How Menopause Affects Body Composition and Weight and What You Can Do About It

How Menopause Affects Body Composition and Weight

One of the concerns that women have as they approach menopause is the possibility of weight gain. It’s no secret that many women gain weight as they go through menopause. In addition, hormone replacement therapy has become less popular in the last few years after studies showed a link between HRT and breast cancer. How does menopause affect body weight and body composition – and does hormone replacement therapy prevent these changes?

Menopause and Body Composition

During the reproductive years when estrogen levels are high, women tend to store more fat around their hips, thighs and buttocks. This is a direct result of higher estrogen levels. As menopause approaches and estrogen levels drop, women usually experience redistribution of fat as fat stores increase in the abdominal region and waistline as opposed to the lower body. Even more disturbingly, visceral fat increases – and that’s not a good thing.

Visceral fat is fat that lies deep in the abdominal cavity. It’s distinct from the subcutaneous fat you can easily see and “pinch.” Subcutaneous fat may not be pretty to look at, but visceral fat is the bigger villain when it comes to health. Visceral fat has been linked with a greater risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Another factor comes into play too. At least in rats, leptin levels rise with menopause. This leads to an increase in appetite and a slow-down in metabolism.

Hormone Replacement Therapy, Estrogen and Belly Fat

Can a woman avoid changes in body composition by taking hormone replacement therapy? There is some evidence that hormone replacement therapy prevents belly fat gains that happen after menopause.

In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers compared changes in weight and body fat among women taking hormone replacement therapy to those only taking calcium. Both groups were similar in body weight and body composition at the beginning of the study. After twelve months, the group that took only calcium experienced small increases in weight, body fat and an increase in abdominal fat, while the group who took hormone replacement therapy experienced no change in body weight, body fat or fat distribution.

An Alternative to HRT for Preventing Belly Fat after Menopause

There’s good news for women who don’t want to take hormone replacement therapy but don’t want more belly fat either. Research shows that exercise, especially high-intensity aerobic exercise and resistance training, offer some protection against these changes. High-intensity exercise increases levels of growth hormone and other fat-burning hormones that help to keep belly fat in check, while resistance training builds lean body mass. Women lose lean body mass at a faster rate as they approach menopause and resistance training offsets some of this loss. Having more lean body mass also reduces the drop in metabolism that happens with age. Independent of weight, high-intensity exercise and resistance training also preserves bone mass and reduces the risk of osteoporosis, a common disease among women after menopause.

Of course, diet is also a factor. By the time a woman reaches menopause, she needs 150 to 200 fewer calories than she did in her 20s. Unfortunately, many women continue to eat the same number of calories as they age and gradually put on weight. Eating a diet that emphasizes whole foods rather than processed ones and consuming a lean source of protein with every meal along with high-fiber vegetables helps to keep insulin levels in check. That’s important since insulin is a fat-storage hormone.

The Bottom Line?

Women who are sedentary may see noticeable changes in waist circumference and belly fat as they go through menopause. The good news? These changes can be significantly reduced with regular aerobic and resistance-training exercised and a diet that limits processed carbohydrates. There’s also some evidence that exercise reduces hot flashes, one of the most a common complaint during menopause. The take-home message? Age shouldn’t be a limiting factor when it comes to exercise. It’s more important than ever to keep working out.

References:

Am. J. Epidemiol. (2004) 160 (9): 912-922.
Coron Artery Dis. 1998;9(8):503-11.
J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 1997 Feb; 82(2): 414-7.
Maturitas. 2000 Apr 28;35(1):25-30.

Short Summary:

Many women experience weight gain as they go through the menopausal transition and changes in body composition are also common. This article looks at the effect menopause has on body composition and whether hormone replacement therapy has an impact. More importantly, it suggests ways to prevent changes in body composition during and after menopause.