Life isn’t fair to us ladies. For many years we must endure painful and inconvenient periods, and this is nothing compared to the pain experienced during childbirth and all the bodily changes that comes with it. After all this, we then must face menopause! What the heck?
Menopause refers to when a women’s period stops permanently, and she can no longer get pregnant. This transition usually happens between the ages of 45-55 and can last for 4 years or more. After menopause, your ovaries produce much lower levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. These hormones are complex and effect a variety of processes in the body including metabolism. For this reason, many women find that they gain weight more easily after menopause or find it challenging to lose weight.
1. Slower metabolism. As we age, our body naturally starts to conserve more energy and doesn’t build or repair bodily tissue as rapidly anymore. This means we might start breaking down the things that we don’t need as much, such as muscle. Because muscle is metabolically active, less of it naturally slows our metabolism and reduces the amount of energy we require. If we are unaware of this and continue to eat the same amount of energy, our body will store the excess as fat.
Research suggests that weight gain experienced during and after menopause has more to do with this decrease in metabolism and energy expenditure, and not as a result of hormonal changes. It just so happens that they occur at the same stage in life!
2. Less fat breakdown. One of the functions of oestrogen is to determine how fat is broken down and distributed in the body. Research has shown that there is a link between a decrease in oestrogen levels and how fat is stored in the body.
All these changes mean that post-menopausal women are at a higher risk of body fat being stored around the tummy and abdomen compared to pre-menopausal women. This shift in where fat is stored, combined with a decreased metabolism and energy expenditure, is why many women feel that menopause causes weight gain.
3. What can you do? Weight management may be more challenging after menopause, however there are some practical steps you can take to start creating healthy habits to manage this as best you can:
Make veggies a priority
Yes, you should aim for 50% of meals to come from non-starchy vegetables! This simple principle is possibly one of the best habits you can establish for your health. Not only are veggies nutrient-dense for overall health and wellbeing, but they are also very low in energy compared to protein, carbohydrate and fat-rich foods. A good example of this is a cup of pasta vs. a cup of carrots. The pasta would have 200 calories, but for the same volume the carrots contain 40. Without delving too much into calories or portions, following this principle can make a huge difference!
Make water your drink of choice
Sometimes we forget that drinks including coffee, soft drink, juice and wine, count towards our energy intake. They are also very easy to over consume as they don’t keep us full! Aim to make water your go-to drink and be mindful of other drinks you consume that might be high in energy. Aiming to drink 2-3L of water a day is a positive focus.
If your metabolism is slowing, then doing more physical activity is a great way to increase the amount of energy you burn. Cardio based exercise is especially great for expending energy. This includes exercises that increase your heart rate and breathing such as jogging, cycling or swimming. Strength based exercise is also beneficial but in a slightly different way. Using your muscles can help prevent them from breaking down or can even help build muscle and thus maintain your metabolism.
Is menopause fair? No. Can we do something about it? Yes. The approach that we take with our diet needs to change and adapt, as our body changes over our lifetime.
These strategies are a great starting point, but if you think you need a more personalised approach, see a dietitian at The Healthy Eating Clinic.
We can help you by determining your energy and nutrient requirements and provide practical advice on how to achieve this in order to support you through this tricky change in life!