What causes weight gain at menopause? Why are the low calorie diets that worked in your younger years no longer effective? What changes can you make to your diet, exercise, and lifestyle regime to combat menopausal weight gain? This article explains the impact female hormones have on weight gain and fat loss and why menopause is such a difficult time for many women.
Estrogen & Progesterone
Estrogen and progesterone, while lower down on the fat burning totem poll compared to insulin and cortisol or thyroid and adrenaline, nevertheless do impact a woman’s fat burning metabolism. Estrogen is an insulin sensitizing hormone and a hormone that controls the negative impact of cortisol. Progesterone opposes the action of estrogen on insulin, but works together with estrogen in controlling the negative impact of cortisol.
Why is this important? Because insulin and cortisol are a bad hormonal combination for fat loss. These two hormones, when combined together in high amounts over long periods, push the female physiology towards storing fat when calories are high (as opposed to building muscle), and reduce the amount of fat burned when calories are low (burning muscle instead). This is a bad combination for any woman, but a menopausal woman is affected to a much greater extent.
Since insulin and cortisol may be the primary culprits in female belly fat storage, the transition into menopause often results in fat gain especially around the middle.
Realize you are far more carbohydrate reactive and stress sensitive after menopause. Which means the carbohydrates you used to be able to eat that did not affect your waistline may now be too many and do just that. The stressful exercise and lack of sleep you could tolerate in your younger years, while still remaining lean, will now start to show itself on your waist.
To deal with these hormonal impacts, requires a far more insulin centric approach versus a caloric one. In other words, whereas a lower calorie diet may have been enough in your younger days, you now need a hormonal approach to body change.
What to eat?
Now you need to know that it is not just refined sugars that are the issue. You will need to start controlling all the foods that have potential insulin promoting action. This includes many foods that are regarded as “healthy”. Whole grain breads, sweet fruits, dairy foods, and starchy vegetables, which may have once been a central part of your lean diet, may now be working against you. Reducing these foods while simultaneously increasing low starch vegetables, low sweet fruits (berries, apples, and pears), and protein foods has to become your new solution to burning fat.
How to exercise?
Exercise too must be approached differently. Cortisol is produced during intense exercise and long duration exercise. This includes long duration jogging or running and high intensity interval training (HIIT), metabolic conditioning, or weight training. However, intense exercise that is short also raises growth promoting hormones like HGH and testosterone, and these hormones work with cortisol to burn fat and build, or at least maintain, muscle.
Long duration exercise works differently. It has a different hormonal impact, and it may exacerbate the negative effects of cortisol because it raises cortisol without the balancing action of the growth hormones. And raising cortisol this way during menopause, a time where the female physiology is far more susceptible to the negative impact of cortisol, can frequently cause more issues than it solves for weight gain. For this reason, shorter intense exercise is probably more beneficial compared to long duration moderate intensity exercise.
Cortisol can also be controlled and lowered nicely by relaxing activities. These include leisure walking (to be distinguished from power walking), restorative yoga (to be distinguished from intense yoga), Tai Chi, as well as massage, sauna, and other restorative non-exercise practices.
Why is this important?
All of this is important because the dominant message sent to menopausal women, from their nutritionists and doctors, as well as the mainstream press, runs completely counter to all we just covered. The message is to do more jogging and power walking, not less. They are instructed to eat more grains and dairy and less protein. And they are rarely told to lift weights or educated on the benefits of rest and recovery centered activities
Together, a lower insulin promoting diet and a smarter stress inducing exercising regime can make a huge difference. Remember, the menopausal physiology is more carbohydrate reactive (estrogen is no longer there to help offset insulin) and more stress sensitive (estrogen and progesterone are not there to dampen cortisol’s negative effect).
The changes to diet, exercise, and lifestyle can help combat menopause weight gain. Here are the changes we recommend:
- Leisure walk daily 1 hour per day (it lowers cortisol). Preferably do it in a nature setting (it lowers cortisol even more).
- Weight train intensely at least one time per week, preferably three. These sessions should be short. Shoot for less than 60 minutes or even better, less than 30. They work great along with walking too.
- Drastically increase your non-starchy vegetable intake while cutting back on starchy foods, grains, and dairy (this does not mean not to eat these foods, just eat less). This blog helps you understand the best carbohydrates to eat.
- Raise your protein intake with foods that are mostly protein (fish, chicken, etc) versus mostly starch or fat (beans and nuts have some protein but WAY more starch and fat). To help, consider a protein powder replacement shake 1 or two times per day.
- Oh, vegetables and protein are more slowly digested, so if you notice increased gas, that is because your stomach HCL and pancreatic enzyme secretion can also fall with age (and stress). A shot of vinegar, or a nice green salad before meals will almost always solve this. When they don’t, an OTC enzyme preparation is great.
- Build in restorative and relaxing activity into your life. A concept we call rest-based living. Sleep, nap, physical affection, laughter, massage (even self-massage like foam rolling), sauna, restorative yoga, and Tai Chi are all great.
- Are you thinking supplements? Sure they can work, but not like the above recommendations. If you plan on taking supplements or hormones just realize that is a lot like trying to clean up a spill on your kitchen floor with a Dixie cup instead of a mop. It won’t do near the job you want it to.
And because bone health is always a concern for women in menopause here is a blog to help you understand why the recommendations above are also best for bone.Need Help? Check out the online program designed specifically for menopausal women