It is not uncommon for women to lament that as they approach menopause, they are gaining weight, especially in their midsections. This potbelly, unaffectionately called a menopot, can make women feel insecure about their appearance and can also be a health issue.
A potbelly is more a product of aging in general than menopause, says Dr. Stephanie Faubion, medical director of The North American Menopause Society, and it’s not just a problem for women. “Both genders gain weight as they age due to a decrease in metabolic rate caused by the loss of muscle mass,” she says. “As people age, they don’t burn as many calories when they exercise or sit still, so it is harder to maintain or lose weight.”
For women, the problem is compounded by the loss of estrogen, causing a redistribution of weight to the stomach and waist. Faubion says, “This hormonal change can cause women to go from a pear shape to more of an apple shape in midlife.” On average, women gain 1.5 pounds per year in midlife.
Is It Dangerous?
Weight gain, especially in the midsection, can adversely affect a woman’s health. Faubion says, “Heart disease risk goes up as we age, especially in women that gain weight in their abdomen. Even women of normal weight have a higher cardiovascular risk if they hold excess pounds in their midsection.” Excess belly fat has also been associated with a higher risk of many cancers (including breast and colon) as well as an increased risk of diabetes.
Faubion says the biggest complaint she hears from patients is that they haven’t changed their diet or exercise intensity and yet somehow, they are gaining weight. “What always worked in the past as far as maintaining or losing weight, won’t work anymore,” she says. “It’s like someone changed the rules of your body without telling you.”
What to Do About a Potbelly
1. Keep your weight down. Since it’s harder to lose weight as we age, it’s better not to gain it in the first place. Ideally, women should begin to adjust their diet and exercise routine before they are in full menopause to maintain their weight. Faubion says, “Use common sense. Older women need to focus on eating vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins. Limit simple carbs such as white rice and white pasta.”
2. Go easy on the alcohol. A big sabotage for many women is alcohol. “The kids are gone and there are more parties and dinners out, so older women tend to drink more. The body reads a glass of wine as a glass of sugar, so try to limit alcohol consumption for weight maintenance,” Faubion says.
3. Watch belly bloat. In addition to actual fat, a menopot can be exasperated by bloating, which can occur more frequently in older women. Erin Parekh, holistic health coach and culinary nutrition expert, says, “As women age, their stomachs can get more sensitive. They may need to play with their diet to see if dairy or gluten is contributing to their belly bloat. Fiber, while important, can cause stomach discomfort, so don’t go crazy adding too much fiber too quickly. To keep a healthy balance of gut bacteria, I recommend my clients take a probiotic supplement daily.”
4. Exercise daily. While weight maintenance is 90 percent food related, regular exercise is vital to good health. Aim for one hour of cardio/movement per day plus strength training. While sit-ups or other spot-toning exercises alone will not eliminate a meno-pot, strength training can increase a slowing metabolism and help combat lost muscle tone.
6. Keep stress levels in check. Parekh explains, “Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol contribute to belly fat, even in women that are not overweight. So, it’s important for women to find ways to reduce their stress, especially as they age. Practicing mindfulness techniques and getting more sleep can help.”