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Why Menopause Leads to Stubborn Weight Gain - and How to Reverse it

When I was working in finance, a very senior partner of the firm once reminded me “Life’s not fair.” I forget the exact context triggering the phrase, but the truth of that phrase has stuck with me for many years, and I confess to having referenced it one time too many with both my children, and they aren’t even teenagers yet. 

I think being a woman holds many advantages. Truly. However, it is a fair statement to say that women, while having made significant strides in workplace equality, have yet to reach the deserved parity. Life’s not fair. On the whole, we women are held to a higher standard across the board in order to shine in the same way as our male counterparts.

We progress through life, juggling career with the common complexity of home and family life. As we reach our late forties and early fifties, that’s when it should be getting easier. We’ve made our mark in our careers, kids no longer need the attention they used to need (or rather it’s just a different kind of attention), and the angst, insecurity, and anxiety we used to carry with us are somewhat in the rearview mirror. And then BAM!!, welcome to menopause. WTF?

As many of you who are familiar with Plantable know, we always defer to science. I became very interested in wanting to understand the association between menopause and weight gain, particularly understanding the weight gain around the belly. Over the years, we’ve had many women come to the Reboot to lose those extra 10, 20, or even 30+ lbs that have amassed steadily since the peri- and post-menopause years: those stubborn three or so pounds that consistently appear year after year. 

In my quest for science, I initially found that articles linked menopausal weight gain to a decrease in estrogen levels, which was linked in turn to a decrease in metabolism. It was supposedly “our fault” that we women, with the passing of age, didn’t realize that we were eating more and moving less. I did not buy it. I knew brilliant, active, educated women whose bodies were simply processing the same food in a different way. Menopausal weight gain was not a simple calorie in, calorie out argument (which we know is flawed). There was something else going on.

Enter insulin.

Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas to regulate our blood sugar. It removes glucose from the blood and stores it in our cells as fat. As we move through menopause, estrogen levels decrease, which does negatively impact our metabolism, requiring fewer calories to fuel our basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories needed to keep the “lights on” in the body, keep us breathing etc.). However, what is not so well known is that estrogen is also linked to insulin, and as estrogen levels drop, we become more sensitive to insulin giving rise to a condition known as Insulin Resistance. What is Insulin Resistance? It is a condition that means, like for like, we need to release more insulin to regulate the same levels in blood sugar. So we are producing more of a hormone that is now storing that energy as fat, which is why it becomes stubbornly hard to lose weight. Simple carbohydrates, especially sugar, and alcohol fuel this mechanism, and that incremental stored fat is most commonly stored around the liver and the visceral organs. Hello belly jiggle. This, combined with reduced metabolism, gives rise to the double whammy effect, and that’s the 101 of why women put on stubborn weight in their menopausal years, especially around their tummies. Yep, life’s not bloody fair. 

So what can we do to lose that stubborn menopausal weight and keep our hormonal good health on track?

1. Reduce consumption of simple carbohydrates
The number one culprit here is sugar. Period. That includes the finest Vermont maple syrup and regal honey, both forms of added sugar that quickly spike insulin levels. And because this sugar breaks down quickly to glucose (blood sugar) and fructose, the fructose goes on to be metabolized and stored largely in the liver. Hence, the belly fat. In addition to eliminating sugar, swap those refined carbs (think pasta, white rice, bread, pretzel chips) for their (truly) wholegrain counterparts . You’ll also want to cut back on alcohol and save it for that special weekend occasion and eliminate all sugary drinks or juices. 

2. Build up muscle mass
To top it all off, the menopausal years cause a significant decline in muscle mass, which in turn augments the decline in metabolism. So rather than pounding the treadmill, shift some of those cardio activities to simple muscle building exercises for improved muscle mass.

3. Consider combining intermittent fasting with a Plantable diet
A Plantable diet alone will keep your insulin low and trigger weight loss in the first week. But by combining it with a narrowed eating window, you’ll further reduce your insulin sensitivity by forcing your cells to re-convert that stored energy into glucose the body needs, thereby improving metabolic health.

4. Drink more water
Flushing your body with water will help decrease the bloating that goes hand in hand with increased belly fat, and it’s great for your skin too.

In summary: the hormonal impact of the menopausal years is real. While sources often speak of the common side effects such as hot flashes, few focus on the metabolic changes that are taking place. The increased levels of insulin sensitivity, if left unchecked, can lead to early chronic diseases such as pre-diabetes and high cholesterol. Understanding what is happening in the body allows us to take back some of the control and keep our health in optimal shape. In need of some extra help? Our 28-day Reboot program can accompany you on the journey to better hormonal health.