Menopause weight gain: 4 things women should know about aging – Courier Journal
It is often assumed that menopause, a point in time 12 months after a woman’s last period, causes women to gain weight, and what’s more, there is nothing you can do about it.
Is this true?
If you look at the statistics, it sure seems like it. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 51.7% of women ages 20-39 were classified as overweight. This number jumps to 68.1% at ages 40-59, and menopause or treatments associated with menopausal conditions, including hormone therapy, often are blamed. However, there is controversy, and many medical experts believe other factors are operating to cause midlife weight gain.
A major factor contributing to weight gain with age is the progressive loss of muscle mass because less muscle means a lower metabolism. As a result, you burn fewer calories while continuing to consume the same number of calories. Today, muscle loss starts in the mid to late 30s compared to years ago, when muscle loss didn’t start until we hit at least age 40. This trend of losing muscle mass earlier in life is alarming and it foreshadows a future of even greater obesity in our population, especially for women who have less muscle mass to begin with.
Let’s break down some of the reasons why this is true.
The main reason we lose muscle mass with age is we become less active and use our muscles less for physically demanding activities. Over many years, this effect accumulates and by age 80, we have about half the muscle mass we had as young adults. But we don’t notice because despite losing all that muscle mass, our weight does not decrease. Instead, we add body fat, and our weight not only doesn’t decrease, but it’s also more likely to increase.
To make this point more real, all you have to do is observe what happens to your arm if you should injure it and need to immobilize it in a cast for several weeks. When the cast is removed the arm muscles are much smaller and weaker. It’s easy to understand why the muscles got weaker, but why does the body break down muscle and get rid of it?
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There are two main reasons. First, the human body hates muscle mass because it is high-maintenance tissue that requires lots of energy. In order to survive, the body needs a plentiful ongoing supply of energy, which is why hunger is the strongest drive. Muscle gobbles up energy and the body sees this as a potential threat to survival. In contrast, fat stores energy and is highly valued by the body as insurance against running out of energy.
Second, if you are physically inactive and not using muscle, the body seizes the opportunity to get rid of it because it cannot justify providing energy to keep it intact.
Yes, if you quit challenging your muscles.
On the other hand, if you regularly engage your muscles with resistance exercises (lifting weights, heavy chores, etc.), you convey the message to your body that your muscles are important, despite the drain on energy, and you would like to hold on to them. Obviously, at some point, age will take a toll and you cannot hold on to all the muscle mass you had in your younger years, but you can keep a lot more of it.
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Although there is controversy as to whether menopause causes weight gain, there is evidence that it influences how excess body fat is stored. Prior to menopause when estrogen is plentiful, it plays an important role in how stored fat is distributed. In younger women, fat storage is emphasized in the lower body, on the hips, thighs, and buttocks. Women who have tried to lose fat from these areas soon learn how stubborn it is. The reason is the enzymes that promote the storage of fat in these areas are very active. In contrast, the enzymes that pull fat out of storage to be burned as fuel are quite sluggish.
It is thought that estrogen may play a role in this as preparation for providing energy to a newborn baby. In the distant past when eating was less predictable and food supply could be easily disrupted by natural disasters, diseases, war, etc., Mother Nature wanted newborns to be sure to have access to sufficient energy from mom, and the lower body was chosen as the site for “emergency” energy storage. Therefore, fat moves easily into lower body storage but is very difficult to dislodge until late pregnancy and lactation when lower body fat becomes more readily available to be burned as fuel to supply energy that supports a newborn.
However, just because lower body fat becomes available to supply energy, doesn’t mean it goes away automatically. You still must expend more calories than you consume to reduce body fat, wherever the location.
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Later in life, estrogen is reduced with menopause and females become more male-like hormonally because they also produce testosterone, which takes a back seat to estrogen earlier in life. The impact of an increased role of testosterone in women is twofold. One, there is an increase in abdominal fat around the waistline. This means a transition from the so-called female “pear-shaped” body to the male “apple-shaped” body.
And two, much of the fat is deposited as deep abdominal (visceral) fat located beneath the muscle layer. This is in contrast to the tendency of younger women to deposit more fat directly beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) which makes women softer to the touch. Unfortunately, an increase in visceral fat is tied to many health risks, including increased insulin resistance leading to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer of the breast and colon.
The bottom line is menopause does not appear to be the key to fat gain in middle-aged women as other factors are more likely responsible. However, if fat is gained during and after menopause, the location is likely to be around the waistline causing a substantial increase in health risks.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at email@example.com.
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