Menopause and weight gain

Posted on December 12, 2011

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Since I have a good amount of female clients who are around the age of menopause, whether pre, during, or post, the issue of menopause and fat loss comes up a fair amount.

Does this sound familiar?

“Well, I can’t lose weight because I’m going through menopause.” Or, “I can’t lose weight because I’m postmenopausal. My doctor said whatever weight I was right before I went through menopause is what I’ll probably be the rest of my life.”

People looove excuses. Is this just another one? Or is there actually some truth to menopausal weight gain?

Losing muscle

One of the most commonly cited reasons for gaining weight during menopause is women lose a lot of muscle during menopause, muscle burns calories, so, because you aren’t burning as many calories any more, you gain weight.

And pretty much every study out there looking at body composition changes during and after menopause find that menopause is the primary culprit for the loss of muscle. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s a primary culprit for weight gain after menopause.

A pound of muscle actually only burns about 8 calories, A DAY. Let’s say that menopause causes you to lose 5 pounds of muscle. You are now only burning 40 calories less per day from muscle. Furthermore, if that 5lb loss of muscle is accompanied by a 5lb gain in fat, which is often the case, well, fat actually burns calories too. About 3 calories per day per pound. You might be burning 40 calories less per day from losing the muscle but you’re still burning 15 calories from the fat gain. (5lbs x 3 calories per pound = 15.)

In our 5lb swing example losing muscle from menopause might cause you to be burning 25 calories less per day. (You were burning 40 calories but you now you are only burning 15.) Or about as many calories as your half-and-half in your coffee has. Hardly worth worrying about.

But my metabolism just isn’t what it used to be. Especially after menopause.

An often neglected part of losing weight postmenopause is the fact that you’re getting older as you go through menopause. As well as in the subsequent postmenopausal years. It’s been pretty well established, and as anyone of your elders will tell you, people gain weight as they get older. So, how do you know if the weight gain after menopause is from menopause or from the fact that you’re getting older?

To differentiate between the two a few studies have done something like this: Take a group of women between say 42 and 50. Examine how much weight gain occurs in the women who go through menopause and how much weight gain occurs in the women who don’t.

What difference do they find between the two women? They don’t find any difference. Women who go through menopause gain the same amount of weight as women who are the same age and don’t go through menopause. It’s their age -and all the things that come about from getting older- that is causing their weight gain. Not the menopause. This is congruent with the above statements on how losing some muscle in exchange for some fat isn’t going to have a big impact on how many calories you burn each day.

Ok, fine. I might not be gaining any more weight than if I didn’t go through menopause, but since I’ve gone through menopause now I can’t lose weight!

For some reason there doesn’t appear to be a lot of research designed around comparing weight loss in women who are postmenopausal and those who aren’t. There are two studies that examine weight loss as a secondary measure though. Unfortunately, neither of these studies have a non-menopausal group to compare to, but I don’t think that’s an issue for the following:

In the first study, found here, the women were directed to decrease their calories by about 300 calories per day. A pretty small reduction. They were told to do this for 6 months.

For an average person, a dietitian, nutritionist, or somebody trying to help you lose weight will decrease your calories by a certain amount in hopes that, if you follow the guidelines, you will lose a certain amount of weight by a certain time period.

For example, there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat. A dietitian might say decrease your calories by 500 per day so that you lose 1 pound of fat per week. (500 calories per day X  7 days per week = 3500 calories per week = 1 pound of fat per week.)

Things can go awry in all kinds of ways with this. People might decrease their activity causing the projection to get messed up, their metabolism might change, etc.

Back to this study, a 300 calorie reduction per day, for 6 months, will project to about 14 pounds of fat lost over 6 months. Again, this is an average projection. It’s not perfect.

According to people’s theories postmenopausal women would be a case where this would project too high due to postmenopausal supposedly having horrible metabolisms. I mean, I have seriously heard multiple women tell me either they or their doctor believe whatever their weight was before menopause is what they’ll be the rest of their life.

How much weight did these women in the study lose? On average…14 pounds. They lost just as much as anybody should have lost.

“They must have lost all their muscle!”

Ehh. Of the 14 pounds lost about 13 of it was fat.

The other study went for a year and had a slightly different diet. After a year they observed an average weight loss of about 30 pounds. Found here.

There’s just nothing to suggest that postmenopausal women can’t lose weight. I always say to this demographic, “If I locked you in a cage for a week without food, do you really think you wouldn’t lose weight?” Invariably they respond they would.

The whole argument just makes no sense. I bet this is why there really isn’t that much research comparing postmenopausal weight loss to non-postmenopausal. A physiologist worth anything knows how much somebody weighs is a direct result of how much they eat. Postmenopausal women don’t defy the laws of physics.

My experience with clients has been very similar to what the research says. I vividly remember the first woman who brought this up to me. She fought me on this issue for months. Finally I brought in the two above studies, highlighted how much weight the women lost and mentioned to her how the diet they used for these women is actually a very subpar diet (nowhere near enough protein).

She finally relented, decided to count her calories for a little while, and voila, lost about 25 pounds.

Some things that do happen

I don’t want to discount the fact that things of course do happen during menopause.

For instance, postmenopausal women change where they store their fat. As many women know, fat around the hips and thighs seems impossible to get rid of, except after menopause. Postmenopausal women are notorious for no longer storing as much fat in their legs, but storing more in their stomach. They move fat from one location to another.

(If you’re curious women who just had a baby experience this same phenomenon. The fat moves from their legs and into their breasts. One reason thigh fat is so hard to get rid of for women is because that fat is used during lactation. As a woman your body is more concerned with having children than looking good in your Jimmy Choos.)

Next, estrogen levels plummet after menopause. There is some good, recent evidence suggesting that higher estrogen levels help to suppress appetite. In a postmenopausal woman this would work in reverse: Lower estrogen levels could possibly lead to an increased appetite.

Perhaps this is one reason why postmenopausal women find it harder to lose weight. They have a hormonal profile more conducive to overeating than they used to.

That doesn’t mean they can’t lose weight though. Yes, it might be a little bit harder. But it’s nothing many, many other women haven’t done.

Summing up

This whole thing reminds me of the, “Once I turned 30 I just got fat” nonsense. As if the body turns 30 years old and all of a sudden decides to get fat.

A little weight lifting and a little discipline with food intake and I don’t see much reason why menopause has to have much, if any effect on one’s body composition.

References

This study goes over menopause causing body composition changes and how there are no differences between weight gain in menopausal and non-menopausal women:

Weight gain at the time of menopause

 

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Posted in: Losing weight