Weight gain is reported as one of the main symptoms of menopause along with hot flushes, night sweats, low mood etc. But does the menopause cause weight gain? If I simply reduce the number of calories I eat will I lose weight? Why, when I’m doing what I’ve always done to lose weight, is nothing happening? The weight is just piling on – HELP!
These are questions and statements I and many of our community make on a regular basis. It just seems so unfair that along with all the other symptoms we are dealing with, our stomachs just keep getting bigger.
The Weight Debate
Weight shouldn’t matter when in comes to how we feel about ourselves but let’s be honest it often does. Size and weight is a personal thing and it’s about what feels comfortable to you. Someone who has always been a size 10-12, creeps up to a 14 through menopause and it can feel awful, for others being a size 14 would be a dream come true. So the question is, why is this happening and what can we do about it?
There is often a debate about whether weight loss is as simple as if you consume less than you expend you will lose weight. A pound weight loss is roughly equated to around a 3500 calorie deficit, around 500 calories a day if you want to lose 1-2 pounds per week. But is it really that simple? I have so many members saying they’re working out every day and eating really healthy food and watching the amount they’re eating but their weight still keeps going up. So what’s going on?
Do we just need to eat less and move more? Or, do hormones play a part? Do we need to follow a diet that provides “metabolic advantage” as our metabolism diminishes with age?
Calories in vs. Calories out
The whole principle behind this is that weight gain or loss is a simple calculation:
- Take in more calories than you burn = weight gain
- Take in less calories than you burn = weight loss
This is based on scientific research based in a laboratory where energy in and out are looked at in isolation.
In real life we have all the complexities of our bodies and external factors that can affect this Energy Balance Equation.
We also often don’t consider how our brain affects our weight. Our brain is the boss. It is constantly monitoring what we need. Messages are being sent in and out from all over our bodies – our gut, hormones, organs, muscles, bones, fat cells – it’s a lot to listen to. In menopause, if you consider how much our hormones are fluctuating and how this shows in the many different symptoms, it’s no wonder that our brain gets confused about what on earth is going on. This infographic from Precision Nutrition explains brilliantly the factors that can influence our energy in and energy out:
Just look at how many of these are influenced by our hormones. So does this mean we should ignore calories in vs. calories out? Unfortunately not but your body is changing so your Energy Balance Equation may also be changing.
There’s no getting around it: If you aren’t losing weight, you either need to decrease “energy in” or increase “energy out.” As you can see from above, this may not be as simple as trying to eat less and pushing yourself harder at the gym.
Because our hormones play such an important part in our bodies we need to consider what we can do to manage the impact they have:
- Sleep – I know this is tough for many of us but you have to get your sleep sorted if you want to lose weight. This will allow your body to better regulate hunger hormones, improve recovery, and increase metabolic output
- Stress – again this has a huge impact on how our bodies cope with all the changes of menopause. Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and spending time in nature can have a hugely positive impact.
- Think about your ‘NEAT’ – Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – how active you are when you’re not exercising – could you walk more, take the stairs, have walking meetings etc.?
- How balanced are your exercise sessions? Stressing your body by killing yourself with high-intensity exercise sessions might not be the right thing for you. Focus on introducing some strength sessions and lower-intensity activities, in order to aid recovery and reduce stress.
- Focus on the quality of your food, rather that the quantity. It’s amazing how much more you can eat when you’re filling your body with high quality food. This will enable you to naturally eat less calories without necessarily counting calories.
- Think about macronutrients – how much protein, healthy fats, fibre do you have in your diet? Do you have a good balance to fuel your body well?
- Do you think about when you eat and really listen to your body? There are a million diets out on the market, some saying always eat breakfast, others talk about fasting, no carb, low fat … The list goes on. Find what works for you and really start to listen to your body and question why you’re eating what you’re eating and when.
- Consider tracking your calories if you want to find out what’s going on. For some people the thought of doing this is horrific and it’s got to be right for you. The benefit of doing this for even a few days allows you to take a really honest look at what you are eating. It also allows you to understand what a portion size actually is. With many clients I will ask them to cut a block of 30g of cheese (around 125 calories). Almost always, most people with cut around 60-100g (250-400 calories). If we’re overestimating this easily you can start to see why our weight can increase.
Your main focus is all about balance – you’re looking for anything that could be out of sync.
I’ve taken some examples from Precision Nutrition on the types of challenges I feel we all face as menopausal women:
“I’ve been eating the same way forever, but suddenly I started gaining weight.”
This is how it feels to many of us but in reality the“energy in” or “energy out” will have changed, but in a way that might feel out of control or unnoticeable.
The culprit could be:
- Slight increases in food intake, due to changes in mood, hunger, or stress
- An increase in the amount of energy absorbed—caused by new medication, an unknown medical condition, or a history of chronic dieting
- Physiological changes that resulted in fewer calories burned during exercise and at rest
- The onset of chronic pain, provoking a dramatic decrease in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)
- Significant changes to sleep quality and/or quantity, impacting metabolic output and/or food consumed
Understanding that these may all play a part, helps us to understand what is going on and that we need to make further changes to manage our weight.
“My hormones are wreaking havoc on my metabolism, and I can’t stop gaining weight. Help!”
It’s very easy to blame our hormones for any weight gain and although they’re probably not to blame as often as we think, hormones are intricately entwined with energy balance.
But even so, they don’t operate independently of energy balance. In other words, we don’t gain weight because of “hormones.” We gain weight because our hormones are impacting on our energy balance.
This often happens during menopause or when thyroid hormone levels decline. If your hormone imbalance causes you to experience a metabolic slow down of even 100 calories a day thats 700 per week. That could mean roughly 1lb a month weight gain, adding almost a stone in weight over a year.
So what can you do about this. Firstly you need to understand exactly how much you are consuming and decide what changes you are willing to make. If you feeling you’re eating the same and exercising the same as you’ve always done but the weight is creeping on, then it’s time for a change. I know it’s hard and it feels ridiculously unfair but we need to change our mindset in how we feel about our changing bodies. Menopause is a time when we need to take a different approach, we need to be kinder to our bodies, we need to nourish them and we need to look after them. If we truly do all of this then managing weight becomes so much easier.
“I’m only eating 1,000 calories a day and I’m still not losing weight!”
Now, your energy balance challenge could be related to a hormonal issue, as discussed above. However, when someone’s eating 1,000 calories a day but not losing weight, it’s usually due to one of the two reasons that follow.
People often underestimate their calorie intake
It’s easy to miscalculate how much you’re eating, as it’s usually unintentional. Typical issues:
- Underestimate portions. (For example, without precisely measuring “one tablespoon of peanut butter,” it might actually be two, which adds 90 calories each time you do it)
- Not tracking bites, licks, and tastes of calorie-dense foods. (For example, your kid’s leftover food could easily add 100 calories)
- Not recording everything in the moment and forget to log it later on
- “Forgetting” to count foods they’d wished they hadn’t eaten
A landmark study, and repeated follow up studies, found people often underestimate how much they eat over the course of a day, sometimes by more than 1,000 calories. Could this be you?
People overeat on the weekends
How often do we all feel “Well, it’s the weekend, so it doesn’t really matter!”, “I’ve been good all week, I deserve a treat!”
So for example, let’s say you’re eating 1,500 calories a day on weekdays, which would give you a 500 calorie deficit based on the 2000 calories recommend intake for an average female.
But on the weekends, you deviate from your plan just a little.
- Drinks with friends and a few slices of late night pizza on Friday
- An extra big lunch after a workout on Saturday
- Big roast dinner on Sunday
This could easily add up to an extra 4,000 calories consumed between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. This pretty much cancel’s out any deficit from the week, leaving your at an average of just over 2000 calories per day. If you then add in some of the hormonal impacts on our system, 1800 calories may be what is required to maintain weight. If you continue you’re looking at 2-3lbs weight gain per month when you feel like you’re being really good, most of the time.
Your results aren’t dependent on what diet you are following, they are dependent on your behaviour
Maintaining a healthy body (including a healthy body weight) is about developing consistent, sustainable daily habits that help you positively impact “energy in” and “energy out.”
Think about incorporating some simple activities:
- Stop eating until you’re 80% full
- Eat slowly and mindfully
- Eating more minimally processed foods
- Getting more high quality sleep
- Taking steps to reduce stress and build resilience
Think about what’s realistic for you.
Where to get more help …
If you’ve got any questions please come and ask it in our Facebook group or join one of my weekly Q&A’s.