Menopause and Weight Gain: 8 Tips to Keep in Mind
Perhaps I’m the victim of a culture obsessed with the number on a scale or just a dietitian concerned with my health, but I do care about my weight. Like all my friends in their 40s and 50s, I’m staring down that hormonal highway known as menopause, a phase associated with weight gain that can range from a few pounds to a few dozen. So far my weight has been pretty steady, but I wonder how long I can game the system. All of this is why I was thrilled to see that Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian I know and trust, co-wrote a book on the subject called The Menopause Diet Plan: A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness. Last week I jumped on the phone with Liz to tap her wisdom on the topic of weight and menopause.
According to Liz, it’s hard to pinpoint how much of midlife weight gain is due to the drop in estrogen that comes with menopause and how much is just part of aging. After all, men put on the pounds in their 40s and 50s, too. She also pointed out that there’s good reason to evaluate your diet as you enter this stage of life beyond just fitting into your jeans. An uptick in weight during midlife puts you at greater risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases. And that weight tends to settle around the belly (Liz calls it the menopause muffin), which is associated with increased risk for heart disease (the number one killer of post-menopausal women).
The bottom line is that once you hit your 40s, your body starts to change and it’s smart to sketch out a plan to work with that change. Below you’ll find some guidance that may help prevent or curtail weight creep while at the same time improving the quality of your diet.
1. Get Protein on Your Plate
The Menopause Diet Plan is by no means a protein-heavy, Atkins-esque approach. Far from it. That said, Liz explains that women tend to gravitate towards carbohydrates, which means they often shortchange themselves on protein. Protein helps keep blood sugar steady and keeps us feeling fuller longer. Plus, as we age, our bodies aren’t as efficient at utilizing protein to build or maintain muscle. And that muscle is key, not just for strength, but to help reduce our blood glucose levels and burn calories (muscle burns more than fat).
Tip: Aim to eat protein-rich foods at every meal and snack. Include a minimum of 20 grams of protein at each meal plus a combination of protein and carbohydrate at snack time. Liz recommends lean sources of animal protein, such as chicken, fish, and lowfat Greek yogurt, as well as plant-based protein, such as tofu, beans, and legumes.
2. Choose Quality Carbs (and maybe less of them)
Research suggests that when you get to midlife you don’t tolerate carbohydrates as well, your insulin resistance goes up, and you’re at greater risk for type 2 diabetes. Accordingly, Liz advises keeping carbs under 50 percent of total calories. This is less than the typical American diet, but is by no means a low carbohydrate diet.
Tip: Make the most of your carbohydrate intake by choosing slow-release, complex carbs, as well as vegetables and fruits. Think whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, and whole-wheat bread rather than white bread, muffins, and white rice. They will be more satiating, increase your fiber intake, provide more sustained energy, and deliver a host of vitamins and minerals.
3. Consider your Calories
Plenty of debate goes on about how much calories do or don’t count. What can’t be denied is that our calorie needs diminish as we age. We need to be more mindful than ever about making those calories matter in order to get the nutrients we need. That’s not to say we all need to start counting calories (I certainly don’t). It’s more to recognize that you can’t roll into perimenopause, change nothing about your routine, and NOT expect to see a shift in weight.
Tip: Check out The Menopause Diet Plan if you’re unclear about what a balanced plate looks like and what an appropriate amount of food might be. The book offers several meal plans at varying calorie levels depending on your activity.
4. Time it Right
Our bodies evolved to eat during daylight, not snack into the wee hours. That rhythm is still what works best for our bodies, which have less insulin resistance and process food more easily earlier in the day. Accordingly, Liz suggests closing the kitchen at night if you want to maintain or even lose weight. Does that mean you can never enjoy your beloved bowl of rocky road after dinner? No. But generally speaking, it’s best to push your calories earlier in the day.
Tip: If you’re really hooked on after-hours eating, keep your snack small. Leave room in your diet for, say, a 100 calorie piece of dark chocolate or a single-serve bag of popcorn. And consider the role nighttime eating plays in your life. If it’s a stress reliever or a reward, find other ways to nurture yourself beyond a pint of ice cream.
5. Get Real about Wine
Many of us (myself included) reach for a glass of wine at the end of the day as a way to relax or enjoy with dinner. Liz says that one glass often turns to two and that those calories add up. On top of that, our inhibitions around food can diminish with alcohol, so our resolve to skip dessert can go out the window after a few drinks.
Tip: Get real about how much alcohol you are actually drinking. Consider keeping a record of how many glasses you’re having each night. Then, find strategies to scale back, whether it’s limiting alcohol to weekends or finding alcohol-free ways to relax (hot tea sometimes works for me).
6. Move More and Smarter
With a drop in calorie needs and the loss of muscle that often accompanies aging, we may have to work out a little more or differently than we did in the past to stick to a healthy weight. Aerobic exercise, whether it’s hiking or swimming, is great for building cardiovascular health and burning calories, but it’s not enough. It’s important to build in resistance training, such as lifting weights, cross fit, or pilates, in order to maintain muscle mass.
Tip: The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines recommend some type of resistance training at least two times a week where you use all your major muscle groups. As for aerobic exercise, research shows that adults who do 2 ½ to 5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week have less chronic disease, less depression, better sleep, and live longer lives.
7. Make Sleep a Priority
Getting enough sleep is a common issue for many women and the symptoms of menopause can disrupt sleep even more. Lack of sleep can wreak havoc with your health and weight in a number of ways. Poor sleep can mess with your hunger and satiety hormones. You tend to be hungrier and to reach for foods that give you a quick boost of energy, but not necessarily a whole lot of nourishment. Lack of sleep can also induce stress in some people, which has its own cascade of hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that can promote weight gain.
Tip: The bottom line is to prioritize sleep. For some of us, it’s a matter of being disciplined about bedtime. For others, it may be dealing with emotional stressors that interfere with a good night’s rest. And for women with hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms that are keeping you up at night, it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor.
8. Look at your Lifestyle
Beyond aging and shifts in estrogen, lifestyle may also play a role in weight gain. Often folks in middle age have more time or disposable income to eat out and travel. Perhaps without younger kids underfoot or with retirement, you’ve become more sedentary.
Tip: Take a look at how lifestyle factors may play a role in your weight and make some adjustments. Sharing meals when dining out and building in a few times during your day to get up and move for 5 or 10 minutes can make a difference.
This post just scratches the surface on the topic of health, weight, and menopause. To dip deeper, pick up a copy of the Menopause Diet Plan from local bookseller or on Amazon. You can learn more about Elizabeth Ward by heading here and about her co-author, registered dietitian Hillary Wright, by heading here.