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The Menopausal 15? Warding Off Mid-Life Weight Gain

The causes of weight gain after menopause that so many women experience.

Long before young people head off to college, they hear about the dreaded “Freshman 15” awaiting them. Women heading into middle age have come to expect a similar fate—the “Menopausal 15.” Most women gain about one pound per year in their 40s and 50s for a total of 10 to 15 pounds. But is menopause really to blame?

Blame Age, Not Hormones

Between a woman’s late 30s and early 50s, estrogen levels start to drop and eventually menstrual cycles stop. Although the hormonal changes of menopause get the rap for mid-life weight gain, studies show the extra pounds are actually related to age, lifestyle, and genetics.

Women lose muscle mass as they age and, since muscle burns more calories than fat, end up burning fewer calories. In addition, people tend to slow down and move less as they age. If women do not compensate for these mid-life changes by consciously increasing physical activity and making healthy food choices, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy weight.

Hormones aren’t entirely blameless. They are likely responsible for the loss of muscle, which increases total body fat, and the distribution of those added pounds closer to the abdomen than around the hips and thighs. Not only do many women find the “spare tire effect” undesirable, carrying extra weight in the mid-section may increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers.

Trying to maintain a healthy weight in mid-life can feel like an impossible battle against two powerful forces: time and biology. But the middle-age spread is not inevitable. The times may have changed, but the rules of healthy living have not:

Super-Size Your Fitness Routine. Many people think of mid-life as a time to slow down, but for most healthy adults, life can and should continue to be busy, fulfilling, and active. In addition to keeping weight in check, exercise addresses many of the other common complaints associated with menopause. It builds muscle and bone mass, releases endorphins to combat mood swings, and promotes quality sleep.

The exercise routine that worked in your 30s or 40s may not have the same effect in your 50s and beyond. Most women benefit from 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise four or five days per week. Try alternating between three or four activities you enjoy, such as Pilates, weight training, swimming, an aerobics class, and walking, to prevent boredom and minimize the risk of injury. To combat the loss of muscle mass, slowed metabolism and gravitation of fat toward the mid-section that come with age, include strength training exercises (complete with a good abdominal workout) at least twice a week.

Get Serious About Nutrition. In your 50s, the body requires about 200 fewer calories per day than it did 10 to 20 years ago. More fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains and fewer desserts and processed carbohydrates will help you maintain a healthy weight without depriving yourself of the nutrition your body still needs. These foods also aid in maintaining stable blood sugar, which can help regulate mood swings.

Make Small, Sustainable Changes. In mid-life, some women return to the fad diets of their youth in a desperate attempt to control their weight. This is a mistake. Dieting further slows metabolism and more often leads to weight gain than weight maintenance. Moreover, it’s unnecessary. A study by the University of Pittsburgh found that a few simple changes can result in long-term weight loss: eating more fruits and vegetables; reducing consumption of desserts, sugary drinks, fried foods, meat, and cheese; eating more fish; and dining at restaurants less often.

Eat Mindfully. Many middle-aged women complain that no matter how hard they try, they continue to pack on unwanted pounds. Upon closer examination, it often turns out they’re eating more and exercising less than they realize. Eating slower and focusing on the flavors and textures of food can make mealtime a more satisfying experience. In addition, a food journal can help you be more realistic about how nutritiously you eat and how active you are.

Supplement Strategically. Research shows that women in mid-life may benefit from supplementing with calcium and vitamin D to prevent weight gain. For those who don’t eat much fatty fish (such as wild salmon or tuna), supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may help to reduce depression and improve heart health.

Start Early. Women who are educated about the need for lifestyle change in mid-life are able to take steps early on to guard against weight gain. Ideally, this process would begin before weight becomes an issue or, at the latest, by the time menopause starts.

So, the basic formula for maintaining a healthy weight is the same at every age: eat more healthfully, exercise more. But how much is enough? In one study , premenopausal women were able to maintain their weight and improve other health measures by eating more healthfully and exercising regularly. Those who made no lifestyle changes gained about one pound per year during the four-year follow-up period. Another study found that middle-aged women who didn’t make conscious dietary changes were 138 percent more likely to gain weight (seven pounds, on average).

Menopause isn’t the weight loss saboteur many believe it to be. The bad news is we can’t blame menopause for our weight struggles. The good news is the power to protect our health is well within our grasp if we allow menopause to be a wake-up call to make the healthy lifestyle changes many of us have been working on (or putting off) for decades.