A 3 Step Plan for Preventing Menopausal Belly Fat

Aging well, disease management, Health

As a women approaching menopause, you may endure many changes in your body, such as drenching night sweats, mood irritability, and difficulty sleeping.Perhaps the most challenging, however, is the hormonally driven change in your body shape and lean body composition.

With the start of menstrual irregularity, your ovaries progressively make less estrogen and progesterone. In contrast, the amount of androgens, including testosterone, they make is less affected.

The drop in estrogen and the higher relative proportion of testosterone gradually morph your body from being curvy at the hips to being fuller at the waist—until you eventually lose your waistline.

More ominous, visceral belly fat doesn’t just sit quietly. It functions like an organ, actively releasing proteins, such as hormones and immune system chemicals called cytokines, which can cause insulin resistance, raise your cholesterol and blood pressure, and cause low level inflammation throughout your body. Together, these changes increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer post-menopause.

The good news is that you can prevent menopausal belly fat, along with all of its health risks. Here are three of the most effective, research proven ways that I commonly recommend.

Keep your calories balanced. This is a cardinal rule. Preventing weight gain with menopause is particularly important because any weight you gain during this time in your life will preferentially land in your waistline.

For the average woman, an additional five pounds get packed on from the beginning to the end of the menopause transition. However, studies that follow women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause show that that even pre-menopausal women in their late forties and early fifties gain the same amount of weight. That suggests that contrary to conventional wisdom, weight gain around the time of menopause is due to age rather than hormones —and is largely in your control.

Age-related weight gain happens because as you age, you lose about three to five percent of your muscle mass each decade after age thirty. Since muscle burns more calories than fat, this slows your metabolism. As a result, you may be left frustrated that you are gaining weight even though you are eating the same. The sobering reality is that you may experience weight gain because you are eating the same.

Rather than just cutting back on calories, the best antidote to countering age-related loss in muscle is exercise—which brings us to the next step.

Aerobic exercise isn’t enough. Fighting the changes that are taking place in your body means that you have to be active. What type of exercise is best for belly fat? The answer may be different than what you think.

“Spot” exercises, such as crunches or sit ups, make your abdomen look more muscular, but they don’t burn intra-abdominal belly fat.

Aerobic exercise, such as walking or jogging, is more effective for preventing weight gain—and hence packing it on in your belly. In a study by Duke University, the amount of walking that was enough to prevent belly fat was walking the equivalent of 12 miles per week, or 30 minutes at least 6 days a week.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers found, however, that even though aerobic exercise may be better for preventing weight gain, weight resistance exercises have an edge for preventing belly fat. In their study, substituting 20 minutes of weights for 20 minutes of aerobics exercise led to a smaller increase in belly fat.

Combining the three– core exercise, aerobic exercise, and strength resistance exercise–such as a twenty minute weight lifting routine working your major muscle groups two to three times a week, walking thirty minutes most days of the week, and adding in some crunches, is best for battle of the bulge. Mixing it up can keep it fun.

Avoid belly fat foods. Foods affect your waistline differently. Some directly get converted to belly fat while others do the opposite—they can prevent belly fat and improve your sugar metabolism. The foods to avoid are:

High-fructose corn syrup: Fructose is broken down differently in your body than glucose. Your liver can continually convert excess calories in the form of fructose into belly fat. Sodas, fruit juices, and sports drinks made with high fructose sports are the biggest offenders because they are rapidly absorbed. High fructose corn syrup is also commonly found in processed snacks and desserts. By substituting water and sticking with fresh, whole ingredients, you can cut down your fructose consumption.

High glycemic index carbs: White bread, crackers, and potatoes are high on the glycemic index, a scale from 0 to 100 that ranks carbs by the extent they raise blood sugar. A rapid rise in blood sugar triggers the release of insulin. Over time, that can lead to insulin resistance, which reinforces belly fat. Instead, opt for foods that are low on the glycemic index such as vegetables, lentils, and beans.

Saturated fats: Commonly found in butter, cream, beef and other fatty meats, saturated animal fats preferentially get deposited as intra-abdominal fat to a far greater extent than unsaturated plant fats—which are found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.

In a 2014 study in the journal Diabetes, which is published by the American Diabetes Association, participants that were given excess calories from saturated fat rather than polyunsaturated fat experienced a two-fold greater increase in intra-abdominal belly fat. In comparison, those fed excess calories from polyunsaturated fat rather than saturated fat had a nearly three-fold increase in lean tissue.

Belly fat can be one of the most disheartening changes in your body accompanying menopause. With hard work, knowing what to expect, and having a plan to fight belly fat, you can transition into menopause smoothly and healthily.

  1. Molly Darden says:

    This is an informative, helpful article for menopausal and pre-menopausal women, and I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Bergquist’s positive approach to living healthfully.

    With the above information, can I assume that post-menopausal women who have already packed on belly fat, can reduce it through a program of balanced exercise and nutritional eating? Balanced exercise, I believe, would consist of cardio/aerobic, resistance and stretching/calisthenics. What is your opinion of that?

    Because I am healthy, and under the direction of my sports medicine physician as well, I have recently committed to training for a return* to water skiing, as I approach my 75th birthday; for that, I must work aggressively to strengthen my body and my flexibility, and I aim to reduce my weight by 20 pounds.

    After just a few days’ training seriously, I have lost several pounds, and can now get up from the floor without holding on. My balance is also good.

    In my opinion, as Dr. Bergquist says, age has no number; it’s a state of mind.


    • Sharon Horesh Bergquist says:

      Yes, you can redistribute and even take off belly fat by reducing intake of refined carbohydrates and saturated fats and increasing strength resistance and aerobic exercise. Best of luck water skiing on your 75th!!

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