Are you noticing a little extra belly fat as you enter menopause? It’s completely normal for the menopausal hormone shift to cause changes in fat distribution—even if your lifestyle hasn’t changed. Here’s what you should know about hormonal belly fat.
Weight gain, including belly fat, is the result of a few factors: how many calories you consume during the day, how many calories you burn off through daily exercise, your age and the amount of muscle mass in your body. As you get older, your muscle mass decreases and your fat increases. Those two things coupled with decreasing levels of estrogen during menopause can cause women to develop belly fat.
Gaining and storing fat may also depend on unique factors such as your genetic inheritance, your gut microbiome, your sleep schedule, your daily stressors, and your past exposure to environmental pollutants. Some of these may be under your control, while others are not. In other words, there are many causes of weight gain that can interact in complex ways.
During the reproductive years, most cisgender women have a “pear-shaped” body type. Their body fat tends to be concentrated around the hips, rear, and breasts. This fat is subcutaneous, meaning it resides just beneath the skin.
After menopause, body shape changes to the “apple shape,” in which fat is concentrated around the midsection. This fat is called visceral or abdominal fat. It lies deeper in the body than subcutaneous fat and it wraps around your organs such as your liver, stomach and intestines.
Genetic and environmental factors determine the amount of visceral fat you collect in your body. Genetics determine your body shape and how your body stores visceral fat.
Environmental factors such as diet and exercise play a key role as well. A poor diet with high intake of fatty foods and carbohydrates (sugars) and an inactive lifestyle increase the likelihood of having visceral fat as you age.
Stress activates a hormone in your body called cortisol. An increase in cortisol activates your body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which can trigger the storage of more visceral fat.
When it comes to belly fat, your hormone profile may play an especially important role as menopause can trigger changes in fat distribution.
During menopause, your estrogen levels fall significantly and this is a critical factor in fat distribution. Estrogen—the most important sex hormone—is what triggers the growth of secondary sex characteristics (e.g. breast and waist fat) during the teenage years. When estrogen begins to decline, your body composition begins to change.
This is why estrogen and visceral fat have an inverse relationship: the higher your estrogen, the lower your visceral fat, and vice versa.
Weight loss is a bumpy road for many people. If you’re trying to change your shape, please gather all the resources you can and work closely with your healthcare provider. Doing so will help you succeed while nourishing yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Research shows that the most effective exercise regimen for weight management during menopause is a combination of aerobics, strength training, and balance exercises like yoga. This blend of exercises may also help offer protection against other symptoms of menopause. For instance, strength training can support your bone health and muscle mass, both of which tend to decline after the menopause transition. Similarly, aerobic exercise can protect your heart from the worsening health that sometimes follows menopause.
Think you don’t have the time or energy for a workout? A slew of recent research has shown that intense micro-workouts can reap most of the fitness rewards associated with prolonged exercise. You may only need to get vigorously active for 30 seconds to one minute, several times a day. (Think sprinting up a few flights of stairs or doing 10 burpees.)
The desire to lose weight may lead you straight to dieting. Unfortunately, many fad diets simply don’t create sustainable results. One exception is the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet is less of a “diet” (in the popular sense) and more of an eating pattern. It prioritizes fruits, nuts, veggies, legumes, healthy fats, and whole grains, while meat, sweets, dairy, refined grains, and processed food are consumed in much smaller quantities. Research has demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet can help people lose weight and maintain muscle mass after menopause.
Sleep is a cornerstone of good health—and it may be more important than ever during menopause when your body is adjusting to deep hormonal changes. Research shows that sleep interruptions during menopause may cause your body to burn less fat, potentially increasing weight gain.
The best way to get more sleep during menopause is to practice good sleep hygiene. That means keeping your bedroom quiet and dark, turning off electronic screens several hours before bed, following a consistent bedtime schedule, avoiding caffeine after 2pm, and only using your bed for sleep (no phones or TV).
Given the hormonal changes that come with menopause, it can be a stressful time. Research has demonstrated that this stress has an unmistakable influence on weight. One 2022 study found that stress plays a “decisive role” in the development and progression of overweight and obesity.
One solution may be mindfulness-based stress reduction. A 2022 study of menopause and stress showed that mindfulness techniques can reduce stress and improve sleep quality. Research has also shown that weight loss programs are more successful when they include a stress management program. There are plenty of mindfulness resources online. Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm make it easy to get started and keep up the habit.
Menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) uses estrogen medication to support your falling natural hormones. It is the gold standard treatment for hot flashes and night sweats, as well as a range of other menopause symptoms such as depression and insomnia.
MHT is the only treatment that can potentially address the root cause of menopausal body changes: estrogen deficiency. By raising your estrogen levels, it may help reverse the visceral weight gain that comes along with menopause. If you’re interested in menopausal hormone therapy, talk to your Evernow provider and see if the treatment is a good fit for you.
Hormonal belly fat is a normal part of menopause, but that doesn’t mean you have to live with it. Holistic wellness strategies like reasonable exercise, stress management, and sustainable eating patterns may help you reverse menopausal weight gain, while hormone therapy can help you address the estrogen deficiency that causes it.