It’s a natural stage of life that just happens to have a few unwanted side effects. HFG dietitian Melissa Meier weighs up weight management for menopausal women.
Hot flushes? Night sweats? How about thinning hair and mood swings? Welcome to the world of menopause! Oh, and did we mention, the frustration of trying to maintain a healthy weight, too?
The average woman puts on half a kilo a year between 45 and 55. The good news is that some simple lifestyle changes can help you combat the kilogram creep. Here’s what you need to guide you along the way.
What happens during menopause?
Menopause begins to kick in when a woman has experienced her last menstrual period, due to hormonal changes and depletion of eggs in her ovaries. Among the cluster of physical and emotional symptoms that can develop, many women notice that their weight starts to creep up — and they find the weight frustratingly harder to shift than they once did.
A big reason for weight gain during this time is that women tend to become less active with age. This leads to a loss of muscle mass, which in turn slows down your metabolism — so you don’t need as much energy to maintain your body weight as you previously did. The problem, however, is that although kilojoule requirements lessen, many people don’t adjust their eating habits — so they put on weight over time.
Some research also suggests that about the time of menopause (peri-menopause), levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin become elevated, which can drive women to eat more than usual.
In conjunction with this, levels of the hormone oestrogen drop during menopause. This makes women more prone to gaining weight around their mid-section rather than around their hips, bottom or thighs — think ‘apple’ body shapes instead of ‘pear’.
How does it affect you?
Entering menopause can be challenging, but middle-aged spread is not inevitable during this time. Maintaining a healthy weight should always be a top priority, because gaining too many unwanted kilos can have serious implications, such as:
Increased risk of disease
Carrying too much weight directly increases your risk of many serious chronic diseases.
These include heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes, sleep apnea, fatty liver and a number of cancers, such as post-menopausal breast cancer and liver cancer.
Worsened menopause symptoms
Weight gain can exacerbate some symptoms experienced during menopause. Increased weight can worsen joint pain, hot flushes and night sweats.
Increased visceral fat
An expanding waistline is more dangerous than gaining weight around the hips and the thighs.
That’s because fat clustering around the abdomen can wrap around vital organs — this is called visceral fat. This fat has a much greater effect on your metabolism and disease risk than the fat lying immediately under the skin (which is called subcutaneous fat).
A strong correlation is known to exist between people s waist circumferences and the amount of visceral fat they have — so most women should aim for a waistline measurement of less than 80cm.
Life stages explained
The 30-to-40 years following the onset of puberty when a woman is fertile and can reproduce.
The time-span when menopause symptoms arrive. It usually occurs in a woman’s 40s, and can last from just a few years to more than a decade. Progesterone — a hormone produced by the ovaries — slowly declines. In early peri-menopause, oestrogen levels are erratic, while in late peri-menopause, oestrogen levels are low, and periods become irregular.
This is defined as beginning 12 months after a woman’s last period. The average age when women reach menopause is 51.
The stage of life after menopause.
Maintaining bone health after menopause is important for a long, active life.
Dose up on dairy
During menopause, bone loss increases due to a drop in oestrogen, so stay on top of your calcium intake. Most people need 2–3 daily serves of dairy, but from the age of 50, women should add an extra serve to their day, such as a glass of milk, two slices of cheese or a small tub of unsweetened yoghurt.
As you age, your skin’s ability to produce vitamin D after it is exposed to sunlight declines, which then impacts calcium absorption. With sun safety in mind, head outdoors daily at a time when the UV index is 2 or below. You can also top up your levels with eggs, oily fish, and mushrooms that have been left in the sun.
How to beat belly fat!
Lose weight the healthy way — and keep it off — with these dietitian-approved tips.
No quick fix!
It’s pretty simple: diets don’t work. They fuel a vicious cycle, starting with food restriction, which can cause feelings of deprivation and later guilt, when willpower runs out. This cycle repeats itself again and again. Fad diets which cut out whole food groups deny your body many nutrients it needs to function at its best.
Balance food groups
A much better alternative is to follow a balanced eating plan of 6300kJ (about 1500cal) for gradual weight loss. By incorporating all food groups — whole grains, lean protein, reduced-fat dairy, fruit and vegetables, and healthy fats — you’re giving your body all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and function at its peak. It’s a much more realistic and sustainable approach.
Sweat it out!
Doing enough physical activity is vital not just for weight loss, but also for your overall health. It helps you burn kilojoules and build lean muscle mass, which speeds up your metabolism. (Weight-bearing exercise is particularly good for building your bones.) Your aim should be about 150 minutes of physical activity per week, and the time to start is — now!
If you’re chronically stressed, your body is bathed in a flood of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to fat being stored around central organs.
So, it’s important to include stress-relieving activities in your weekly routine, like a yoga class, a relaxing bath, or a few hours to curl up with your favourite book.
Catch up on shut-eye
Intake of sugary sweets, heavy carbs and salty snacks increases by 30 per cent when you're tired, compared to the food choices you make when you’ve had eight hours sleep. Without enough sleep, your hunger hormones also become unbalanced and make you feel hungrier than normal. So set yourself a firm lights-out time, and stick to it!
What’s the deal with soy?
Soy foods such as tofu, soy milk and soy beans contain phytoestrogens – compounds that act like the hormone oestrogen, but have a weaker effect. Because of this, it was initially thought that soy products could help manage the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause – however research has not yet confirmed this idea.
Nonetheless, as part of a balanced diet, some women find soy products helpful in menopause management, so chat to your doctor to see if they’re right for you.
Whittle your waistline
Pop these foods on your shopping list to help shed kilos!
Whole grains are a great source of quality carbohydrates to fuel your busy day. With a low glycemic index (GI), rolled oats help you avoid a blood sugar rollercoaster that leads to the dreaded 3pm slump — and subsequent unplanned trips to the biscuit jar.
Evidence suggests that people who regularly eat legumes are less likely to be overweight. Brimming with muscle-building protein and gut-loving fibre, legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils keep you feeling full and satisfied for longer.
A high-protein choice to bust hunger pangs, yoghurt is a great between-meals bite. Choose a plain variety, and add sweetness with fresh fruit and berries to minimise added sugar and unnecessary kilojoules.
Filling half of your plate with non-starchy veg is a great weight-loss idea. As well as containing key vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, vegies are low in kilojoules and high in hunger-busting fibre.
A body of research shows nuts can help with weight management. They are especially rich in heart-healthy fats, fibre and protein, which all help to manage appetite. Enjoy a 30g handful as a tasty, portable snack.
New research suggests a higher-protein breakfast may help to regulate eating later in the day, which could be central to successful weight loss. With more than10g protein per two eggs, they’re an ideal high-protein breakfast ingredient.
Soft drinks, alcohol and sugary smoothies are ‘liquid kilojoules’ that can quickly add excess energy to your diet — without you realising it! So, make the switch to water — and save stacks of unnecessary kilojoules.
The average woman gains half a kilo a year between 45 and 55
Regular exercise helps prevent weight gain & slows bone loss
Fad diets may slow your metabolism in the long run
Melissa is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a love of healthy, delicious food. She is passionate about helping others to lead healthier lives and teaching people to use nutrition to better their health.