Best ways to manage menopausal belly fat

Extra belly fat is common with menopause weight gain as fat distribution changes, but you don’t need to wear elastic waistbands forever – here’s what you can do.

As those who have been through it will know, the journey through menopause can be a roller-coaster.

Hot flushes, night sweats, disturbed sleep, mood changes, anxiety and depression and yes, those extra kilos accumulating around your belly.

“Many women in mid-life feel like they woke up one morning and suddenly have a belly where one didn’t use to be,” Jean Hailes for Women’s Health GP Dr Fiona Jane says. 

Here’s why it happens, and what you can do about it.

What causes menopause weight gain?

Also known as “the change of life”, menopause is medically defined as not having any menstrual bleeding for 12 months, and typically occurs in a woman’s life between the ages of 45 and 55.

With it comes a lot of changes – not least, sometimes, to our weight.

“It might feel like it (weight gain) happened overnight, but that’s not exactly right,” Dr Jane says. 

“As women, we tend to gain weight as we age; it tends to happen very gradually, starting when we’re in our 30s and, on average, women between the ages of 45 and 55 gain about half a kilo a year.

“But with menopause and changing levels of hormones, such as reduced estrogen, comes the change in body shape – the loss of your waist and a thickening around the abdomen.”

While you may have been pear-shaped prior to menopause, you’re now an apple, she explains. 

In post-menopausal women, abdominal fat accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of total body fat, compared with five to eight per cent before menopause.

Health risks of having abdominal fat

While it’s not healthy to carry extra kilos anywhere, weight around your abdomen has more significant health risks, Dr Jane says.

“Unfortunately, belly fat is associated with visceral fat – fat stored deep inside the belly that is wrapped around the organs, including the liver and intestines, and that produces inflammatory changes that can lead to risk of higher blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia and some cancers,” she says.

“Australian women are now living longer – you can live at least a third of your life in the post-menopausal stage, so it’s important to set yourself up in good health so that you can enjoy it.”

How do you lose menopause weight?

Researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney, have just released a new paper in which they hypothesise that changing the typical highly-processed Western diet during the transition to menopause at around age 40 or 50 could be one of the keys to fixing menopause weight gain.

“Very small changes to the diet in terms of prioritising protein, reducing fats and carbohydrates, and being physically active could make a big difference in the long term,” study co-author Professor David Raubenheimer says.

Dr Jane, who is also a research fellow with the Women’s Health Research Program at Monash University, agrees says to lose belly fat, you need to combine regular physical activity with reduced caloric intake.

“The current exercise guidelines are that you need to do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise six times a week, so almost every day – and at least two of those should be strength training because it comes back to body composition and muscles, and you’ve got to use them or lose them,” Dr Jane says.

“Move more and eat less, it’s pretty simple.”

Dr Jane also recommends reducing alcohol as drinking contributes to menopause weight gain and poor health, and interferes with your sleep. 

“We know that too little or too much sleep has an effect on the hormones affecting hunger and satiety, so your sleep quality and quantity is important,” she explains.

Set yourself up for long-term good health

Dr Jane suggests using menopause as an opportunity to reset your eating and exercise habits.

“Take a long-term view because post-menopause, you are going to reach a time of hormonal stability that you haven’t experienced in the past four decades of your life,” Dr Jane says.

During menopause, women are often time-poor, caught between raising kids and work, and looking after ageing parents, so making changes can be difficult, she explains. 

“But moving through the menopausal transition, women often take time to rediscover or reinvent themselves and by committing to good health habits, you’ll be in better shape to age successfully and enjoy a healthier life,” she says.

Written by Liz McGrath.