Are Hormones the Real Culprit Behind Age-Related Weight Gain in Women?

Age-related weight gain

When we get older, it’s not just our waistlines that expand. Although men typically gain weight around their midsections, women tend to store more fat on their hips and thighs. But that changes after menopause when women, too, store more fat in their midsections. What’s going on here?

Do Hormonal Changes Drive Age-Related Weight Gain?

If you read sources online, many say that hormonal changes drive weight gain, particularly in women, after menopause. It’s tempting to blame age-related weight gain on hormones, but the truth is that hormones are only one part of the equation.

You can’t take hormones completely out of the equation. When you enter menopause as a woman, your body begins producing less estrogen which directly impacts your metabolism and increases your risk for experiencing weight gain.

The Role of Hormones

There are several ways in which hormones affect weight gain:

The balance of estrogen and progesterone naturally changes during menopause; this shift can cause an increase in body fat storage.

Loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) occurs with age—and muscle burns more calories than fat does! When you lose muscle mass, you burn fewer calories throughout the day which leads to weight gain and extra inches around your waistline (which increases your risk for heart disease). To counter this effect on your metabolism, try strength training exercises that use weights or resistance bands—like squats or pushups—to build lean muscle mass back up again!

As you age, you’re more likely to experience changes in hormone levels. In addition to the decline of the sex hormones that naturally occurs with aging—estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—a number of other hormones are released into the body at lower levels (or not at all). These include:

Growth hormone – a hormone produced by your pituitary gland that controls how much fat is stored in your body and decreases muscle mass as you grow older.

Insulin – a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates blood sugar levels;

Leptin – a protein made by fat cells that regulate appetite

Plus, cortisol, a stress hormone tends to rise with age and is a major contributor to an increase in truncal obesity.

The Effect of Lifestyle on Age-Related Weight Gain

But there are other factors at play here as well—like lifestyle choices and stress. So yes, aging does affect how much you weigh and where you carry fat. But it’s not just about hormone levels. There are environmental factors that contribute strongly towards weight gain over time such as junk food cravings (which can lead to overeating), lack of sleep (which affects cortisol levels), and sedentary lifestyles that dwarf the effect of hormones.

According to Dr. Susan Davis, a professor in chronic disease and aging in Australia, we can’t blame hormones for weight gain that occurs after menopause. As she points out, if that were the case, all women would be overweight or obese after menopause.  But you can’t completely discount the effects of hormones either. As Mayo Clinic states, hormonal changes after midlife make it easier to gain weight in the abdominal region.

However, some of the hormonal changes that happen after menopause are triggered or worsened by lifestyle. For example, the cortisol increase that occurs after menopause is worsened by stress and lack of sleep. So, it’s hard to separate out the hormonal changes that occur physiologically from those related to lifestyle.

Insulin Sensitivity Declines and Muscle Loss Increases

Another factor that contributes to weight gain after menopause is a drop in insulin sensitivity. As insulin sensitivity goes down in midlife, you lose metabolic flexibility, the ability to switch between using glucose and fat as a fuel source. Due to a decline in insulin sensitivity, you have more carbohydrates in your bloodstream, and you have less ability to break down fat and use it as energy. Loss of muscle mass due to aging also has a subtle effect on your resting metabolic rate, so you burn fewer calories than you did earlier in life.

If you look at these two factors – the drop in insulin sensitivity and muscle mass, you can see they’re both modifiable by lifestyle. Reducing refined carbohydrates and processed foods and staying physically active, improves insulin sensitivity. Plus, strength training helps you preserve muscle mass and keep your metabolism percolating along.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard to separate the effects of menopause from the lifestyle changes that go along with it. But it’s clear that lifestyle is a factor in mid-life weight gain in women and it likely plays a bigger role than hormone changes. Plus, lifestyle affects those hormone changes. Here are some science-backed tips for preventing weight gain after menopause:

Stay physically active and make strength training a priority.

Cut back or eliminate refined carbohydrates and ultra-processed foods.

Cut back on late-night snacks. Consume most of your calories and carbohydrates before 5:00 p.m.

Work on stress management with techniques like meditation and controlled breathing.

Expose your eyes to natural light as early in the day as possible to properly set your internal biological clock.

Be aware that medications can contribute to weight gain.

Eat lean protein and fiber-rich vegetables at every meal.

Keep a fitness and food diary, so you can monitor changes in body weight.

Monitor your thyroid function by seeing your doctor readily for blood tests. The drop in estrogen associated with menopause can affect thyroid function.


  • Piaggi P. Metabolic Determinants of Weight Gain in Humans. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2019 May;27(5):691-699. doi: 10.1002/oby.22456. PMID: 31012296; PMCID: PMC6481299.
  • “Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories – Mayo Clinic.” 08 Oct. 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508.
  • “The truth about metabolism – Harvard Health.” 30 Mar. 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-metabolism.
  • Piaggi P. Metabolic Determinants of Weight Gain in Humans. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2019 May;27(5):691-699. doi: 10.1002/oby.22456. PMID: 31012296; PMCID: PMC6481299.
  • “Fact check: Hormones aren’t to blame for weight gain in women – USA TODAY.” 31 Mar. 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2022/03/31/fact-check-hormones-arent-blame-weight-gain-women/9341688002/.
  • Schindler AE. Thyroid function and postmenopause. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2003 Feb;17(1):79-85. PMID: 12724022.
  • “Thyroid and Menopause: Is There a Connection? – Healthline.” 19 May. 2017, https://www.healthline.com/health/menopause/thyroid-and-menopause.

Related Articles By Cathe:

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Avoid Weight Gain as You Age? What Science Says

5 Science-Backed Reasons Why Weight Gain Is A Problem As You Age

5 Ways Psychological Stress Leads to Weight Gain

6 Surprising Reasons You Gain Weight in the Winter

How Meditation Can Help You with Weight Training

How Mindfulness Meditation Can Help You with Weight Training

How Lack of Quality Sleep Limits Muscle Growth

Hi, I'm Cathe

I want to help you get in the best shape of your life and stay healthy with my workout videos, DVDs and Free Weekly Newsletter. Here are several ways you can watch and work out to my exercise videos and purchase my fitness products:

Get Your Free Weekly Cathe Friedrich Newsletter

Get free weekly tips on Fitness, Health, Weight Loss and Nutrition delivered directly to your email inbox. Plus get Special Cathe Product Offers and learn about What’s New at Cathe Dot Com.

Enter your email address below to start receiving my free weekly updates. Don’t worry…I guarantee 100% privacy. Your information will not be shared and you can easily unsubscribe whenever you like. Our Privacy Policy