Causes Of Menopause Weight Gain: Understand It, Fight It!


Is your lithe, shapely self slipping away slowly as you gear up for menopause? Weight gain during menopause is a hard and unignorable reality many women brace themselves for.1 But if you’ve resigned yourself to this “inevitable” weight gain during menopause, stop right there! While weight gain is common around menopause, it can be controlled or even prevented – if you just arm yourself with some information and determination. Read on to understand what causes weight gain during menopause. You can then work on staying on top of them!

Weight Gain Often Begins During Perimenopause

Menopause does not come unannounced. It starts several years before the actual “event” and this pre-menopause phase is known as perimenopause. It is difficult to pinpoint when perimenopause starts – it could last anywhere from a few months to a few years. A change in your menstrual cycle is the most common indicator of perimenopause. You may start skipping periods, your cycles may become shorter or longer, or the flow may become heavier or shorter than what you are used to.2


Along with other symptoms, weight gain is often a menopausal symptom that begins during perimenopause. Clinical studies such as the 25-year Healthy Women Study show that, on an average, perimenopausal women gain 5 pounds. However, as much as 20 percent of the test subjects reported a weight gain of 10 or more pounds. Other studies among American women show significant weight gain after age 40.3

Reduced Estrogen Levels: The Main Culprit In Weight Gain

Estrogen has a vital role to play in fat distribution and storage. As your body inches towards menopause, estrogen levels dip as the amount produced by the ovaries starts to fluctuate. Other hormone levels are also affected during menopause but it is estrogen imbalance that does the most damage to your weight.


Estrogen deficiency leads to metabolic dysfunction, which in turn plays havoc with how your body handles fat.4 With declining estrogen levels, your body loses its natural preference for subcutaneous (the pinchable stuff right under the skin) storage of fat and instead starts visceral (intra-abdominal) fat storage. Menopausal women are usually found to carry extra weight around the abdomen. But on the bright side, it is easier to shed visceral fat with diet and exercise than subcutaneous fat.5

Increased Appetite: A Fallout Of Hormonal Changes

Around the time you hit menopause, you may also start noticing an increase in appetite. This is again spurred by your body’s response to hormonal changes. For instance, the “hunger hormone” ghrelin is significantly higher in perimenopausal women than in pre- and post-menopausal women. And that is not all. Low estrogen levels also impact the functioning of the hormones that control appetite and fullness – leptin and neuropeptide Y.6 A 6-week animal study at Oregon Health and Science University showed that declining hormones caused a 67 percent increase in food intake! And that naturally resulted in rapid weight gain, an average increase of about 5 percent in 6 weeks.7


Decreased Energy Expenditure

To maintain healthy body weight, we need to balance energy intake and expenditure and to lose weight, we must spend more energy than we take in. Our bodies expend energy in three ways: via basal expenditure (the amount of energy spent when the body is at rest), by digesting and absorbing food, and through physical activity.8

Your basal energy expenditure (also called basal metabolic rate or BMR), which is at its peak during infancy, declines rapidly through childhood and adolescence and continues to drop as you age. The decline in your BMR with age is largely due to the loss of muscle mass. Now muscle is metabolically active tissue that expends more calories than fat when at rest. So loss in muscle mass means a slowdown in metabolism. When this drop in BMR is accompanied by the other changes we saw, weight gain creeps up on you.9 10


Stress And Weight Gain

Stress could be a reason for weight gain during the menopausal years too. Our bodies store extra fat in times of internal or external stress as part of its survival mechanism. Menopause lands at a crossroads when women are grappling with other midlife challenges both personal and professional: career changes or bigger job responsibilities, struggles with teenage children or an empty nest, looking after aging parents – and all the resultant stress – can be an invariable part of this phase of life. Then you have the stress from menopause issues like hot flashes itself.11

When your body is stressed out, it produces hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. While adrenaline gears your body up for flight or fight, cortisol prompts it to store extra fat and energy in the eventuality of a crisis. And usually this is stored as visceral fat in your bellies. This rage of hormones can also prompt you to eat more, stress eat, and have cravings – another cog in this vicious cycle!12


Stress also often leads to sleep loss, another factor that can contribute to weight gain. Lack of sleep can hinder the balance of leptin and ghrelin levels, the chemicals that control your appetite. Some studies also categorically state that continuous loss of sleep leads to obesity.13

Lifestyle Choices

The lifestyle choices that you make in terms of diet and exercise can be as much a cause for menopausal weight gain as the changes within your body. Studies and long-term clinical trials have shown again and again that weight gain during the peri- to postmenopause phase can be controlled by definitive changes in diet and physical activity.14 You need about 200 fewer calories during midlife than you do in your 30s and early 40s. And when your activity levels fall, your BMR falls further, making it more difficult for your body to expend the energy consumed.15 16 So unless you make wise diet choices and exercise regularly, the weighing scales will tip unflatteringly.17 .


Ethnicity May Be A Factor In Weight Gain

Ethnicity might also play a small role in weight gain among women. In one University of Texas survey, weight gain was reported by 50.8 percent of Hispanic women and 54.6 percent of black women. On the other side, about 45 percent of white women and 33.3 percent of Asian women were affected.18 In another study that involved white and African American women, it was found that the latter were more predisposed to menopausal weight gain than white American women. 19