Most women gain some weight during menopause.

What causes menopause weight gain, though, and what can you do about it?

Most presume it’s caused by the hormonal hurly-burly that accompanies the onset of “the change” and that they’re powerless to prevent it.

Is this true, though?

Do menopause and weight gain go hand in hand, or is weight gain during menopause as avertible as weight gain in any other period of life?

Here’s what science says.

What’s the Connection Between Menopause and Weight Gain?

Menopause is the natural end of the menstrual cycle that most women experience around the age of 50. It occurs when a woman hasn’t had a period for at least 12 months.

Perimenopause (also known as menopausal transition) begins 5-to-10 years before menopause. During perimenopause, levels of several hormones in your body decline, triggering adverse symptoms, including hot flashes, anxiety, and disturbed sleep. 

Around the same time, many women also gain fat, particularly around the waist (known scientifically as visceral fat, or affectionately as “menopause belly”), leading many to believe that the hormonal changes that occur during perimenopause and menopause cause weight gain. 

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Does Menopause Cause Weight Gain?

Is the weight gain most women experience during midlife caused by perimenopause and menopause or are there other factors that influence weight gain that coincidentally occur around the same time?

Let’s look at what science says.

Hormones and Menopause Weight Gain

Most people know estrogen as one of the primary female sex hormones responsible for developing and regulating the female reproductive system. Fewer realize that it also plays a vital role in helping women maintain a healthy body composition.

For instance, estrogen promotes muscle growth, reduces fat storage in the lower body and abdomen, and increases concentrations of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a compound that boosts fat burning.

Estrogen also decreases hunger and helps maintain optimal levels of the hormones leptin and ghrelin and the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, all of which curb appetite and cravings, making it easier to avoid weight gain. 

What high estrogen levels giveth, low estrogen levels taketh away, though.

As you transition through menopause, your estrogen levels sink, causing you to lose muscle (which lowers your energy expenditure), burn less fat for fuel throughout the day, and increase your propensity to overeat less-nutritious foods, which can encourage weight gain over time. 

(It also causes your body to store more fat around your midsection, which raises your risk of suffering from metabolic disorders that can increase fat gain further.)

The good news is that dwindling estrogen doesn’t cause weight gain in and of itself. It makes it more challenging to maintain a healthy body composition by goading you into consuming more and burning fewer calories than you otherwise might, but it doesn’t automatically make you gain fat.

That is, it doesn’t matter whether you have low estrogen—your fat stores don’t increase unless you provide your body with excess energy (calories). This immutable mechanism of fat storage never changes, regardless of your hormonal vagaries.

This means it’s well within your powers to prevent weight gain during menopause. All that’s required is that you follow a calorie-controlled diet containing the right balance of macronutrients to support your goals and do regular exercise—particularly strength training.

Several studies show this to be true, too.

For example, in one study conducted by scientists at the State University of Campinas, postmenopausal women increased muscle mass by around 2.5%, decreased body fat percentage by almost 7%, and greatly increased leg strength (41%) and bench press strength (27%) after just 16 weeks of training 3 times per week. 

In other words, your postmenopausal hormone profile may make maintaining a healthy body composition more difficult, but any hurdles it sets in your path are surmountable, provided you eat and train correctly (more on the specifics soon).

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Age and Menopause Weight Gain

Starting around the age of 30, men and women begin to lose muscle if they don’t lift weights. This age-related muscle loss is called sarcopenia, and it’s one of the primary reasons we become weaker and less mobile as we get older.

It’s also largely to blame for the downturn in metabolic rate that we experience as we move through middle age. That’s because muscle is an energy-hungry tissue—the less you have, the fewer calories you burn at rest, and the easier it is to gain weight.

Having more muscle also helps you preserve good metabolic health, which reduces your risk of numerous metabolic diseases that can negatively affect your body composition.

Several studies show that women gain weight in midlife independent of their menopausal status, leading some scientists to question whether aging influences weight gain during menopause more than hormonal changes.

For instance, researchers in one study published in the scientific journal Maturitas compared the body composition of 365 premenopausal and 201 postmenopausal women. They found that abdominal fat mass and body fat percentage were positively correlated with age but not menopausal status. That is, they found that the older you are, the more likely you are to have fat around your midriff whether you’ve gone through menopause or not.

In another study conducted by scientists at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, researchers split sixty-three 44-to-54-year-old women who had recently gone through menopause into 2 groups: a group who took hormone replacement therapy to bump their estrogen levels to premenopausal levels and a group who didn’t.

After one year, both groups gained body fat, but there was no significant difference between the groups. This led the researchers to conclude that age, not hormones, makes women gain weight in midlife. A similar, smaller study replicated these results, too.

While the argument seems compelling, there’s one reason to doubt its veracity: none of the research that supports it shows that aging causes weight gain, only that getting older is associated with gaining weight.

Without evidence of a causal relationship, it’s impossible to say how much aging contributes to menopausal weight gain or whether it contributes at all—on current evidence, the association could be purely coincidental.

Lifestyle and Menopause Weight Gain

Lifestyle factors, such as sleep quality, diet, and physical activity may also contribute to menopausal weight gain.

Women in all stages of menopause tend to sleep less and have more severe insomnia and poorer quality sleep than premenopausal women, at least in part due to the hot flashes, sleep apnea, and night sweats many experience.

This is detrimental to body composition because inadequate sleep can alter your hormone profile and hinder your metabolic health, contributing to weight gain. Furthermore, some research suggests that when your sleep is interrupted, your body burns less fat for fuel, preferring instead to use carbohydrates

Furthermore, studies show that women change their eating behaviors during their menopausal transition, preferring processed and fried foods that are rich in fat, sugar, and salt over more nutritious, lighter fare. These “convenience” foods are generally less satiating and contain more calories than foods you prepare yourself, which means they’re easier to overeat, facilitating further fat gain.

Research also shows that perimenopausal women tend to do less physical activity than premenopausal women. The shift is often subtle, too, which means few notice it happening.

This impacts weight gain in two ways: it means perimenopausal women burn fewer calories throughout the day, making it easier to put themselves in a calorie surplus and gain weight, and it means they have a harder time preserving muscle, further reducing their daily energy expenditure

Thus, one of the most likely reasons middle-aged women gain weight is that they move less than they did when they were younger.

Fortunately, this is easy to rectify—you simply have to exercise more.

Multiple studies show that women who exercise before, during, and after perimenopause gain less weight than their less-active counterparts.

For instance, in a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that 55% of peri-to-postmenopausal women who followed a diet and exercise program were able to maintain or lose weight over ~5 years, whereas ~75% of women who followed no structured diet and exercise regimen gained weight over the same period.

And while strength training is particularly effective at combatting some of the downsides of menopause, such as muscle, strength, and bone loss, you don’t have to begin there. Research shows that walking is an effective way for women to establish a base level of fitness and decrease body mass index (BMI), weight, and body fat percentage, regardless of which stage of menopause they’re in.

(And if you’d like to learn more ways to boost your activity levels that don’t involve formal exercise, check out this article). 

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How to Get Rid of Menopause Belly Fat

As we’ve already seen, hormones, age, and lifestyle factors contribute to weight gain during menopause. Fortunately, you can override these influences and maintain or improve your body composition before, during, and after menopause by employing the correct diet, training, and supplementation protocol.

Here’s what you need to do.

The Best Diet for Menopause Weight Gain

Research shows that eating 20-to-25% fewer calories than you burn every day will help you lose fat (including menopause belly fat) lickety-split without losing muscle or wrestling with excessive hunger, lethargy, and the other hobgoblins of low-calorie dieting. 

Use the calculator here to determine how many calories this is for you, then calculate your macros using these recommendations:

  • Eat 1-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you have more than ~30 pounds to lose, use your target body weight to set your daily protein target instead of your current body weight (if you weigh 200 pounds and want to weigh 150, eat 150-to-180 grams of protein per day). This usually comes out to around 30-to-40% of daily calories.
  • Eat 20-to-30% of daily calories from fat, which is 0.2-to-0.4 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day for most people.
  • Get the remainder of your calories from carbs, which comes out to about 0.75-to-2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day for most people.

Or if crunching numbers isn’t your bag, just take the Legion Diet Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals. Click here to check it out.

The Best Exercise Program for Menopause Weight Gain

Below is a strength training plan that’s perfect for women who are new to weightlifting and want to gain muscle and strength during the peri-to-postmenopausal period.

It works so well because it has you doing all the most effective exercises for training your entire body and encourages you to get progressively stronger over time, which is one of the best ways to maximize the transformative effects of weightlifting. 

It’s modeled on the “push pull legs” routine but modified to include extra work for your legs and butt since that’s what most women want to focus on.

For best results, perform each workout on nonconsecutive days. For example, you could do Workout 1 on Monday, Workout 2 on Wednesday, and Workout 3 on Friday.

Menopause Training Plan

And if you like the look of this training program, but you’d like even more options, such as an intermediate and advanced plan that also incorporates barbell and machine exercises, check out my fitness book for absolute beginners of any age, Muscle for Life.

(Or if you aren’t sure if Muscle for Life is right for you or if another training program might be a better fit for your circumstances and goals, then take Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)

The Best Supplements for Menopause Weight Gain

Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to help you automagically lose menopause belly fat. In fact, most menopause fat-loss supplements are completely worthless.

That said, if you know how to diet and train to lose weight, certain supplements can help, and they are . . . 

  • 3-to-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight per day. This will raise the number of calories you burn and also increases strength, muscle endurance, and anaerobic performance. If you want a clean, delicious source of caffeine that also contains five other ingredients that will boost your workout performance, try Pulse.
  • 0.1-to-0.2 milligrams of yohimbine per kilogram of body weight before fasted training. This increases fat loss when used in conjunction with fasted training, and is particularly helpful with losing “stubborn” fat. If you want a 100% natural source of yohimbine that also contains two other ingredients that will help you lose fat faster, preserve muscle, and maintain training intensity and mental sharpness, try Forge.
  • One serving of Phoenix per day. Phoenix is a 100% natural fat burner that speeds up your metabolism, enhances fat burning, and reduces hunger and cravings. You can also get Phoenix with caffeine or without.

(And if you aren’t sure if the supplements discussed here are right for you or if other supplements might be a better fit for your budget, circumstances, and goals, then take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz! In less than a minute, it’ll tell you exactly what supplements are right for you. Click here to check it out.)

FAQ #1: How do you lose menopause belly fat?

To lose menopause belly fat, you need to know how to diet and train correctly.

As far as dieting goes, eat 20-to-25% fewer calories than you burn every day and split your macros like this:

  • Eat 1-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you have more than ~30 pounds to lose, use your target body weight to set your daily protein target instead of your current body weight (if you weigh 200 pounds and want to weigh 150, eat 150-to-180 grams of protein per day). This usually comes out to around 30-to-40% of daily calories.
  • Eat 20-to-30% of daily calories from fat, which is 0.2-to-0.4 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day for most people.
  • Get the remainder of your calories from carbs, which comes out to about 0.75-to-2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day for most people.

When it comes to training, follow the workout routine in this article, or if you want a more comprehensive guide to working out in later life, check out my fitness book for middle- and golden-agers, Muscle for Life.

(And again, if you aren’t sure if these programs are right for you, then take Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)

FAQ #2: How long does menopause weight gain last?

Most women begin to gain weight 5-to-10 years before they reach menopause and continue indefinitely unless they check their habits concerning diet and exercise. 

To prevent or reverse weight gain in midlife, follow the diet and exercise advice in this article.

FAQ #3: Why do women gain weight during menopause?

Many people think women gain weight during menopause because their hormones become skewiff, but this is only part of the story.

While hormonal changes may make it easier for women to gain weight during menopause, their advancing age and changing lifestyle also contribute. 

Fortunately, weight gain during menopause isn’t inevitable. By eating a calorie-controlled diet and exercising, you can build muscle, lose fat, and improve your health during any stage of menopause. To learn how to do this, follow the steps in this article.

+ Scientific References