Many women dread the menopause because they are afraid that they will gain weight once their bodies stop producing female hormones. This fear is perfectly justified because we all know older women who have gained weight alarmingly after the menopause.
Causes of weight gain
There are a number of factors that may contribute to the weight gain associated with the menopause, namely:
lack of female hormones which slows down metabolism
use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
slowing down of basic metabolism with increasing age
lack of exercise
increased food intake due to emotional problems such as depression
Let’s consider each one of these factors that could cause weight gain in postmenopausal women and what can be done about them.
The gradual decline in female hormone levels which occurs when women pass through the menopause can have totally opposite effects in different women. Some women lose their appetite and get thinner and thinner as they age. The majority of women, however, are exposed to the danger of gaining weight because their basic metabolic rate (BMR) slows down once their oestrogen and progesterone levels decrease.
The solution is to make quite sure that you don’t start eating more than you did before the menopause and that you do as much exercise as possible, not only to burn excess energy, but also to stimulate your metabolism. Have your thyroid levels checked and if they are low, ask your doctor to prescribe thyroid hormone replacements like Eltroxin.
It is ironic that some women will gain weight because they lack female hormones and others will gain weight because they use HRT. Unfortunately any female hormone preparation (the Pill, HRT or hormone treatments for acne) can potentially cause an increase in body weight.
The benefits of HRT are vast, so if you find that this treatment is causing weight gain, then first talk to the prescribing doctor to see if the type of hormone you are taking or the dose can be adjusted to decrease this tendency.
Also switch over to a low-fat, high-fibre diet and do plenty of exercise. Cutting down on fats will not only prevent obesity, but it will also lower blood fat levels which become a problem in women after the menopause.
There is no doubt that all of us slow down as we get older. To make provision for this, the USA Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s) recommend that women over the age of 50 should only consume 1 900 kcal or 7 950 kJ of energy a day, compared to the 2 200 kcal or 9 205 kJ recommended for premenopausal women.
This “saving” of 300 kcal or 1 255 kJ a day will prevent weight gain caused by increasing age. One way to reduce your energy intake is to cut out fatty foods and excessive alcohol, while increasing the amount of wholegrains, legumes, fruits and vegetables you eat.
As mentioned above, exercise is one of the most potent means of stimulating your BMR. One hour’s brisk walking in the fresh air increases your BMR for hours afterwards and also reduces the amount of food you eat during that day.
Lack of exercise
Many women feel sluggish and lethargic when they enter the menopause. They often start behaving like invalids and neglect their exercise routines. Nothing could be more destructive. If you have always been active before the menopause, then keep up the good work. The fact that you have stopped menstruating does not mean that you should avoid physical fitness.
If you are feeling tired and haven’t got the energy to exercise, then try taking a good vitamin and mineral supplement to boost your energy levels and remember that high-fibre carbohydrates are low in fat and release energy in a slow, sustained way.
Use supplements that contain all the B vitamins, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, chromium and selenium to give your body a boost.
Women who feel that their lives are over and that there is nothing left but to wait for old age and death, are understandably prone to depression.
This negative psychological state can also cause massive overeating as a compensation for all the perceived “losses” in menopausal women. If you have withdrawn into a deep gloom and are overeating because “Life is no longer worth living” please reconsider the harm you are doing to your health and your figure.
Stop overeating, and if you can’t do this without help, please consult a clinical psychologist and/or dietician. Your life will really be over if you eat yourself into obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
By taking charge of your own life before, or after the menopause, and deciding to be proactive you can lift that depression, start eating sensibly and get active once more. The vitamin and mineral supplements mentioned above will also help, because research has shown that vitamin B deficiency can play a role in depression.
Weight gain during, or after the menopause is a very real danger, but you can avoid gaining weight by decreasing your energy intake, cutting down on fat intake, eating more high-fibre foods, taking a good vitamin and mineral supplement, and keeping fit and active.
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com.