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Getting Rid of Belly Fat After the Menopause

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Experiencing the menopause can be different for different people. Some women fear it and others look forward to the sense of freedom it gives them.

Nevertheless, during the menopause you might notice a few changes to your body – hot flushes, tiredness, fatigue for example.

And you may have noticed that you’re starting to put just that little bit of belly fat on too.

In this article we’ll take a look at what happens to your body during the change and tell you the best ways to get rid of that belly fat.

  • What is the menopause?
  • Causes and symptoms
  • How does the change effect health?
  • How can you shred belly fat after the menopause?

What is the Menopause?

The menopause refers to the stage in your life when your menstrual cycle stops. It is sometimes referred to as ‘reproductive ageing’, ‘the change of life’ or simply ‘the change’.

Understanding more about what’s going on in your body helps you to plan strategies to manage it as best you can.

The menopause begins with irregularities to your normal menstrual cycle, usually around the age of 40, although this is highly variable. During this time it is pretty common for your cycle to a bit heavier or shorter for a good few months before they begin to get less frequent and lighter.

After a while you’ll enter a stage called perimenopause where your cycles will become drier and you’ll produce less cervical fluid then you have previously. And eventually they stop altogether. This phase is sometimes referred to as reproductive ageing.

The average age of menopause is approximately 51 years old however this can range from 35-60 years.

Typically, it takes around 4 years from the onset of perimenopause to your last period. It can take longer though.

What causes the menopause?

According to biology experts, the menopause is “the permanent cessation of menstruation resulting from the loss of ovarian follicular activity” [1].

What that means is that there are a number of hormonal changes taking place that inhibit the release of a follicle that triggers ovulation.

There is a shift in how well a specific branch of hormones called gonadotropins can trigger ovulation. These are responsible for stimulating ovarian follicles, which in turn triggers the production of another hormone called estradiol – a type of estrogen.

In women going through transition, there is an increase in gonadotropin release, but reduced estrogen levels – there’s enough gonadotropin but your body is becoming resistant to itSubsequently, over time your estrogen levels get lower and lower until menstruation stops.

It’s a domino effect, only the dominoes are the different hormones responsible for triggering ovulation. Once they’re all knocked down your period stops.

Pretty older woman sat on the sofa smiling and looking healthy

Key Point: The menopause is caused by hormonal changes that inhibit ovulation. This causes your menstrual cycle to eventually stop altogether.

What Are The Symptoms of the Menopause?

During menopausal transition you’ll experience a number of different characteristics. Again, it’s different for everyone, but most women will experience common symptoms.

Other than irregular periods, a decline in fertility and irregular bleeding as you move from perimenopause to post-menopause, you can expect the following:

  • Hot flushes – uncomfortable feelings of heat across the face, neck and chest
  • Sleeping problems and night sweats – these are hot flushes that occur at night
  • Loss of energy – general feelings of lethargy and loss of vigor
  • Changes in mood – intermittent periods of low mood
  • Reduced libido – decreased sex drive and sexual appetite
  • Decreased memory and concentration – reduced cognitive ability
  • Reduced muscle and bone mass – decreased structural mass

One of the biggest and most common symptoms of the menopause is the increase in belly fat or abdominal adiposity.

Key Point: Symptoms of the menopause vary from woman to woman but more than 80% suffer from common characteristics of hot flushes.

What Causes Menopause-Related Belly Fat?

The development of abdominal fat is multifactorial. That means there’s not one single cause, but a few different things.

Reduced estrogen

Firstly, during menstrual years, there are a large number of estrogen receptors that are active in your hips and thighs. This is useful when it comes to ovulation and gives females a typical pear shaped appearance.

But as you reach the change, these receptors are less likely to take up estrogen (remember, estrogen is much lower after perimenopause).

Instead, your body begins to push fat towards your belly, giving you a typical apple shaped appearance.

Increased cortisol

It’s not just your gonadal hormones that shift during the change. Many women also experience an increase in the adrenal hormone cortisol as well [2].

Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. It helps you use stored glycogen and fat for energy.

But when levels increase chronically it can lead to weight gain, not loss. This is because it increases appetite leading to overeating [3], but can also have negative effects on muscle mass too. This leads to a decrease in metabolic rate.

Although the actual relationship is complex, when estrogen is high it keeps cortisol at bay. But once estrogen decreases it leaves room for cortisol to flourish.

Estrogen-thyroid relationship

A drop in estrogen can also affect how your thyroid works – the gland responsible for regulating your metabolic rate.

Thyroid dysfunction is much more common in post-menopausal women than it is in those under the age of 50 [4]. And if your thyroid isn’t working properly you can suffer not just fatigue, muscle cramps and hair loss… it can cause weight gain too

A fresh green apple covered by a tape measure to signify belly fat

Belly Fat and Metabolic Health Risk

One of the biggest and most obvious symptoms of the menopause is that you’ll accumulate abdominal fat much easier than you did during your menstrual years.

Not only can this alter your appearance and affect your confidence, it can have a negative impact on your health too.

That’s because belly fat isn’t just distributed under your skin, it’s deposited in and around your internal organs too. Fat starts to accumulate within your peritoneal cavity in particular.

High risk of metabolic disease…

There are a number of studies that show an increase in belly fat puts you at much higher risk of insulin resistance and the development of diabetes [5]. This is because fatty tissue in the peritoneal cavity can have a negative effect on hormones such as adiponectin that help to regulate glucose and fatty acids level breakdown.

…and cardiovascular disease too

It’s not just metabolic disease that belly fat can cause. A study in the journal Critical Pathways in Cardiology [6] found that the increased cholesterol, blood pressure, fasting glucose and triglyceride levels caused by belly fat were closely related to the development of cardiovascular disease.

And another study confirmed that the menopause is in itself a risk factor for CVD too [7].

Even normal weight women can suffer from belly fat health risks

Don’t think that in order to develop belly fat you have to be overweight – it’s a symptom of the change that can affect anyone.

And regardless of whether you are classed as overweight or not, the development of abdominal adiposity can be bad news for your health.

Even those with a normal body mass index (BMI) can be more than 2 times as likely to suffer heart disease if they have excess belly fat.

Older woman looking happy walking through the park in autumn

How to Reduce Belly Fat

Many menopausal women find that there’s a certain amount of freedom once they reach menopause, such as peace of mind against unwanted pregnancy for example.

That said though, there are

#1. Monitor food intake

The first, and probably most important aspect of weight maintenance is calorie intake.

If you’re taking in more energy than you’re burning off each day, you’ll increase belly fat – particularly when your hormones are wanting to work against you.

But how many calories should you at to drop belly fat?

Using the Instant Knockout calorie calculator uses evidence-based formula to get your calories right where you need them to tap into your cells and use up that extra fat.

#2. Introduce strength training to your workouts

One of the best ways to keep your metabolism high and make your cortisol levels plummet is lifting weights.

Studies show that by introducing strength training to your physical activity arsenal you can boost your metabolic rate. The amount of calories you burn each day is based around how much muscle you have, combined with how active you are.

What this means is that you burn more calories the more muscle muscle you have.

Research shows that weight training can induce fat loss quicker than cardio alone. It has a more potent effect on the hormones that promote muscle mass and reduce belly fat  – a process referred to as partitioning.

Aim for big exercises that include lots of different muscle group to maximize the fat shredding effects. These could include squats, deadlifts, pushes and pulls.

But won’t weight training make you bulky?

Not at all. In fact, for strength training to make you overly-muscular you’d have to work out like a champion bodybuilder… and take steroids as well.

#3. Eat cruciferous vegetables

Vegetables such as broccoli, collard greens and cabbage contain estrogen-regulating compounds such as indole-3-carbinol (I3C). They can also boost thyroid function and reduce the risk of cancers associated with post-menopause [8].

Many dark green vegetables contain fat-fighting nutrient chromium GTF. And this mineral has been found to decrease carb cravings in overweight women, leading to belly fat loss [9] and significant weight loss too [10]

#4. Focus on nutrients

There are a number of essential nutrients that can reduce belly fat.

Zinc magnesium and B vitamins have all been found to improve body composition in studies using post-menopausal women. Here’s how:

  • Zinc- promotes fat loss, improves energy and helps digestion
  • Magnesium – can help regulate estrogen levels and energy production
  • B Vitamins – increase metabolic rate, promote muscle mass, boost immune system and reduce food cravings

Instant Knockout

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  1. Burger, HG et al. Hormonal changes in the menopause transition. Recent Prog Horm Res. 2002; 57; 257-75
  2. Woods, NF et al. Cortisol Levels during the Menopausal Transition and Early Postmenopause: Observations from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study. Menopause. 2009; 16(4): 708-718
  3. Epel, E et al. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001; 26: 37-49
  4. Pearce, EN et al. Thyroid dysfunction in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. 
  5. Janssen,I et al. Body mass index and waist circumference independently contribute to the prediction of nonabdominal, abdominal subcutaneous, and visceral fat. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002; 75(4): 683-688
  6. Després, JP. Cardiovascular disease under the influence of excess visceral fat. Crit Pathw Cardiol. 200; 6(2): 51-9
  7. Rosano, GM et al. Menopause and cardiovascular disease: the evidence. Climacteric. 2007;10 Suppl 1: 19-24
  8. Higdon, JV et al. Cruciferous Vegetables and Human Cancer Risk: Epidemiologic Evidence and Mechanistic Basis. Pharmacol Res. 2007; 55(3): 224–236
  9. Anton, SD et al. Effects of chromium picolinate on food intake and satiety. Diabetes Technol Ther. 2008; 10(5): 405-12
  10. Pittler, MH et al. Chromium picolinate for reducing body weight: meta-analysis of randomized trials. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003; 27(4): 522-9