How to lose weight during menopause

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Many women struggle with their weight as they approach their late forties and early fifties, and often blame it on menopause. But the good news is: while it’s true that hormonal changes during menopause can cause weight gain, it’s by no means inevitable. What’s more, you really CAN lose weight during this challenging time. It may take a bit more effort and discipline, but as you’ll see, the fundamentals of losing weight during menopause are not all that different to losing weight at any other time.

Let’s take a quick look at two age-related factors, often linked with menopause, which may be affecting your weight.

Reduced Activity Levels

Many people become more sedentary as they get older. Slowing down and taking it easy is often perceived as a right – as though you’ve surely earned a big rest after all those years of working, exercising and raising a family! Apart from being generally bad for your health, a lack of activity is a major cause of weight gain, especially if you have previously led a more active lifestyle. We’ve all seen photos of professional sportspeople who pack on the pounds after they retire. Less activity means you need fewer calories, so if you continue to eat the same amount of food while doing less exercise it’s likely that you will gain weight, and have a hard time getting rid of it.

Losing Muscle Mass

We naturally lose muscle as we age; in fact, after the age of fifty we typically lose about 1 – 2% muscle mass per year.* Muscle is metabolically active – it burns calories just by being in your body. The more muscle you have, the more calories you are burning, even when you’re completely at rest. By contrast, fat tissue is metabolically inactive; it just lies there and does nothing, apart from straining your seams. When you lose muscle mass it changes your body composition – your ratio of muscle to body fat. Less muscle and more fat means a slower metabolism, making it far harder to lose weight. Sounds dire I know, but don’t despair. It is possible to prevent this loss of muscle tissue – and even build more – by strength training and eating the right foods. (We’ll get to that shortly!)

There are a couple of other factors affecting weight that are more directly attributable to menopause: disrupted sleep and – everyone’s favourite scapegoat – fluctuating hormones.

Disrupted Sleep

Menopause can certainly disrupt sleep patterns. It’s not uncommon to experience hot flushes, mood disorders, insomnia and – to really top things off – develop a snoring problem! Numerous studies have linked sleep deprivation to weight gain. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that a lack of sleep is going to leave you tired and disinclined to exercise. Even worse, a sleepy brain craves sugar and other junk; high-calorie/low nutrition foods that will give you a quick energy boost … but derail your diet just as quickly.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy way to fix chronic sleep disorders. I should know – I’ve tried them all. Lavender pillow sprays, sleeping in polar-like conditions, all-night tapes of whale songs … nothing has worked. If you do know of something that’s truly effective I’d love to hear from you!

Fluctuating Hormones

There’s no denying that hormone levels can fluctuate wildly during menopause. In particular, estrogen production can drop quite dramatically, and low estrogen levels promote more fat storage in the belly area.

For most women, simple health and lifestyle changes will be enough to manage this symptom of menopause and lose weight. However, some women, in more extreme cases, may need to consider a form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). If you feel that this could be an issue for you, I suggest you consult with a healthcare professional in order to properly assess your hormone levels. If your estrogen levels are found to be low you can discuss the various options available, weigh up the pros and cons, and make an informed decision about an appropriate treatment program.

As you have no doubt found in your own life, we women experience fluctuating hormones throughout every stage of our lives – during puberty, adolescence, pregnancy, periods of stress etc – and we are able to lose weight during all these times (except pregnancy perhaps!) So don’t be too quick to single out hormones as the culprit; at least not until you have tried the diet and exercise suggestions I am recommending.

That’s right, I said: diet and exercise! If you were expecting me to have a revolutionary solution to lose weight during menopause, I’m very sorry to disappoint you. There’s no supplement or combination of foods or wonder cream that you can buy to magic away the weight. However, you can certainly eat in a way that will optimize weight loss during menopause, and you can turn your body into a veritable fat burning machine with the right training program.

I’ll start with diet, because what you eat is by far the most important piece of any weight loss puzzle.

My diet to lose weight during menopause

As I said earlier, the principles of losing weight during menopause are not all that different to losing weight at other times. In my case, I lost over 60 pounds while going through perimenopause, just before turning fifty. While my symptoms were never severe, I certainly experienced my fair share of hot flushes, unpredictable hormones, mood swings and frustrating weight plateaus. Nevertheless, I stuck with it and was successful. I’m going to share with you now the diet I followed five years ago to lose weight. I’ll also tell you about the latest research that can help make your diet even more effective during menopause.

I based my diet on good old fashioned calorie counting. While many diets dictate that you eat the same number of calories daily, I ate between 1000 and 1600 calories a day. That may seem like quite a large range, but our bodies are very smart and will quickly adapt to any routine, including the number of calories they are fed. Your body starts to become fuel efficient, and this can cause your weight loss to slow, or even stop. I discovered that simply varying my calorie intake throughout the week was the best way to prevent such a plateau.

The bulk of my diet consisted of healthy, natural, unprocessed foods. Plenty of fruit and non-starchy vegetables. I ate more of the lower-sugar fruits like berries, apples, pears, oranges and melons, and less of the higher-sugar fruits like grapes, mango and banana. Lots of greens like spinach and rocket, broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, salads, capsicum, mushrooms etc, and just small servings of the starchier, more calorie-dense vegetables like sweet potato and corn.

Most mornings I enjoyed a high fibre cereal for breakfast with low fat soy milk and fruit. I typically made a big salad for lunch with some protein, like a small tin of salmon. I’d often add a little brown rice and toasted pine nuts to my salad. I always tried to make my meals a bit fancy and appetizing (and still do).

I’ve never been much of a snacker, but if I was hungry in the afternoon I’d have a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, half a protein bar or a little pack of roasted chickpea nuts.

Dinner was always some form of protein like grilled fish or baked chicken, and a big pile of assorted steamed veggies. Every evening I saved 150 – 200 of my allotted calories for a treat. This would be absolutely anything I wanted, which was pretty much always chocolate or ice cream. Allowing myself this daily indulgence was essential to my success because it stopped cravings from building up, so I didn’t feel the urge to binge. It also gave me something delicious to look forward to every evening – so important when you’re looking at many long months of dieting!

It took me about four months to lose the first forty pounds. I was doing very little exercise to start with – just a walk most days – so my diet worked very well for me, and I believe it will work for you, too. However, if I was trying to lose weight today I would upgrade this diet and make it even more effective by including more healthy fats.

Add some healthy fats

The jury is still out on whether healthy fats help to reduce the severity of menopause symptoms, but regardless, I would still add a small serving of healthy fat to every meal and snack if you’re trying to lose weight. Healthy fats are an essential nutrient, just like protein and carbohydrates, and they’re vital for many bodily functions, including metabolism.

Healthy fats also make your meals more delicious, luxurious and satiating. You’ll find them in olives, avocados, nuts and seeds (and their respective oils), oily fish such as tuna and salmon, and – my personal favourite – dark chocolate. Word of warning though: healthy fats are high in calories, so you do need to watch the portions, and I would eat them in place of some other foods – swapping out cereal for nuts and seeds for example.

If you’d like to know more about healthy fat servings, and see all these diet guidelines incorporated into an easy-to-follow plan, take a look at my new FAB DIET. I actually designed it for fast weight loss and boosted immunity during the coronavirus lockdown, but it will work beautifully for menopause as well.

Strength training – the magic starts here!

Remember how I mentioned muscle mass, and how we lose it as we age? Well happily, this condition is preventable, and even reversible, by strength training.

You may be thinking that doing lots of cardio exercise is the key to losing stubborn weight. Yes, cardio is great for your heart, and a brisk walk in the fresh air is a fabulous mood lifter, but too much cardio can actually be detrimental because it doesn’t help to build muscle, and can even cause it to break down. The only way to halt muscle loss, and develop new muscle, is by strength training.

Strength training is any exercise where you are working against some form of resistance. If you are just starting out, your own body weight provides all the resistance you need to give your body a great workout. Body weight exercises include squats, push-ups and triceps dips. To see an example of a body weight workout that’s ideal for beginners, have a look at my 30MINUTE FULL BODY WORKOUT. There’s no equipment and I do the whole workout with you, so it’s simple to follow.

Once you get used to resistance training and start feeling and seeing the results you’ll be hooked, and want to do more. Lifting weights allows you to increase the intensity of your workouts, by gradually increasing the size of the weights as you get stronger. There are also infinitely more exercises you can perform with weights, and so much more you can achieve. You can target literally any muscles in your body, allowing you to correct imbalances, (one side of the body is often stronger than the other) focus on certain areas for a specific purpose (powerful arms for tennis, strong legs for skiing etc) or totally sculpt and reshape your whole body.

When beginning to train with weights, it’s of utmost importance that you learn to do each exercise with perfect form, to avoid injuring yourself. Where possible, use a mirror to check yourself. I also recommend you start with a personal trainer, who will design a program to suit your goals, and show you how to do all the exercises properly. Alternatively, there are many excellent tutorials online that will show you all the basics; just be sure to take it slow, and don’t try to lift anything heavy until you’re ready. More experienced exercisers may enjoy some of my own strength training workouts. You’ll find all my routines HERE.

So, there you have it!

These are the diet and exercise strategies that enabled me to lose weight during menopause. I hope you found this blog helpful and would love to hear your feedback. Also, if you have any experience or advice of your own, especially with regards to HRT or sleep issues, I invite you to share it in the comments below.

Love Lisa

* The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Vol 58, Issue 10, Oct 2003