Do belly fat and menopause go hand in hand? For many women, yes. Even if you don’t gain weight during the menopausal transition, you may notice that your body composition changes. The slim waistline you once had slowly gives way to a frustrating muffin top. Even if the number on the scale stays the same, you may still experience weight redistribution, a common problem as your hormones change. Rather than fat depositing on your hips and thighs, it now makes a beeline for your tummy and waist.
Why are these changes happening? Before menopause, when your estrogen level is high, you tend to gain fat around the hips and thighs, but once your estrogen level takes a nosedive, fat tends to go to your tummy and waist. This change is frustrating from an aesthetic standpoint but it’s also a concern from a health perspective. After menopause, women tend to develop more visceral fat, a type of deep belly fat linked with heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately, tummy crunches and planks won’t budge this type of belly fat since it’s due to metabolic issues that creep up after menopause. After menopause, you begin to lose insulin sensitivity and that makes it easier to store fat in the midsection. A study showed another reason why muffin tops become more common after menopause. It has to do with the amount of “bioavailable” testosterone circulating in your system. Using CT scanning to measure body fat in the abdominal region, researchers found women with more bioavailable testosterone had more visceral fat and a larger waist size.
Why else might it be harder to shed belly fat? Going through menopause and the symptoms associated with it – hot flashes, mood swings, fatigue, and problems sleeping – is stressful. In response to the change and stress of menopause, your adrenal glands ramp up cortisol production. Cortisol helps your body mobilize glucose and fat as a source of energy but it has negative effects as well. It can cause breakdown of muscle tissue, and longer term, it can encourage your body to store fat in your tummy area. Not to mention, cortisol makes you feel hungrier and increases cravings. So, lack of estrogen, an excess of bioavailable testosterone, and too much cortisol is a bad combination for your body composition. This combo leads to muscle loss, fat gain, and redistribution of fat to the waist and tummy.
Now you know why you’re dealing with more belly fat but what can you do about it? Here are four tips for taming menopausal belly fat:
Belly Fat: Exercise
Is more exercise the key to battling belly fat? Focus on intensity rather than duration. Vigorous exercise, even when short in duration, creates an after-burn effect that boosts your metabolism and helps you burn more belly fat. In contrast, long periods of moderate-intensity exercise can raise your cortisol level and worsen the belly fat problem. Swap your elliptical workouts for high-intensity interval training. Even more important is high-intensity resistance training. Once you’re into menopause, bone and muscle loss accelerate. Resistance training helps you preserve bone mass and the fractures that go along with it. It also helps you conserve muscle tissue and keep your metabolism from slowing.
Belly Fat: Focus on Whole Foods, not Junk
Purge processed carbs from your diet and switch to fiber-rich, plant-based carb sources. Remember, your insulin sensitivity was probably higher before menopause started. You can’t eat the same diet and expect to keep a trim waistline. Fiber-rich foods and lean sources of protein help stabilize your blood sugar and avoid insulin spikes that can trigger fat storage. Each of us has a different tolerance to carbohydrates. You can eat all of the non-starchy vegetables you want but if you have a low tolerance for carbs, limiting the amount of fruit and whole grains you eat may help keep belly fat at bay.
Avoid strict low-carb dieting but experiment with reducing your carb intake. However, don’t go below 60 grams a day, especially if you’re doing regular workouts. Avoid sugar and other sweeteners with calories, even natural ones. Make sure you’re getting enough lean protein with a high ratio of plant-based to animal-based. There’s some evidence that saturated fat worsens insulin resistance. Olive oil is a good source of healthy fats since it has anti-inflammatory properties.
Belly Fat: Tackle Stress Management
The solution isn’t to over-exercise by engaging in long periods of cardio. Some women think if they do lots of cardio and burn more calories, they can melt away the belly fat. It’s unlikely. That’s because you’re dealing with hormonal imbalances. If anything, doing excessive amounts of cardio will make the situation worse by increasing your cortisol level. Shorter, high-intensity sessions work best. Stress management is also important and is something most women don’t focus on enough. It would take a whole other article to delve into stress management fully – but explore your options. You need a strategy for controlling stress. For example, add a yoga routine to your workouts twice a week. Studies show yoga sessions lower cortisol. Another option to explore is meditation. Don’t ignore the stress component. It contributes to belly fat too.
Belly Fat: Make Sleep a Priority
You probably already know that lack of sleep revs up your appetite by increasing the appetite hormone ghrelin, but not sleeping enough boosts cortisol as well. Yes, cortisol has a nasty way of showing up anytime your body is under stress, whether it be too much exercise, excessive calorie restriction, stress, or lack of sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 61% of women have problems sleeping at some point during menopause.
How can you add more quality sleep to your life? Try simple things like dropping the temperature in your sleeping area, especially if you have hot flashes. Take a soothing bath before bedtime. Adopt a relaxing ritual prior to bedtime and avoid using electronic devices. Likewise, make sure your sleeping area is completely dark. It goes without saying that you should avoid caffeine after 12:00 P.M. if you have sleep problems. Sip chamomile tea instead.
The Bottom Line
Body composition changes after menopause are real and due to hormonal changes. Fortunately, you can reduce the impact these changes have on your body by tweaking your lifestyle a bit. The most important reason to keep belly fat at bay is to avoid the problems that go along with visceral fat.
Science Daily. “Increase In Visceral Fat During Menopause Linked With Testosterone”
Indian J Psychiatry. 2013 Jul; 55(Suppl 3): S405–S408. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.116315
Everyday Health. “7 Tips to Sleep Better With Menopause”
Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 15 No. 7 P. 42. July 2013.
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