Perimenopause and Weight Gain
What is even happening to my body?
It seemed to hit me completely out of the blue. One day I was confidently strutting around town in my skinny jeans. The next I almost dislocated my knee trying to squeeze into my fat jeans (true story). I looked in the mirror and could barely recognize myself. Whose body was this? Why did I feel so tired and unmotivated all the time? How had this happened? What is the connection between perimenopause and weight gain?
The truth is that it didn’t happen overnight, rather it came on slow and steady. A pound one year, a couple the next, a few more the year after that. Before I knew it, I was up two whole dress sizes.
What was confusing about this is that I hadn’t changed any of my eating or exercise habits. I ate a healthy diet – lower carbs, tons of veggies and always protein. I still worked out a couple times a week.
In my panic, the only solution I could think of was to dial up the cardio and restrict my calories to less than 1,000 per day. That had worked for me in my 20s, so surely this was the best path to follow.
My Weight Gain
Guess what? Six months later I had gained even more weight. I was even more uncomfortable in my body and restricted my wardrobe to stretchy LuLu Lemons. And I was hungry. Man, was I hungry. Clearly, this low calorie-in / high calorie-out plan was not working!
I felt defeated and betrayed by my body. I was sad, embarrassed and frustrated. The only thing that kept me from completely hating myself was that I had other girlfriends, lots of them, who started to confess that they were feeling the same way.
As we commiserated and complained over glasses of wine (yes, I now know this is the worst thing for it!) I began to get curious. Why was this happening to so many of us?
Women, who all their lives didn’t think twice about what they consumed (my friends, not me). Women who used the gym as a runway for their cute new workout outfit, were suddenly gaining weight and started wearing baggy sweats and t-shirts to the gym as they mercilessly pushed themselves through hours and hours of intense cardio.
We all felt like crap, we couldn’t lose weight and none of us could understand or explain why.
Why women gain weight
I finally got fed up and decided to figure out what was happening to my body. What I discovered was fascinating. It helped me to understand my mid-life body. Allowed me to forgive my body (which hadn’t actually failed me). And taught me to be more gentle, loving and supportive towards my one-and-only incredible body.
And just-in-case you are also hating on your body and self-shaming has become a regular daily practice, know that your body hasn’t forsaken you. It’s fighting raging battles deep beneath your skin to try to keep you safe, healthy and alive. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few things that I have learned:
According to the Mayo Clinic, as women get older, they might notice that maintaining their usual weight becomes more difficult, due to the menopause transition. Menopause, perimenopause and the menopause transition causes hormonal changes which make it more likely that women gain weight around their abdomen, hips and thighs.
These hormones play a big role in our increased body fat, so let’s take a minute to unpack them a little more. Scientist have identified more than 50 hormones in the female body; I am going to focus on just a couple that impact our weight:
Estrogen, you likely know as a sex hormone. In actuality, it does much more than just regulating our menstrual cycle. It also supports our hearts, bones, breasts, skin, hair, pelvic muscles, and brains. When estrogen starts to drop in perimenopause our bodies start looking for estrogen elsewhere. As luck would have it, our fat cells turn out to be a great source and our bodies start converting all extra energy sources into fat so it can produce more estrogen.+ Now how cruel is that?
Also called the stress hormone, cortisol is mainly secreted when we are under stress (uh…most of the time), angry (more like rage, we just talked about my fluctuating hormones, right?) or anxious (of course, all this stress is making me anxious!).
What you might not know is that cortisol regulates our energy levels so we can prepare for flight or fight during stressful times. It does this by increasing the sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, while at the same time stopping our fat and muscle cells from being able to absorb this extra glucose. If that sounds like a vicious circle, it is. Especially if we’re constantly under stress. Which let’s face it, many woman are.
Insulin is a hormone that helps the body turn food (glucose) into energy that we use to breath, walk, think, and live. If we eat more than we need right away, insulin also helps to store glucose in fat cells so we can use it later. Over time, the blood sugar starts to build up in our bloodstream. The pancreas pumps out more and more insulin to try to get the blood sugar into the cells. Eventually they stop responding to the excess insulin (low estrogen and high cortisol amplifies this).
This is known as Insulin resistance. It’s a common condition that can lead to weight gain and fat distribution around the middle. Cue the dreaded belly fat. And that’s just the beginning.
Over time, Insulin resistance can lead to prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes. In addition, insulin resistance is associated with several other conditions, including: obesity, cardiovascular disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and PCOS.”
And that’s just the highlights. So now what?
How to support and regulate your hormones
There’s actually a lot of really easy things you can do to help regulate these hormones and prevent weight gain, and belly fat:
A healthy diet rich in protein, fibre, and fat is one of the best ways you can help to regulate your hormones.
Proteins are the building blocks of life; we need protein as part of our healthy diet to help our bodies repair cells and make new ones. Experts recommend no less than 25 percent of your daily calories come from lean protein.
“Dietary fibre – found mainly in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes – is probably best known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. But foods containing fibre can provide other health benefits as well, such as helping to maintain a healthy weight and lowering your risk of diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.”
Your body uses fats as building blocks for hormones, so eating healthy fats – like those found in fish, nuts, olives, avocados and coconuts – is essential in supporting healthy hormones.
Does this mean you have to say no to your favorite pizza or that incredible bowl of pasta? Absolutely not. Everything in moderation.
And a great hack I learned from The Glucose Goddess; when you do plan on enjoying your carbs, start your meal with a big salad or bowl of broccoli. Enjoying fibre before carbs helps to reduce the amount of insulin your body pumps out and can help prevent weight gain.
Building Muscles and Aerobic Exercise
As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass which slows your body’s metabolism and makes it harder for us to maintain/lose weight. Building muscle through physical activity and weight training helps to keep our metabolism firing. Extra bonus – our contracting muscles also absorb more glucose and improves insulin sensitivity.
Notice I said ‘building muscle’? That means as we get older, menopausal women need to focus our physical activity on strength training over cardio. According to the North American Menopause Society (NAMS), around age 30, we begin losing roughly 1% of our muscle mass each year.
We can reverse this process and fight weight gain (muscle burns more calories than fat) and osteoporosis by adding weight training to our exercise routine. You’ll need to work your major muscle groups – your legs, arms, core, and butt. Usie some sort of resistance (this includes body weight) until they are fatigued.
Another important exercise tip for every perimenopausal and postmenopausal women is we need to take some days each week to simple move our bodies. Go for a leisurely walk or simple stretch. This type of gentle physical activity helps us reduce stress and cortisol levels and reset our nervous system.
What woman over the age of 35 doesn’t yearn for a good night sleep? And yet how many of us actually prioritize our sleep? The truth is that sleep plays a critical role in not only our mental well being but also our ability to maintain our weight.
Sleep is a time when our bodies and minds recover and repair. Healthy sleep hygiene is critical. Here are a few great hacks:
- Turn off the screens at least an hour before bed.
- Watch what you eat/drink in the evenings.
- Try to limit caffeine consumption in the afternoons (this can also help to ward off hot flashes).
- And stick to a sleep schedule and create a restful environment
Time Restricted Eating
Time restricted eating (or as you may know it, intermittent fasting) is a way of eating that focuses on the length of your eating window vs the amount of calories you consume.
A common model is the 16/8 window – a 16 hour fasting (usually overnight) and an eight hour eating window. This may, however, be too long for women, depending on where they are in their menstrual cycle.
This eating model is really good for our bodies because it gives our digestive system a break from the daily grind. Remember our ancestors often went days and even weeks in between meals. And it can help to train our bodies to be more metabolically flexible. New research also suggests it can help improve cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and combat obesity
Breath Work and Meditation
This might seem like a strange thing to add to weight loss tips. But remember that high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, surging through our body plays a big role in weight gain. So if we can reduce our cortisol levels through lovely, gentle practices like breath work and meditation, we can help to reduce one of the factors that might contribute to weight gain.
I started my breath work /meditation practice in 2020 when my stress and weight were at their highest. I began with simple box breathing on walks in nature or while listening to a guided meditation. I don’t do calm mind well, so I found the box breathing game me something to focus on to help me stay present.
Since then I’ve invested in several breath work classes and meditation apps. And I can’t tell you how much it has changed my world. It’s amazing how quickly I can reset my day (and cortisol levels), just by slowing down and taking a few simple breaths.
Weight Loss and Body Composition
So there you have it. It’s not a plan to make the fat melt away because that’s just not realistic. But I hope this information helps you to understand that you are not a failure or less of a woman because you can’t seem to shake those extra pounds and lose weight.
Your body doesn’t hate you and isn’t being intentionally difficult. Just like you, your body is doing it’s best to figure out this new state of ever-changing normal.
Be gentle with it. Be forgiving. Be kind.
Make sure you are eating well, building muscle mass, getting lots of physical activity, enough sleep, and taking time for calming walks or quick quiet moments to slow down your mind. I guarantee that your body will thank you.