Published 28th October 2021

Menopause weight gain and why you should stop dieting

Changes in your body shape, your gut microbiome, and the way you metabolize fat and sugar — as well as reduced exercise and sleep quality — are all factors that can promote weight gain during menopause.

Rather than counting calories and dieting, eating nutritious foods and getting adequate sleep and exercise can help you stay healthy and avoid unwanted weight gain during this time. 

Menopause occurs when a woman hasn’t had a period for 12 consecutive months. It is a natural and healthy transition as a woman ages.

During menopause and the years leading up to it, known as perimenopause, it’s common to experience physical and psychological symptoms. Many women report weight gain and changes in mood, brain clarity, and sleep habits.

If you’ve noticed weight gain during this transition, rest assured that you’re not alone. It is quite common during menopause. In fact, the average woman gains about 5 pounds during this time. 

Your hormones change during menopause, and this may contribute to weight gain, but there are also other factors. Many people put on extra weight as they age, although the reason why this happens is not clear-cut. 

Scientists do know that around the time of menopause, women’s bodies change in how they respond to fat and sugar from their diet. Where excess fat accumulates on the body also changes.

Additionally, many women exercise less and find it harder to sleep, which can contribute to weight gain. 

Read on to learn why weight gain happens during menopause, what the health risks of weight gain are, and ZOE’s top science-backed tips to avoid weight gain during this time in your life.

Why does weight gain happen in menopause?

Many women experience weight gain during menopause, but research suggests that menopause itself may not be to blame. 

There are many factors that may contribute to weight gain during this life stage, including changes in:

  • body composition

  • the gut microbiome

  • fat and sugar metabolism

  • lifestyle patterns

Body composition

As you age, your body composition naturally begins to change. Your lean mass — or muscle mass — decreases, while the rate at which you gain fat mass increases.

Where you store fat on your body also changes. Before menopause, women mostly store fat on their hips and thighs. In contrast, men store their fat around the belly. 

After menopause, fat accumulates around women’s bellies. This is called visceral fat and lies deep inside your belly in the spaces between your abdominal organs.

Our own unpublished research found greater amounts of visceral fat in women who are in perimenopause and those who have gone through menopause. 

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Higher levels of visceral fat increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. 

While menopause may not directly cause weight gain, many scientists believe that changes in your hormone levels contribute to these differences in fat mass and fat distribution.  

Estrogen is one of the main sex hormones in women. During menopause, estrogen levels begin to decrease. 

As estrogen levels decrease, the accumulation and distribution of fat changes. A recent study found that the number of fat cells in female participants actually decreased, but the amount of fat stored in each fat cell increased.

Menopause and the gut microbiome

The gut microbiome is the collection of all the microbes that live in your gut. They influence your body’s response to foods and are important for your overall health.

Research suggests that the diversity of the microbiome is linked to estrogen levels and menopausal state in women. Because of the changes happening in the body during menopause, there may be a change in microbiome diversity as well.

ZOE’s PREDICT study, the world’s largest in-depth nutritional study of its kind, explores the relationship between your gut microbiome and your health. The results so far indicate that the gut microbiome is linked with how your body’s metabolism responds to food. 

Metabolism feel like a mystery since menopause? Click on the image to take a quiz.

That’s why changes in the microbiome as a result of menopause may contribute to changes in weight.

Based on this cutting-edge research, the ZOE program can help you learn more about your body’s unique metabolic responses to food.

Fat and sugar metabolism

Recent studies also suggest that the way your body metabolizes fat changes during menopause. 

ZOE scientists are currently exploring the relationship between menopause and your body’s metabolic responses. Their evidence suggests that it isn’t just fat metabolism that changes during this time. 

They found that during fasting and after eating, blood sugar, blood fat, and inflammation markers were higher in post-menopausal women than in those who have not yet experienced menopause.

Understanding how menopause may affect your body’s metabolic responses may help you avoid unwanted weight gain during this transition. Take ZOE’s personalized quiz to discover your unique blood sugar and blood fat responses after eating and to find out which microbes live in your gut.

Lifestyle changes

There are biological changes that happen during menopause, but there are behavioral factors that can shift as well.

For example, as people age, many of them sleep less or don’t sleep as well, and this can contribute to weight gain. Night sweats in the time leading up to menopause may also make it harder for you to sleep.   

Unpublished research by ZOE scientists found that sleep impacts blood sugar levels after eating the next day.

Not getting enough sleep can lead to blood sugar spikes after breakfast the following morning. This, in turn, may result in larger blood sugar dips, which increase the likelihood of eating more throughout the day.

Getting less physical activity during this life stage is also common and can contribute to weight gain. 

Hormone replacement therapy

Many women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help manage menopause symptoms.

Research suggests that HRT is safe for most women and may improve unwanted side effects of menopause, including severity of hot flashes, bone loss, and vaginal atrophy.

HRT has not been scientifically shown to cause weight gain. In fact, unpublished ZOE research found that postmenopausal women who take HRT tend to have lower visceral fat than those who don’t take HRT.

Health risks of weight gain in menopause

Having overweight or obesity in any stage of life, including menopause, can have negative health effects. 

Obesity is associated with an increased risk of:

  • cardiovascular disease

  • metabolic syndrome

  • type 2 diabetes

  • stroke

  • mental health problems

  • osteoarthritis

  • gallbladder disease

  • early death

Menopause itself also increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis.

That’s why looking after your weight and your health is important.

Science-backed tips to avoid weight gain

Although menopause can bring unexpected changes, there are some tweaks you can make to your lifestyle that are backed by science and that can help you feel better.

Stop dieting

Contrary to the flood of fad diets and quick weight loss tips, crash dieting is not an effective way to lose weight. A drastic reduction in calories actually works against your desire to shed pounds. It can even have long-term negative effects on your weight loss goals. 

Calories are not the enemy. Your body needs them for energy. When your body doesn’t get the calories it needs, it goes into survival mode and adapts to the situation.

It starts to burn less energy by lowering your metabolic rate. This can make long-term weight loss difficult to achieve and maintain. 

To avoid weight gain during menopause, eat a healthy diet rich in minimally processed foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, lean protein, healthy fats like olive oil, and healthy fat-rich foods like avocado.

Also, save ultra-processed foods — like baked goods, sugary drinks, and chips or similar snacks — for occasional treats to enjoy. 

Eating the best foods for your individual metabolism can help you avoid weight gain during menopause. You can learn more about your body’s unique response to foods with the ZOE at-home test kit.

Look after your gut

A healthy gut is not just important for your digestion, but also for your overall health. ZOE scientists have found 15 “good” bacteria types in the gut that are linked with better health and 15 “bad” bugs that are indicators of worse health outcomes, including having more visceral fat.

Using the ZOE at-home test, it’s possible for the first time to find out what bugs are in your gut and which foods can help you boost your good bugs.

Here are our top tips for looking after your gut:

  • Eat plenty of unprocessed or minimally processed plants, including fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, and wholegrains.

  • Eat a variety of foods in different colors — your gut microbes like diverse food sources that contain fiber and polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that "good" gut microbes love.

  • Aim for 30 different plant foods each week to get that variety.

  • Try fermented foods, like unsweetened yogurt, aged cheddar, parmesan, swiss cheeses like gouda, cottage cheese with live or active cultures, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha.

  • Avoid eating late at night to allow your gut bugs to get some time in between meals to clean up the lining of the gut.

  • Limit your intake of ultra-processed foods, like fast foods, baked goods, and sugary drinks, and view them as occasional treats.

Prof. Tim Spector, ZOE co-founder and gut microbiome expert, shared his tips for gut health in this article.

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is a very important time of rest for our bodies. Yet a third of adults in the U.S. say they are not getting the recommended 7 or more hours per night.  

Numerous studies have shown that not getting enough sleep is associated with obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

Unpublished ZOE research has found a link between the amount of sleep you get and your body’s blood sugar responses the following day.

If you are struggling to sleep long enough, try to go to sleep earlier. This helps prevent blood sugar spikes after breakfast the next morning. If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, avoid sugary food and opt for a high-protein or slow-release carbohydrate breakfast instead.

Sleep better during menopause by:

  • developing a nighttime routine and sleep schedule

  • limiting naps in the afternoon

  • avoiding devices or TV right before bedtime

  • paying attention to how large meals and caffeine later in the day affect your sleep

  • exercising regularly during the daytime, if possible

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get 7 or more hours of sleep, but your individual needs may be a little more or a little less. Find out how many hours work best for you and strive for that each night.

Move more

Current guidelines suggest that adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, with 2 days of muscle strengthening activities per week.

Moderate-intensity exercise, also known as cardio or aerobic exercise, includes anything that gets your heart rate up.

This can be dancing, actively cleaning the house, swimming, going for a walk, or anything you enjoy. The key is to simply move in a way that gets your heart pumping a little faster.

Muscle strengthening activities make your muscles work harder. Yoga, lifting weights, gardening, and resistance bands are all examples of muscle strengthening activities. As with cardio, move in a way that works for you and your lifestyle.

While these are guidelines to work toward, remember that any physical activity is better than none at all. Start where you are, and begin by making small changes.

Add one walk around the neighborhood per week. Take the stairs when possible. Park toward the back of the parking lot to get in some extra steps. Even small activities can add up to big health benefits

Summary

Many different factors can influence weight gain during menopause. Changes in fat and sugar metabolism, body composition, the gut microbiome, and lifestyle habits can all affect your weight. 

To avoid unwanted weight gain during menopause, be physically active, get plenty of rest, and eat a high-quality diet rich in minimally processed foods that keep you and your gut healthy. 

But remember to enjoy your food — engaging in the emotional, social, and cultural pleasures of food is also important to overall well-being. At ZOE, we believe no food is off limits, so don’t deny yourself small pleasures. 

We are all unique in our responses to food. To find out what the best foods are to nourish your body and your gut microbiome, take our free quiz. The ZOE program helps you identify the best food swaps and meal combinations for you.

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