“I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.”
– Helen Reddy (singer/songwriter)
Some of you younger tadpoles out there reading this may not remember the famous Australian songstress Helen Reddy, the “Queen of 70s Pop,” but she made quite an impact on women in her audience and helped drive the emerging international social movement of equal rights and female empowerment.
But even the talented “I Am Woman – Hear Me Roar” Reddy went through menopause which can soften that roar to a whimper as levels of the hormone estrogen drop significantly after The Change – menopause.
A woman is considered post-menopausal (through with menopause) one year after her last menstrual period.
When menopause begins, levels of estrogen (known as the “female” hormone even though men have some, too, in much lower amounts) drop. Less estrogen in the body causes the familiar symptoms: hot flashes, night sweats, and moodiness.
Lowered estrogen levels also slow the metabolism. This means it takes longer to digest food and burn off calories doing what you’ve always done. A sluggish metabolism makes weight loss especially difficult.
During menopause, fat accumulation shifts from the hips to the abdomen, creating a “belly bun” or the less flattering “beer belly.” There is a reason for this: after menopause, the ovaries stop producing estrogen. The only place where estrogen can be generated is in the abdominal fat cells.
To get estrogen, a woman’s body changes and begins to store fat in the belly area. Because of this natural adaptation, the stomach is called “the third ovary.”
This visceral belly fat is toxic and produces hormones (such as the stress hormone cortisol) as well as inflammatory proteins known as cytokines which force the body to produce much more insulin. Appetite increases along with the storage of fat in fat cells.
Higher levels of insulin production set the stage for developing insulin resistance, a key factor in the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
The average woman gains about 4.5 pounds as she starts The Change in her 40s and continues to experience weight gain of about 1.5 pounds every year for the next 20 years as they pass through their 50s and 60s.
Jo Ann Pinkerton, M.D., executive director of the North American Menopause Society, assured all women that creeping weight gain, especially in the belly area, is not their fault:
“The main reason is the natural loss of muscle mass that occurs with age. Since muscle burns more calories than fat, your metabolism slows down, causing you to put on weight.”
From age 30, women lose an average half-pound of muscle per year. At age 50, the muscle loss rises to nearly a pound.
The good news is that all women can fight the battle of the bulge. By now, you may have guessed what the experts recommend for fat retention and muscle loss:
- Exercise. More.
If you don’t exercise now, start. At first, this may be one of the most difficult things you do in your life. But no matter what shape you’re in – from slightly pudgy to clinically obese – getting your body moving and the blood flowing is one of the best things you can do for your health.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are no excuses not to exercise. The experts say that standing is better than sitting because it burns more calories. If you sit around watching television, stand up and sit down during the commercials. Do some side bends, reach for the ceiling, and touch your toes.
Get a standing desk. These babies are worth the price, according to a friend. Sitting for long periods of time is linked to increased levels of belly fat, as well as accumulated fat around organs (such as the liver) which raises the risk for diabetes and cardiac disease.
Pump up the intensity of your workouts to burn calories and add lifting light weights and/or yoga to build muscle mass. Vary your routines to cross-train every part of your body but focus on ab exercises. Try new activities, get a workout buddy or go to classes to stay motivated.
- Eat Better – and Less.
Eat meals at regular times every day and resist snacking. If you must indulge yourself between normal feedings, stick to healthy foods and shun the junk. Cut down the restaurant meals and avoid all-you-can-eat buffets.
Experiment with portions to find out how much you can eat without putting on extra weight. Start your meal with veggies and protein and eat your starch last to significantly reduces your body’s blood sugar and insulin levels, helping you to feel fuller longer.
Eat the healthiest fats from vegetable sources such as olives, nuts, and avocados. Just be sure not to overdo these high-calorie foods by measuring the amounts of fats and oils that you consume.
- Go to Sleep.
High-quality sleep becomes even more important during and after the 4-8 years of menopause. Poor sleep impacts our hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin, causing them to stop functioning. This makes weight loss almost impossible.
Some experts recommend shuttering the refrigerator and brushing your teeth at 7 pm to keep you from eating before sleeping, which can interfere with profound sleep.
- Take Estrogen. Maybe.
Since the belly fat-storage problem comes from reduced levels of estrogen in the menopausal female body, women may want to discuss hormone therapy (HT) to boost their waning natural production. This therapy is still debated by healthcare professionals for its usefulness and suitability.
However, a 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism concluded that menopausal HT may help prevent rises in visceral fat, body mass index (BMI), and general body fat. Women currently undergoing HT who had taken HT in the past but stopped taking it were almost 1 point lower on the BMI scale and had nearly 3 pounds less of fat mass.
Battling the menopausal belly bulge is worth the effort, ensuring better health and a higher quality of life – so go for it! (Are you roaring yet?)