How Menopause Changes Fat Storage (and How to Address it)

November 29, 2021
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Fitness Healthy Eating

Many women gain weight during the menopause transition. And even when body weight is stable, women often notice that where their bodies hold onto fat has changed.  This reflects a shift in hormone levels during menopauses, in which estrogens rise and fall as the ovaries gradually stop making estrogens and progesterone.  As menopause proceeds, changes to these hormones influences with changes to where women store fat. 

During menopause, the average woman begins to deposit less fat on the thighs and buttocks but more fat around the organs, resulting in a larger waistline. This change can cause a lot of frustration, understandably. What previously worked for weight loss may not be as successful, and mood issues are common as well. Hormones from the ovaries influence brain function, so it can make weight management even more challenging. 

It’s more than just ill-fitting clothing that has spurred a huge research interest in body fat and menopause. A larger waist increases heart disease risk, and as estrogen levels fall, some of the heart-protective benefits of estrogen are also lost. Research on menopausal women can help us understand what behaviors are effective when it comes to success with weight loss goals.

Woman at Doctor

What really works?

The result of three weight-loss studies on menopausal women concluded that exercise alone is not enough for significant weight loss nor an expanding waistline. Instead, at least two behavior improvements seem to be most beneficial. Specifically, the studies suggest 1) regular exercise every week, and 2) healthier eating and drinking choices. Together, a dedication to more workouts and a healthier diet can prevent menopause-associated weight gain.

Similar results were attained from a 5-year randomized trial of exercise and nutrition coaching in 535 women (44-50 years of age). The results dispel the myth that gaining fat is inevitable during menopause. Instead, “weight gain during menopause can be prevented with dietary and physical activity interventions.” Once again, addressing at least 2 health behaviors seems to be necessary.

The impact of combining exercise and dietary improvements is also highlighted by other research. This combination was tested by a randomized controlled trial on 439 women who had recently completed menopause. These women were seeking fat loss, so body weight was tracked to compare three different intervention groups: Diet adjustments only, exercise adjustments only, or the combination of dietary and exercise improvements. As you may expect, the combination group lost the most weight, with an average of about 24 pounds lost over one year.

woman walking on trail

Multi-habit Support

The success of these weight loss results reflect a comprehensive approach to lifestyle improvements. Women in the study were able to stick with their healthy intentions because they had the support of others within a structured program. Professional coaches raise their client’s health awareness and responsibility for healthy habits, and help their clients navigate barriers to change. For the average person, professional coaching support results in superior weight loss compared to attempting weight loss alone. 

Each person’s journey to a healthier lifestyle is unique, but effective strategies touch on similar themes. We can’t simply exercise away the excess calories that come from overeating. And we can’t get optimal weight loss results or health benefits without embracing regular exercise. More research is needed to address the needs of women facing this transition, but support is a crucial element for many who achieve significant weight loss!

As Treo’s Global Wellness Researcher, Karlie uses recent research findings to support healthier daily habits. Karlie earned her doctorate in Neuroscience and Behavior and bachelors in Health and Exercise Science.