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Menopause belly

Have you been following the same diet and exercise plan for a while and all of a sudden you’re gaining weight in your belly? If you’re a woman approaching your 40’s and 50’s, this could be the dreaded “menopause belly.”

The menopause belly is a term used to describe the physical changes in the belly before and during menopause. These changes can cause bloating and increased belly fat, dampening your confidence. If you are in perimenopause or menopause, you may be starting to experience this and wonder how you can gain control of it.

Perimenopause is the timeframe preceding menopause and usually begins around age 40 (but can be as low as the late 30’s in some women). This stage can last as long as ten years and can be the gradual beginning of menopause symptoms such as abdominal weight gain, hot flashes, and more. 

But, the menopause belly doesn’t have to be your fate. Let’s talk about how to handle menopause belly fat with simple diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits you can start incorporating today.

What is menopause belly?

Menopause belly is weight gain and bloating centered around the midsection, often with a subsequent decrease in muscle mass. This usually occurs as women enter menopause, but some women may start to notice these physical changes sooner.

When this happens, you may notice an increase in softness in your belly area or that your stomach is sticking out more than usual. You may also experience constipation, bloat, or general abdominal discomfort.

If you’re dealing with this now or are starting to, it’s important to remember that it’s common and that it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. There are real causes for menopause belly, but this means there are also real solutions!

What causes menopause belly?

Menopause belly can be caused by a number of precipitating factors such as:

Hormone changes

When hormone levels, such as estrogen start to fall, this causes a decrease in overall muscle mass and a higher percentage of body fat. This increased body fat tends to accumulate around the abdominal area, mainly in the form of visceral fat that builds around internal organs.

Reduced physical activity

The perimenopause and menopause stage is often a busy time, where you may be taking care of children, aging parents, and in the prime of your career. These things can make it harder to find the time to maintain your usual physical activity level. You may also have health concerns or a past injury that has forced you to dial down your exercise regimen, where you may be burning fewer calories in a given day.

Sleep changes

Sleep alterations are common during this stage and can result from anxiety from increased cortisol levels or mood swings that make it hard to wind down. You may also experience night sweats that make it hard to fall asleep or wake you up in the middle of the night. 

A lack of quality sleep can leave you feeling less motivated to exercise and can increase your cravings for high-sugar, high-calorie foods.

Reduced calorie-burning efficiency

As you approach menopause, your body’s ability to burn calories decreases. This means that on any given day, you may burn at least 200 calories less than you did before. With this change, you may have to work out more or eat fewer calories to get the same desired calorie deficit.

Stress

Stress can also contribute to belly fat gain. Chronic stress during this stage raises cortisol levels, the “fight-or-flight” hormone that can increase glucose (blood sugar) production. This increase in glucose then increases body fat, primarily in the abdominal region. 

Genetics

If your close family members tend to store fat in their bellies, you’ll have a higher likelihood of doing this, too. However, don’t let this discourage you from incorporating healthier habits, as your lifestyle is a more significant part of your results than your genes.

How to lose menopause belly fat

Menopause belly

There are several ways to reduce menopause belly through your diet, exercise routine, and lifestyle.

Diet

As you approach this stage, you’ll want to assess your total calorie intake. Many of my clients say they are eating as much as they always have but are starting to gain weight. Sometimes, this is true, but other times, they may not realize how much they’re eating until they actually track it.

I’d suggest tracking your food intake for a week in a calorie-counting app such as Lose It! (my clients’ favorite) or MyFitnessPal to see where you’re at. You may be eating well but taking in more than you think. Or, extra calories can sometimes sneak in from picking on snacks while cooking, alcohol, or sweet treats.

Once you figure out the amount of calories you should be taking in (the calorie-counting apps can do this for you), then it’s about what to eat.

Overall, a Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to support the maintenance of lean muscle mass and reduce menopause weight gain. Over the past few years, U.S. News and World Report has also ranked it as the #1 healthiest diet.

You should eat plenty of high-fiber fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. Some sources say you should also limit your intake of refined carbs like bread and pasta while increasing protein and healthy fat. How low you’d want to go with carbs will depend on the person and their physical activity level (very active people need carbs!).

At the same time, you’ll want to limit foods that can exacerbate bloating and weight gain, such as salty snacks like potato chips, high-sodium frozen meals, and high-calorie, sugary foods like pizza, fried foods, baked goods, soda, and juice.

Alcohol

Alcohol can also contribute to the menopause belly (and belly weight gain at any stage of life). While this doesn’t mean you can never have a drink, you’ll want to limit your intake in a given week and make lower-calorie choices when you do indulge. Alcohol not only adds calories and sugar to your day but can also lead you to make poor food choices you would have better willpower to avoid otherwise. 

In fact, some studies show consuming alcohol before or during a meal can increase food intake by up to 30%!

If you can, stick to 1-3 drinks per week at the most, choose lower-calorie choices, and don’t start drinking if you aren’t already. If you’re not sure how to lower your intake, try to reserve your cocktail for a special occasion that week or for your favorite drink. This will make that cocktail more enjoyable and also reduce the chances of you having a drink just because.

Exercise

According to the Office on Women’s Health, women lose anywhere from 3-5% of their muscle mass every decade after age 30. The good news is that upping your physical activity can slow down this muscle loss.

Whether you’re currently exercising or not, now is the time to prioritize it even more. The first thing to focus on is what you enjoy doing because this will ensure consistency. If you’re already doing something you enjoy, you’ll want to up the intensity, duration, or frequency and try new things. 

While you may be tempted to really isolate your abs in your workouts to work that area specifically, your body is not very efficient in burning fat in just one area. What will actually happen is that you’ll lose fat all around your body by exercising regularly, which will also include some loss in the belly area.

Cardiovascular exercise

The general recommendation during this time is to engage in cardiovascular exercise for at least 150 minutes per week plus a minimum of two days of full-body strength training. Cardio exercises may include power walking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, or HIIT workouts. These help you burn calories to keep you in a calorie balance (or deficit) for maintaining or losing weight.

Strength training

Strength training exercises should also be performed regularly, as these help to preserve your muscle mass and counteract some of that natural loss that occurs. Heavier weight is better depending on your fitness level, but bodyweight exercises are fine too if you’re just starting out. 

An example of a weekly workout routine following these guidelines may be 30 minutes of power walking five days a week and two 30-minute strength workouts per week. 

What is the moral of the story? The body gets used to a certain level of physical activity, and after a while, it needs to be modified to keep your body functioning optimally.

Managing Stress 

As mentioned earlier, stress is linked to belly fat gain due to rising cortisol levels. Managing your stress in a healthier way (rather than stress-eating) can help you eat better and reduce the amount of weight you hold in your belly.

To quelch stress, look at your schedule and find ways to make it more manageable and not quite as packed. You can also add daily self-care or stress-relieving practices such as yoga, meditation, reading a book, or going for a morning walk. 

Remember that you don’t have to do anything extravagant to relieve stress, like getting a full-body massage or taking a weekend-long trip. The little daily practices have a profound impact and don’t take much of your time or money to incorporate.

I also help my clients make a “non-food coping mechanisms” list they can turn to whenever they need a healthier outlet. If you’re still feeling stressed or overwhelmed despite daily practices, consider consulting a mental health professional for more support.

Bottom line/CTA

If you’re struggling with menopause belly or you’re trying to get ahead of it, modifying your diet, upping your exercise, and managing your stress can help. While it may seem like menopause weight gain is inevitable, it doesn’t need to happen to you and doesn’t need to be so profound.

The sooner you get a handle on menopause weight gain, the easier it will be to manage. If you need individualized guidance and accountability to ensure you’re doing the right things (while still enjoying life!), contact me to schedule a free nutrition strategy call.
In my sustainable weight loss program, I have worked with hundreds of women to lose weight in a healthy way, including those during perimenopause and menopause. If they can do it, you can, too.