There are some things in life that seem diabolically designed to undercut your best intentions. Take weight loss, for example. As you age, you may find your desire to get fit and take care of yourself increases. Despite this sage and forward-thinking attitude, if you are a woman nearing menopause, it can feel like your body didn’t get the message about your new plan to be fit and healthy. Hormonal changes can stack up several challenges to keeping the pounds off through the middle years of life.
Don’t fret if your body seems intent on thwarting your new lifestyle changes. You are not alone, and there are plenty of things you can do to keep both your waistline and your expectations in the right place. Keeping fit will take more work as your body ages, but that does not mean it is impossible. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet can still help keep you ahead of menopausal weight gain.
The Female Reproductive Life Cycle
All humans undergo hormonal changes throughout life, but the changes women go through tend to get a lot more press. The female reproductive life cycle is characterized by fairly distinct phases, each of which carries its own challenges to weight loss goals.
During the reproductive years, beginning in puberty and lasting roughly three decades, women tend to maintain higher base levels of estrogen. Estrogen is associated with some forms of weight gain, but the location your body stores fat is important. Prior to menopause, it is not uncommon for subcutaneous fat to accumulate around the hips and thighs. The good news is this weight is not highly correlated with some of the diseases associated with other kinds of weight gain.
As a woman ages, she enters a period known as perimenopause. This phase, leading up to the last cycle a woman will have in her life, is marked by fluctuations in estrogen levels. These hormone changes may result in mood swings and irritability that can be the fodder for jokes about the challenges of being a woman who is reaching middle age. This isn’t just about sending confusing signals to the people around you in your life. As you approach the menopausal transition, your body is sending a new set of messages to itself.
As hormone levels start to change, your body can begin to send itself mixed signals. These signals can include changes to the hormones that regulate hunger, as well as changes to insulin resistance. Both of these changes are associated with the accumulation of belly fat. More than an aesthetic concern, higher levels of abdominal fat are a genuine health issue. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other deadly diseases have all been linked to carrying more weight around your midsection.
For postmenopausal women, things tend to smooth out as hormone levels regulate themselves again. The challenge now is to navigate the lower levels of estrogen your body is producing and the effects that can come with it. Maintaining bone density, regulating blood sugar levels, and other challenges all need to be dealt with as you age past menopause.
How to Prevent Menopausal Weight Gain
The ways to prevent weight gain, including during menopause, are generally the same throughout life. Some menopausal symptoms will make your task a little more challenging, but these symptoms need not be a barrier stopping you from living a healthy life.
Knowing the challenges you will be facing can help immensely in overcoming them. For most women approaching menopause, knowing how to anticipate and interpret the signals your body is sending will put you in the best possible position.
In general, maintaining a healthy lifestyle in which you are eating well, sleeping regularly, and reducing stress where possible is a base to get started on avoiding menopausal weight gain. As you approach menopause, hormone levels can fluctuate, causing you to eat more calories than your body can use. Small tricks such as stocking your kitchen with healthy food and planning out portion control in your diet will help stave off the weight gain that can arise from those excess calories.
Exercise is also a major component of keeping weight gain at bay during the years around menopause. Keeping an active lifestyle doesn’t mean you need to spend your whole life at the gym. Everything from gardening, brisk walking, and small at-home workouts can begin to increase your daily activity. Adding in cardio workouts and strength training exercises will help keep your body healthy and more efficient at burning fat even as you age.
Hormone therapy is one route women take to regulating hormones during and after menopause. Though research is still ongoing, some evidence indicates balancing your body’s falling levels of estrogen with hormone replacement therapy as you age can help improve your quality of sleep and help regulate other hormonal activity in the body. Since poor sleep is often associated with increased production of hunger hormones like ghrelin, getting a good night’s rest can be the cornerstone of a plan to keep your waistline in check.
Why Does Menopause Make it Hard to Lose Weight?
It can feel like the deck is stacked against you when it comes to losing body fat during midlife. Both men and women commonly experience weight gain as they age, but women have a few things working against them.
As you approach menopause, fluctuations in hormone levels begin to make regulating your weight harder. As you enter perimenopause, initially your ovaries will produce increased amounts of estrogen. This increase is due to a debate of sorts happening between your ovaries, your pituitary gland, and your hypothalamus about just how much estrogen your body needs. As you get closer to menopause, this reverses and your ovaries will begin producing less estrogen. These fluctuations in estrogen levels can wreak havoc in the balance of other hormones throughout the body.
Not all of these changes are taking place out of sight below the surface. Hormonal changes can interfere with your sleep cycle, which can cause further challenges to weight loss. As you sleep less, your body becomes less efficient at regulating your levels of ghrelin, the hormone associated with feeling hungry, and leptin, which helps your body know when you are full. Sleeping less tends to make your body produce more ghrelin, which can cause you to eat more calories than your body needs.
Women approaching menopause will also find they are fighting against another pesky foe when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Hot flashes and night sweats are perhaps the best-known side effects of your body’s fluctuating estrogen levels as you enter perimenopause. Many people, particularly in the United States, already suffer from decreased sleep quality as life progresses. Adding one more disruption can greatly increase the challenge of keeping your sleep cycles well-regulated.
Good sleep hygiene can make a measurable difference in your quality of sleep. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep routine, regulating your intake of caffeine and alcohol, and possibly engaging in activities such as meditation or yoga to help your body relax and make the most of your sleep.
Exercise and Weight Loss
Nearly all of us tend to move less as we age. For both men and women this tends to be true, and for women the trend toward decreasing physical activity during midlife is coming at a particularly bad time.
Staying at a healthy weight is a balancing act between the amount of calories you consume and the amount of calories your body can burn. Maintaining lean muscle mass through frequent strength training workouts can help keep your metabolism high, which will help increase the rate your body burns calories.
Calories are Important, but Low-Calorie Diets Don’t Work Well Long-Term
Much of the conventional wisdom, and even some published advice, over the last few decades has been focused on a low-calorie diet to promote weight loss. It is true that you need to have a caloric deficit to lose weight, but simply trying to eat fewer calories than you think your body is using may not be the right solution.
Studies have shown low-calorie diets can lead to loss in lean muscle mass, which makes it harder for your body to burn fat. Cutting some calories, especially when it comes to excess carbs and sugars, can certainly help trim your waistline, but studies consistently show that adding higher levels of protein to your diet will help you make more headway than simply lowering your overall caloric intake in keeping the pounds off as you age.
Research suggests maintaining a healthy diet that is higher in protein, fruits, and vegetables, as well as exercising portion control, are more effective for keeping your waistline in check than simply cutting down on the amount of food you are eating.
Keeping the Weight Off for Good
Fighting the battle to keep your middle trim during your middle years is only part of the challenge. Keeping your forever figure for the rest of your life is the real goal. Thankfully, if you have planned well and instituted new habits in your diet and exercise through the years leading up to menopause, you will be in a good position to carry those practices forward through the rest of your life. Eating well, exercising, and sleeping well are all lifestyle choices that will continue to help you as you age.
The first step to lasting weight loss is not dropping the first few pounds as quickly as you can. This may sound counter-intuitive to some, but building lasting habits and lifestyle changes take time.
One of the best things you can do to keep weight off during your menopausal years is to have someone on your side helping you every step of the way. At NEW You Weight Loss, our doctors and dietitians are ready to help with the motivation and the medical advice you need to build a lifestyle of life-long wellness.
More than just the nation’s leaders in Endoscopic Sleeve Gastroplasty, NEW You is a trusted source for long-term health and diet planning. Programs like our medical nutrition therapy can help you get the guidance you are looking for to plan for success that will last a lifetime. If you are curious about what NEW You Weight Loss has to offer, request a consultation today.