Menopause is sometimes called “the change of life” – and for good reason. Beyond mood swings and hot flashes, menopause belly fat is a common issue, even for those who exercise often and generally eat a healthy diet.
Typically, you’re considered to be in menopause 12 months after your final menstrual cycle, the culmination of perimenopause.
“During perimenopause, women tend to gain weight in the belly area, which may be different than before perimenopause when they would gain it in their hips and thighs,” explains registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D.N., co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan: A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness.
A natural dip in estrogen – combined with other midlife changes like loss of bone and muscle tissue and a slight metabolic slowdown – can lead to weight gain and changes in body composition, Ward says.
As someone who’s been there, lived through it, and written a book about it, she knows that “bodily changes can be mystifying, frustrating, and downright disappointing.”
While turning back the clock can’t happen, there are plenty of habits within your control that may impact menopause belly fat.
Here’s what to know about your midlife middle – and how to lose menopause belly fat.
How to Lose Menopause Belly Fat
1. Maximize sleep
Adults need seven or more hours of sleep a night, but getting that much may be easier said than done, says Ward.
“Sleep patterns evolve during the menopause transition when women often have a harder time falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleeping deeply enough, in part because of hot flashes,” she explains.
“One study found that perimenopausal women were most likely to sleep fewer than seven hours a night compared to postmenopausal women,” Ward adds.
That said, she adds, you should absolutely try to prioritize sleep.
“Regular, restful sleep is linked to easier weight control as well as other markers of good health,” says Ward.
Even a night or two of poor sleep increases levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and lowers leptin, a hormone in charge of satiety, according to research.
2. Decrease insulin resistance
Insulin resistance happens when your muscle, fat, and liver cells can’t easily make use of the glucose in your blood.
This forces your pancreas to make more and more insulin to help.
“Insulin resistance increases with age,” says Ward.
That’s why the American Diabetes Association recommends that “all adults without risk factors should be screened with a test for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes starting at age 35.”
“Decreasing estrogen levels may play a role in insulin resistance, but the research is not definitive yet,” she adds. “Gaining weight and a lack of exercise also promotes insulin resistance.”
3. Lower your caloric intake
If you’re dealing with menopause belly fat, start by looking at your eating habits.
As we age, we tend to move less – but our appetite and habits tend not to balance out that slowdown.
If you’re seeing the number on the scale creep up or your clothes fit differently, consider these nutritional tweaks to cope with a slowing metabolism.
4. Eat more plants and protein (and less sugar)
Menopause is a good time to reassess your overall eating plan, says Ward.
“I had to do this myself when I gained 10 pounds during perimenopause (and most of it in my belly),” she says.
“A balanced diet will help counteract the changes that occur during midlife and because of menopause, and help women feel more energetic and positive about this stage of life,” she adds.
A diet based on fiber-rich, plant-based foods
At least 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily
At least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily
Three servings of whole grains a day
No more than one alcoholic drink per day but preferably less
5. Reduce stress
Keeping stress in check may also help you lose menopause belly fat.
When your daily stress is too high, so does your body’s release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can result in more belly fat and greater water retention.
And stress worsens your sleep problems, creating a vicious cycle, says Ward.
“Research from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) Sleep Study found that chronic stress interferes with adequate sleep,” she says.
Ongoing fatigue and chronic stress can lead to behaviors that further contribute to weight control issues, including excess alcohol intake and ‘stress-eating’ fatty and sugary foods, like ice cream, cookies, and chips, on a regular basis.
6. Exercise regularly
Staying active can help offset insulin resistance.
“Exercise uses up glucose in the bloodstream, which reduces the need for insulin,” explains Ward.
“Being overweight increases the need for insulin. Studies show that losing 5 to 7 percent of your body weight significantly lowers the risk for insulin resistance, which over time can turn into type 2 diabetes.”
The Best Exercises for Menopause Belly
Any exercise is better than no exercise, but certain types are better for the post-menopausal phase of life, says doctor of physical therapy and acupuncturist Bianca Beldini, DPT, MSOM.
“Visceral (abdominal fat) is most targeted by change in diet (upping the protein and decreasing the simple carbs) and by lifting heavier weights,” says Beldini.
“Strength training at this stage in life is most important because it can mitigate the effects of plummeting estrogen.”
“Cardio is best done as HIIT or high-intensity workouts versus long sustained endurance,” says Baldini.
“Long bouts of cardio can actually cause cortisol levels to rise (leading us back to insulin resistance and sleep disturbances).”
She likes indoor cycling with short, fast-speed intervals of 30 seconds on and 1 minute off.
Plyometrics and bounding are also helpful.
“Jumping exercises are also very important at this stage in life to also challenge ligaments and tendons,” she adds. Just make sure you progress gradually with plyometrics to maximize your results while minimizing your risk of injury.
Core and Abdominal Exercises
Core exercises won’t directly shed menopause belly fat – that’ll require burning more calories and reducing overall body fat.
But abs exercises can build strength and help your core and belly area appear more toned.
Baldini likes planks, and they’re accessible for all fitness levels.
About half of the bone loss that women experience will happen during the decade after menopause, which can also accelerate or cause sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass).
Strength training can help offset both.
Aim for higher weights and lower reps in moves such as the squat, deadlift, and kettlebell swing to maintain bone density, Baldini suggests.
Menopause belly fat is an annoying reminder that nothing in life stays the same.
But, when Baldini’s clients feel down about the changes they feel and see, she gives the same advice she gives herself.
“This is a transitional stage in life. Make healthy food choices. Take quiet time. Meditate. Breathe. Get on a sleep schedule. Lift heavy weights. Transitional stages don’t last forever.”
Ward also focuses on what she and her clients can control.
“Our focus during perimenopause and beyond is to take care of our bones, brain, heart, and mental health.”
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