As menopause approaches, you’re experiencing a lot of changes. Your periods are becoming more irregular. You might be noticing some more moodiness or sleep issues. And if you’re like many women, you might also be noticing that you are gaining weight – even if you haven’t changed your diet or lifestyle habits.

So, why is this happening? Read on to learn why people tend to gain weight during menopause, and what you can do about it.

Why does menopause cause weight gain?

Though more research is needed, menopause generally isn’t considered the main reason for weight gain between ages 45 and 55. However, the decrease in estrogen levels that comes with menopause can contribute in a couple ways.

First, estrogen promotes muscle mass, and muscle mass affects metabolism – which is how your body uses energy. Less estrogen means less muscle mass, so you’re more likely to develop a slower metabolism during perimenopause and after you reach menopause. With a slower metabolism, you don’t need as many calories to maintain the same weight.

Decreased estrogen can also cause your body to start storing more fat in your abdomen compared to other areas of your body – some people refer to this as the “menopause belly.” Together with decreasing muscle mass, this can lead to higher levels of body fat and a heavier appearance, even without a change in weight.

Other factors that contribute to menopausal weight gain

Aging and lifestyle factors are more commonly associated with perimenopause weight gain and post-menopause weight gain. Like changes in hormones, aging also brings natural decreases in muscle mass and metabolism. So it becomes especially easy to take in more calories than your body needs, and store that extra energy as fat. But lifestyle factors like what you eat, how much you eat and how much physical activity you get can affect your weight the most.

Getting enough physical activity is something that’s often neglected. In fact, as of 2018, one study showed that only 23% of adults in the United States were getting as much physical activity as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended. We also tend to become less active as we age, whether it’s because of increased responsibilities, common aches and pains, injuries or just falling out of the habit of exercising.

In addition to aging and lifestyle factors, other possible causes of menopausal weight gain may include:

  • Genetics
  • Health conditions such as depression, diabetes and hypertension
  • Medications like antidepressants, antipsychotics and steroids

How to lose weight during menopause

While it’s important to get regular physical activity and maintain a healthy diet throughout your life, a slowing metabolism during menopause – and as you age – makes healthy lifestyle choices even more important.

Making healthy choices can help promote healthy aging and prevent excessive weight gain that could lead to other health conditions as you get older, such as breathing problems, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and more. Here are a few tips for staying healthy during menopause:

Get consistent, varied exercise

Different forms of exercise offer different benefits. But regular exercise of any kind has been shown to help with everything from sleep to digestion, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

  • Strength training engages your muscles to push, pull or support weight. It builds muscle mass, which helps offset the loss of metabolism caused by aging and decreased estrogen. Strength training also slows age-related bone loss and can be a big part of preventing postmenopausal osteoporosis. It’s recommended that adults do strength training activities at least twice a week.
  • Low-impact aerobics are activities that make your heart beat faster without putting a lot of pressure on your joints. Examples include brisk walking, cycling and swimming. Regular aerobic activity reduces your risk of heart conditions, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and more. It’s recommended that adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity or 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.

Build a structured diet based around whole foods

Now that you need fewer calories overall, it’s important to focus on getting them from whole-food sources like fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and lean meats. They tend to be less caloric than processed foods, and their nutrient density can help maintain your energy levels if you need to cut down on calories to reach your goals.

In addition, you may find that it’s helpful to focus on the structure of your diet – such as eating meals at consistent times and preparing healthy snacks ahead of time. Keeping a journal to track your eating and drinking habits can also help identify opportunities for healthy changes.

Get enough sleep

If you plan to start a new exercise regimen based on the advice above, quality sleep is going to be a big part of helping your body recover between workouts. But studies also suggest that how much sleep you get can affect your metabolism. Specifically, sleep deprivation has been linked to increases in your body’s level of ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite; and decreases in leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite.

So if you’re sleeping less due to disturbances from menopause symptoms, it may help to see if you can improve your sleep hygiene, such as by practicing a relaxation technique like meditation before bed and avoiding liquids for a few hours beforehand.

Talk to your doctor about hormone therapy for menopause weight loss

Hormone therapy (HT) helps relieve menopause symptoms and prevent certain conditions like osteoporosis through the use of estrogen supplements, progestin supplements or both. Taking an estrogen supplement during menopause may make it easier to lose weight or gain muscle mass, depending on your diet and activity level, but it isn’t considered a long-term solution for weight management. Talk to your care provider about whether hormone therapy may be right for you.

Get the support you need before and after menopause

Experiencing unexpected weight gain and other menopause symptoms can impact your physical and mental health. So if menopause is making you uncomfortable, talk to an expert. Your primary care doctor or a women's health specialist like an OB-GYN can help you get relief with a personalized care plan.

At HealthPartners, some of our OB-GYN care providers are even certified by the North American Menopause Society to help people manage their menopause symptoms.