Have you experienced the dreaded ‘menopause 10’? According to the International Menopause Society (IMS), women in mid-life typically gain an average of 0.5kg (about 1lb) a year, so a woman entering perimenopause at 45 could easily be 10lb heavier by the time she is 55.
This tendency to gain weight is a natural part of ageing, rather than being due to the menopause itself, the IMS says. However, the drop in oestrogen levels that happens at menopause has the effect of redistributing body fat, so excess pounds tend to settle round the waist as unwelcome ‘middle-aged spread’.
Worse, developing an ‘apple shape’ as we age can increase risks to health. Fat in the abdomen and around the internal organs (visceral fat) is linked to serious illnesses, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to certain cancers.
The good news is that gaining weight at menopause isn’t inevitable. With some easy changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can manage your weight, lose excess pounds if you need to, and boost your fitness and energy: all helping you sail through this special time of transition.
1. Focus on filling foods
Changing your energy balance, so you’re taking in fewer calories from food than you expend, is key to losing weight, but that needn’t mean weighing and measuring every mouthful. Nutritionist Hannah Bailey BSc, who owns Wise Choice Nutrition, recommends basing meals on lean proteins, such as lean meat, chicken, fish or oily fish (salmon or mackerel), with plenty of vegetables. “Protein-rich foods are filling, and you can pile your plate with green vegetables without worrying about calorie counts,” she says.
And carbs have a place on your plate, too: “We need complex carbs like rice and pasta to provide energy, help bowel function and help us feel full,” advises Janine Fahri, a BANT-registered nutritional therapist. “Portion size matters: aim for a tennis ball-sized serving”.
2. Keep your metabolism motoring
“Our metabolism tends to slow down as we age, so eating smaller, more frequent meals will help to keep it ticking over,” says Hannah Bailey. “Spreading three meals a day into five reduces the need to snack and also helps balance blood sugar,” says Janine. “Start with breakfast and eat every 3-4 hours, including protein and carbohydrate at each meal to even out blood sugar spikes”.
3. Don’t drink your calories
We all know that too much alcohol is bad for health, but it can sabotage weight loss plans too. “Alcohol is just liquid calories; it’s dehydrating and interrupts sleep, which only makes typical menopause symptoms worse,” Janine explains. “And fruit juice is high in sugar and low in fibre: a better snack is a banana and a handful of nuts”.
“Limiting sugar is good for your weight, health and managing menopausal symptoms,” adds Hannah Bailey. Giving up sugar in tea and coffee, and avoiding full-sugar fizzy drinks, is an easy way to cut calories without missing out on nutrients.
4. Get the activity habit
Exercise is important throughout life, but it’s your best friend when you are going through menopause, says specialist personal trainer Rosemary Mallace of Over Fifty Fitness. “As we age we lose muscle mass, and muscle burns more calories than fat, so building muscle will help use more calories”. As well as maximising changes you make to your diet, exercise has a host of other benefits, from helping to reduce visceral fat and build bone density, to lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as improving sleep and boosting mood.
“It’s never too late to start,” says Rosemary. “Research has shown that just walking 6,000 steps a day can be beneficial to health, even without weight loss. Investing in a pedometer is a fun way to track and build up your steps each day”. Walking is great all-round exercise that most of us can do, but exercises that build your strength, balance and a strong core are important too. “You can help keep muscles strong and joints mobile with ‘anytime, anywhere’ exercises,” Rosemary says. “For example, stand on one leg while waiting for the kettle to boil, or circle your ankles while watching TV”.
As well as being active every day, research is showing that reducing the time we spend sitting down is vital for health and can benefit weight loss too. Standing up burns 50 calories per hour more than sitting, according to the Get Britain Standing campaign, so it’s worth taking every chance you can to stand instead of sit.
5. Optimise your diet
While a healthy diet is always the priority, menopause is a time when you feel you might benefit from some extra nutritional support. “Around the menopause, a good-quality multivitamin and fish oil can be beneficial, and probiotics can help regulate the digestive function and repopulate gut flora,” says Janine Fahri.
Hannah Bailey advises that women of menopausal age should consider flaxseed oil, a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids; evening primrose oil, which contains beneficial fatty acid GLA, and co-enzyme Q10, which helps regulate cell metabolism.
“It’s best to check with your GP before taking supplements, as some can interact with medications,” Janine adds.
6. Change your snack strategy
“Many women experience weight gain because of a snacking habit, such as eating biscuits while watching TV,” says Hannah Bailey. “Lots of us crave sweet foods, but it’s possible to retrain your brain: swap biscuits for fruit, or a bar of milk chocolate for a couple of squares of good quality dark chocolate”.
Activity is also a great way to beat a snack attack. “If you’re exercising, you can’t eat!” says Rosemary Mallace. “And physical activity makes you feel good about yourself, so you’re less likely to comfort eat”.
From Christine Michael
Christine Michael is a freelance journalist who writes for magazines and websites, and has a special interest in nutrition, weight management, diabetes and women's health.