Around the time of menopause or just after, many women see their waistline increase in size. This comes as a surprise to women who are watching what they eat and working out almost every day. Even women who are relatively lean after menopause often wage a battle with belly fat and frequently notice a redistribution of body fat from their buttocks and thighs to their tummy and waistline. Why is an expanding waistline and belly fat such a problem after menopause and what can you do to control tummy fat after menopause?
The Hormonal Changes of Menopause and How They Impact Belly Fat
The menopausal transition is marked by a drop in estrogen and progesterone levels. As your ovaries become quiescent, they no longer make the quantity of progesterone and estrogen they produced during your reproductive years. This drop in hormone levels is linked with an increase in insulin resistance. As estrogen levels drop, cells lose some of their sensitivity to insulin, meaning cells become less responsive to it. As a result, your pancreas has to pump out more insulin to get glucose into cells. That leads to higher levels of insulin floating around in your bloodstream.
As you already know, insulin promotes fat storage and makes it more difficult to break down fat stores. The place where this fat is stored in an insulin-resistant state is deep in the belly, where it becomes visceral fat. Visceral fat not only increases the size of your waistline – it’s linked with health problems like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That’s because visceral fat is not inert. It releases inflammatory chemicals that adversely affect lipid levels and boosts heart disease risk. So menopausal belly fat is more than just a cosmetic issue.
Cortisol levels also rise in many women around the time of menopause. This increase in cortisol further adds to the problem of belly fat. Estrogen and progesterone help to keep cortisol in check. After menopause, you no longer have high enough levels of progesterone and estrogen to offset the effects of cortisol. For some women, menopause is a stressful time, and stress boosts the release of cortisol. If you have sleep problems during menopause, as many women do, this further aggravates the cortisol problem. High cortisol and low estrogen is a double whammy when it comes to visceral belly fat and your girth after menopause.
Lean Body Mass Decreases Too
To add to the problem of declining estrogen levels and increased cortisol is the loss of lean body mass that happens after menopause. Lean body mass begins to decline after the age of thirty but it picks up pace after menopause. Higher cortisol levels probably have an impact here too since cortisol is a catabolic hormone. Loss of lean body mass means there’s less muscle to take up glucose. This aggravates the insulin resistance problem. Plus, it slows down your metabolic rate.
Research shows that rising testosterone levels after menopause also contribute to an increase in visceral fat. Fat cells continue to produce some estrogen after menopause. This estrogen is converted to testosterone by an enzyme called aromatase, so testosterone levels frequently rise after menopause. This appears to be a strong contributor to belly fat.
Taming Menopausal Belly Fat
So now that you have a better idea WHY your body is changing during and after menopause – what can you do about it? The most important thing you can do is exercise regularly. Exercise boosts insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing insulin resistance, and resistance training helps to boost lean body mass. The more lean body mass you have, the faster your metabolism will be and the less insulin resistance you’ll have.
The type of exercise you do has an impact too. High-intensity exercise has the most benefits when it comes to reducing insulin resistance and taming visceral belly fat. High-intensity weight training is also effective for reducing insulin resistance and increasing lean body mass. Shorter more intense workouts are best because they boost growth hormone and limit the release of cortisol.
What about Diet?
Research shows that limiting processed carbohydrates is more effective for reducing insulin resistance than a low –fat diet. The key is to eat fiber-rich carbs from whole food sources like vegetables and limit high-glycemic carbs like white potatoes, white rice and foods made with white flour. Choose lean protein sources and eat protein with every meal and snack.
Once you enter menopause, it’s important to get enough protein. The amount you need will vary depending on how much exercise training you’re doing. Choose healthy sources like wild-caught salmon that are also rich in omega-3s. There’s some evidence that omega-3s increase insulin sensitivity. Use extra-virgin olive oil from a reputable manufacturer. EVOO is a good source of natural anti-inflammatory compounds that help with insulin resistance. Most importantly, eliminate processed foods from your diet as much as possible.
Add more spice to your life. Spices have anti-inflammatory activity and some, like cinnamon, directly improve insulin sensitivity. Add cinnamon to your morning oatmeal and coffee and sprinkle a little on your food at every meal to improve the way your body handles glucose. Use Ceylon cinnamon since cassia cinnamon you find at most supermarkets contains higher amounts of coumarin, a compound that’s liver toxic.
The Bottom Line?
Visceral belly fat after menopause expands your waistline but it also impacts your health. Fortunately, you can do a lot to tame it through diet and high-intensity exercise – and that means better health and a thinner waistline too.
Science Daily. “Increase In Visceral Fat During Menopause Linked With Testosterone”
Journal of Applied Physiology January 2006 vol. 100 no. 1 142-149.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Nov;40(11):1863-72.
UVA Today. “U.Va. Study: High-Intensity Exercise Best for Improving Body Composition”
Medical News Today website. “For Insulin-Resistant Women, Cutting Carbs Is More Effective Than Low-Fat Diet”
Medical News Today website. “Coumarin In Cinnamon Causes Liver Damage In Some People”