This is the fourth post in the Midlife Rambler Real Talk about Menopause series. Too many of us (including myself) don’t fully understand what’s happening and don’t know where to go to for accurate information. I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice but I’m hoping to provide some of the information I wish I had known when I went through menopause and give you some resources to check out if you want to learn more.
I’ve written before about how surprised I was when the changes of menopause finally came for me. The first clue I had that menopause might be difficult for me was when I gained 10 pounds in one month.
After my initial weight gain, my weight continued to creep up a pound here and a pound there until I had gained over 25 pounds. Finally, last summer I decided enough is enough and began a serious weight loss effort. My journey is still ongoing, but I have managed to lose 15 pounds in the past year.
Here’s what I learned about post-menopausal weight gain, what’s worked for me and what’s helped and is continuing to help as I go through this journey.
What Causes Weight Gain After Menopause?
There are several factors that can cause weight gain after menopause including:
- Estrogen acts as a damper on the hormone Ghrelin. Ghrelin is the hormone which causes us to feel hungry. After menopause, estrogen decreases and ghrelin levels increase which can increase our hunger level.
- Estrogen increases our metabolism. After menopause, the number of calories burned each day can drop by as many as 50 calories per day which may not seem like a lot but can cause significant weight gain over time.
- Estrogen also affects where excess fat is stored. After menopause, we tend to lose subcutaneous fat, which is the layer of fat just under the skin. That’s why your hands look so bony now and why your face may appear gaunt – the layer of fat under your skin that filled things out is much smaller now. Instead, excess calories are now more likely to be stored as visceral fat.
Visceral Fat: The Evil Villian of Menopausal Weight Gain
Much of our weight gain during and after menopause can be attributed to the increase in visceral fat during this time.
Before menopause, estrogen is primarily produced by the ovaries. However, after menopause, any estrogen the body produces is produced by your body’s visceral fat: fat stored deep in your abdominal cavity around your organs (rather than just under the skin).
That might sound like a good thing (Yay! My body is still producing estrogen after all!) but unfortunately visceral fat has many harmful effects on the body. For example:
- Unlike subcutaneous fat, the layer of fat just under the skin, visceral fat produces very little leptin, the hormone that tells our brain that we’re full when we’ve eaten enough. So your body continues to feel hungry even after eating.
- Visceral fat produces several inflammatory cytokines which cause stress on your body and contribute to insulin resistance. That’s quite simplified, but basically, it means that your body can no longer process the sugar in your diet efficiently and so it is stored as fat.
- Visceral fat also accelerates many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and dementia.
Now you’ve got the ultimate vicious cycle: increased visceral fat causes our bodies to store more of our calories as you guessed it, visceral fat.
How I Lost Weight After Menopause
The information I’ve just provided sounds pretty grim and may even make you think it’s pointless to try to lose or even just maintain your weight once you’ve gone through menopause. But I finally managed to lose some of the excess weight I gained during menopause by taking my knowledge about visceral fat and how it works and tweaking my diet and exercise plan to combat it.
Here’s what worked for me.
Decreasing Sugar to Under 20 Grams Per Day
Menopause really affects the way our body metabolizes sugar.
I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that my body just can’t handle sugar any longer. I used to be able to put away a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and now I feel sick to my stomach if I eat just one doughnut so I’ve learned to stay away.
It seems pretty obvious, too, that my body has a hard time metabolizing sugar now and so will just immediately store it as fat. I made a Lemon Meringue pie this past July 4th and had just one piece. (It was delicious, thanks for asking.) I woke up the next morning and I had gained 3 pounds. I’m currently working quite hard at losing the 5 pounds I gained over my birthday when I treated myself to a couple of pieces of birthday cake.
This is anecdotal evidence, obviously, but I notice that any weight I put on after eating sugar doesn’t come off naturally like it used to when I would just go back to eating normally after a large or sugary meal. Instead, I need to increase my efforts to get back to where I started when I eat something very sugary. It’s just not worth it to me.
Replacing Processed Food with Vegetables
I think there’s a tendency among many women with post-menopausal weight gain to try to lose weight not by changing what they’re eating but instead by having increasingly smaller portions. For example, I used to have a Lean Cuisine at lunch every day in an effort to cut back on calories. That might seem like a good choice but look at some of the drawbacks for one of my favorite meals: Lean Cuisine Cheese Ravioli.
- Portion sizes are small so it’s difficult to feel sated after eating.
- Contains 2.5 teaspoons of sugar which is hard for the post-menopausal body to metabolize.
So it makes total sense that I’d be starving again two hours later and frustrated because I wasn’t losing weight on so few calories.
I started using the Fooducate app to track what I was eating and I noticed that I felt better and more satiated after eating when I focused on eating foods that were unprocessed with very little sugar. My lunch these days tends to be a giant salad with olive oil and vinegar or Bolthouse Salad Dressing (low in calories and a decent choice nutritionally) with some grilled chicken on top. It typically works out to be about 350 calories but I’m satisfied until dinner.
I’ve also been focusing on adding some unfamiliar vegetables to our dinner meals and I’m thrilled to say that this previously very picky eater has learned to love cauliflower and roasted beets. Yum!
Yep, I’m on the intermittent fasting bandwagon. I typically eat only between 12 and 8 and I try to push the boundaries a bit. That means that rather than jumping up and running downstairs for lunch at the stroke of 12, I’ll get to a good stopping point on my work and then go down for lunch.
Basically, I’m skipping breakfast and then eating normally the rest of the day so I’m saving around 300-400 calories each day. But I find that following this practice is helpful in managing my hunger during the rest of the day. I’ve learned that I don’t have to stop and feed myself the second I feel a hunger pang and that hunger is not an emergency. If I get a little rumbly in the tummy in the afternoon, I might have a small snack (typically a slice of cheese or ¼ cup of nuts) or I might experiment with waiting a bit to see if I’m really hungry.
Free Printable Plan!
High-Intensity Interval Training
Any kind of exercise is really important for staying healthy as we age. A regular exercise program has all kinds of benefits in preventing everything from cancer to arthritis. But the data suggests that high-intensity interval training is much more effective for weight loss than moderate exercise such as walking for 30 minutes each day.
Once again, I can anecdotally report that this is true for me. I used to get so frustrated because I was walking for at least 30 minutes 3-4 times per week, every week, and yet I was not only losing weight, I was gaining! Grrr!
It wasn’t until I started an exercise practice that I like to call True Crime Treadmill Time that the weight really started coming off.
True Crime Treadmill Time works like this:
- I find an engaging True Crime TV Series on Hulu or Netflix. (This is the absolute most important part. I also enjoy medical mysteries.)
- Wearing a heart monitor, I begin walking on my treadmill at a pretty slow pace. I normally start at around 2.5 MPH with 0% incline.
- At regular intervals (usually, about 15 seconds when I’m first starting out and then at around the 1-minute mark when my heart rate has gotten higher), I boost either the speed or the incline.
- When my heart rate hits 150, which is about 90% of my maximum heart rate, I’ll start decreasing the speed and/or incline until my heart rate gets down to 120 or so.
- I then repeat the cycle until 45 minutes into the session. That’s when I bring the speed back down to 2.5 mph/0% incline and get my heart rate down below 120.
- At the end of each session, I’m dripping in sweat and I’ve got a new reason to be afraid when I’m home alone.
Note: This is what works for me and I highly encourage you to discuss any exercise plans with your doctor. I had been exercising moderately for quite a while before I began this practice.
I do this 4 times a week and I try to do a yoga video twice a week but I’ve been less diligent about that. I usually get in 1 yoga workout a week.
You don’t need a treadmill for High-Intensity Interval Training. I’ve got a post with several ways you can use YouTube to exercise at home. Or check out this YouTube video for an at-home option for beginners.
This is a Lifestyle Change, Not a Diet
I just learned the hard way that you can’t follow this plan for a little bit and then go back to your same old habits. This July, I had a July 4th Party followed by a vacation followed by my birthday and gained back 5 of the 20 pounds I had lost.
I’m currently back on the plan and trying a few new things to get back on track. (I’m currently on a two day fast to reset my hunger levels.) Ideally, I’d like to lose about 15 more pounds. I’ll keep you posted about my progress and continue to update you about what’s working and what’s not.
Please share any tips for losing weight over 50 in the comments! I’d love to hear them.