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The arrival of extra “padding” around the middle is a common complaint for women during their 40s and 50s. The tummy (or extra tummy) shows up like an uninvited and unwelcome guest who won’t leave your house. This change in body shape isn’t news to most, but it can feel personally perplexing – especially if changes in your diet and activity level aren’t seemingly to blame.

Hormones, shape shifting & weight gain

Research shows that estrogen synergizes with the genes in fat tissue to increase subcutaneous fat in the thighs and buttocks while decreasing fat in the mid-section area.

As estrogen levels drop with menopause, here’s what tends to happen:

  • fat distribution shift towards the abdomen
  • total body fat increases
  • visceral fat increases while subcutaneous fat decreases
  • muscle (lean body mass) decreases

It’s important to note that menopausal estrogen deprivation alone is not shown to change the number on the scale. That’s because muscle (lean body mass) weighs more than fat, and the loss in muscle weight is balanced by the gain in body fat weight. Therefore, shape can change without weight change.

However, research shows that women on average gain 1.5 pounds each year between the ages of 40 and 60, independent of menopausal status. Other interrelated influences that tend to promote weight gain are most likely to blame, including sleep disturbances, age-related muscle loss, subtle decreases in activity, and mood disorders.

Bigger bellies & health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, so it’s important to keep both your blood vessels and cardiovascular system healthy. Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, blood sugar, cholesterol and weight. But even more important than how much you weigh is how much abdominal fat you have.

The type of abdominal fat you have matters to your heart.

Excess abdominal fat is visceral fat – a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. Visceral fat cells in obese abdominal tissue can become enlarged, releasing and thereby increasing free fatty acids. Accumulation of free fatty acids in organs that aren’t designed to store fat causes organ dysfunction and chronic inflammation, otherwise known as lipotoxicity.

How to protect your heart health

Eat the right amount for your body

A bite of food

Focus on measures to achieve energy balance, not weight loss. Weight loss is almost always recommended to those who are overweight to lower the risk for heart disease. However, most diets fail and can do more damage than good in the process. Consider intuitive eating—a sustainable practice that relies on physical hunger and satiety cues to guide eating and other weight related behaviors.

Increase lean body mass

During menopause, muscle (lean body mass) decreases gradually. Your body requires energy to maintain muscle. When you have less muscle to maintain, less energy is required. In other words, your body doesn’t need as much energy through food to maintain itself due to a decreased basal metabolic rate.

If you eat the same energy amount year after year with decreasing energy needs, the extra energy from food will be stored as body fat and your weight will gradually creep up. This common cause of weight gain can be avoided. The practice of intuitive eating relies on your internal body cues as a guide to maintain a natural body weight.

Regular strength training can maintain or increase muscle, counteracting your natural tendency to lose muscle with age. Free weights and resistance bands can help you be strong at home or in the gym.

Enjoy more movement

Woman walking dog in field

Getting your heart pumping keeps your cardiovascular system fit. Your heart, lungs and blood flow benefit from all types of movement. Whether you choose biking, walking, swimming or active gardening, it’s important to enjoy activity for the way it makes you feel during and after. Exercising for the purpose of weight loss is a form of dieting that’s rarely sustainable.

Regular forms of movement will help you enjoy a reduced risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and stroke. If that’s not enough, add increased stamina/decreased fatigue, increased protection against viral illnesses, boost in mood, sharpening of mind and longer life. It’s important to note that weight bearing exercises such as walking, jogging or tennis can also keep your bones strong, decreasing the risk of fracture due to osteoporosis.

Get enough quality sleep

Research shows women who sleep 5 hours or less every night gain more weight than women who sleep 7 hours or more. If your sleep is suffering due to night sweats, sleep apnea or other reasons, it’s worth a discussion with your doctor to see what can be done to improve your situation. Some simple modifications may make a difference, such as consistent sleep and wake times, limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption, minimizing sleep distractions (cell phones, snoring partners, heartburn, etc.…), incorporating daily exercise and/or stretching, and reducing screen stimulation before bedtime.

Don’t worry, be happy

Happy woman standing

Does menopause make you feel like you’re in a constant state of moody PMS? Mood can affect every aspect of life including eating habits, sleep, physical activity, and relationships, but life can also affect mood. Simply doing something different may improve your mood and set off a beneficial domino effect (see below)

Consider a walking experiment!

By committing 20 minutes for a daily walk, you may soon discover that you sleep more deeply, feel more energized, smile more often and feel less anxious. Before long, you might look forward to every daily walk and start thinking about other fun ways to be active. Other side effects could include feeling good in your body and inspiring others to walk!

If lifestyle adjustments don’t improve your mood, talk to your doctor about the way you feel and to rule out other medical or psychiatric conditions.

Beware of quick fixes

Several methods claiming to melt away belly fat are circulating. Toning abdominal muscles will help you maintain muscle, but don’t expect the fat over those toned muscles to magically disappear before body fat in other areas. Also, don’t count on any one ingredient, food, or drink to target a reduction in belly fat. Any food or drink that has been shown in studies to reduce belly fat requires an unrealistically high daily consumption to achieve barely significant results.

Bottom Line:
Mid-life presents some unique challenges that individually or collectively tend to promote weight gain around the middle. It’s normal to expect some age-related shifts in body shape, but large abdominal shifts can indicate a decline in heart health. You have the power to minimize abdominal weight gain and improve your heart health through nutrition, strength, movement, sleep and mood. A little self-care can make a big difference!