increase in fat around the abdomen, a classic problem during menopause, increased the risk of breast cancer. Whereas, excess weight on the hips and thighs, presented a slightly lower risk.
B. Visceral Fat Increase
Fat being deposited around the middle during menopause is not the same as the fat that is normally deposited on your thighs and hips. This type of fat that is known as visceral fat, and surrounds the organs.
It is located underneath the abdominal muscles, and is harder to get rid of than normal subcutaneous fat. It is also far more dangerous too. Visceral fat has a bad effect on the body, as it is metabolically active. It can cause insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of stroke. It has also been linked to diabetes, heart disease and inflammatory diseases.
In this article we have looked at what menopausal weight gain actually is. We have tried to explain what the main causes are. We have also looked at the risks thought to be linked with gaining weight, specifically visceral fat, during menopause.
If you would like to know how to get rid of weight gained during menopause, and how to ease your menopause symptoms, take a look at our article: