Mary Corso, RDN, CDN
Menopause & Stubborn Weight
Menopause is a term that often strikes some uncertainty in the minds of women. As women we are used to our bodies changing throughout our lifetime, however menopause seems to be that period of time that is clouded with mystery. We all have heard the terms hot flashes, irritability and oh yes, the dreaded weight gain. Why does weight gain happen during this period of life and is there anything we can do to prevent and/or reverse this? Let’s take a few minutes to explore this topic.
Menopause creeps up on most women, usually in stages. The first stage of menopause is perimenopause. Perimenopause begins several years before menopause, usually 4-8 years before. It’s the time when the ovaries begin to make less estrogen. With less estrogen we start to experience some unwelcome symptoms including hot flashes, mood swings, sleep disturbances and weight gain (especially around the midsection!). The next stage is menopause. The average age that menopause occurs is 51. Menopause is defined as when a woman goes 12 months without a menstrual period. Menopause technically lasts one day. The next stage is postmenopause where our bodies begin to stabilize and start to get used to this next phase of life.
So why the weight gain? Is there anything we can possibly do about this?! Studies have shown that weight gain during menopause is related to the natural process of aging as well as a normal slight decline in one’s metabolism. A normal weight gain of 2 - 5 lbs can be expected during this time. As long as we are eating healthy and balanced nutrient dense foods, watching our portion sizes and getting some physical activity in, we may need to accept a slight gain as we age. However, when a weight gain of 15, 25 or even more pounds happens, our risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers all increase. We of course really want to try and avoid or reverse this. It is also always important to follow up with your health care provider during this time as well. This is to be sure and rule out any other possible reason for a noticeable weight gain.
A healthy well balanced diet leading up to and during menopause is key. What is a healthy balanced diet ? There is so much advice out there sometimes it’s hard to know who to listen to! Following the MyPlate model of half of our plate being fruits and veggies and the other half of our plate being a quarter whole grains and a quarter lean protein is a very simple and easy way to explain what a healthy meal should look like! Try to avoid going longer than 5 hours without eating during the day (schedule in a healthy balanced snack if you need to) and make sure you stay hydrated (at least 8 cups of water per day!!). By following a simple plan like this you will avoid excess calories that might be adding to unwanted weight gain. It is easier said than done but with a little meal planning (and maybe help from your favorite RDNs at The Rite Bite) a healthy, well balanced diet is really not that hard to follow!
What else can we do to lose weight during this time?
Increase your fiber intake! Women should aim for 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day. Fiber helps our digestive system run smoothly and helps us feel full and satisfied. Fiber has been proven to help reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. If you eat a diet high in fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains you are almost sure to meet your fiber needs daily!
Add some soy to your diet! Studies have shown that women who consume soy protein daily tend to have less abdominal fat, including during menopause. Soy contains compounds called isoflavones that are similar to estrogen and appear to bind to estrogen receptors in fat tissue. So the theory is that soy helps regulate fat metabolism. Some great sources of soy are edamame, tempeh, tofu and soy milk. (and no.... soy does not cause cancer! But that's a post for another time!).
Be careful of snacking due to boredom or stress. Keep a food journal if you notice that this is something you are dealing with. This will help you realize if there are certain times of the day or certain situations that might trigger you to do this.
Remember physical activity! Try and include a consistent exercise plan into your routine. Cardio and weight training are both important to burn calories and gain muscle mass. Moderate exercise (brisk walking) at 150 minutes a week or vigorous exercise (jogging) at 75 minutes a week as well as strength training twice a week is recommended. Maintaining and building muscle will help boost your metabolic rate!! Find something you like that you won’t mind incorporating into your life!
Don’t forget about protein!!!! If we are working out to build up our muscle mass our bodies need a consistent intake of protein to do so. We tend to eat most of our protein at our dinner meal and protein is often neglected earlier in the day (especially breakfast!). Studies have shown that by eating enough protein and building up our muscle mass through exercise our metabolism will be boosted. You can get protein at any meal by adding chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, pork, beans, nuts, eggs, tofu, tempeh or soybeans. A protein shake will also work, especially if crunched for time!
Watch your caffeine and spicy food intake as well! While these items don’t necessarily affect our weight they can exacerbate hot flashes in some women. Food journaling can be beneficial here as well, to help you keep track of any symptoms that may be related to certain foods or drinks you consume.
And finally add some mindfulness to your meals. Mindful eating involves listening to your body and paying attention to your hunger cues. It also includes trying to eliminate distractions during meals as well as being kind to ourselves and choosing to eat foods that will benefit our health.
A healthy lifestyle is not hard to achieve. It will help you look and feel your best before, during, and after menopause!!
Until next time,
Mary Corso, RDN, CDN