She started dieting and exercising harder to counter the flab and, over the din of the exercycle, asked, "Are women doomed to gain weight midlife?"
Here are the answers to some questions middle-aged women (and their husbands, children and family members) commonly ask about weight and menopause.
Question: Do women inevitably gain fat with menopause?
No! Women don't always gain weight with menopause. Yes, women commonly get fatter and thicker around the middle as the fat settles in and around the abdominal area. But the changes are due more to lack of exercise and a surplus of calories than to a reduction of hormones. Young athletes with amenorrhea (and reduced hormones) don't get fat ...
In a three-year study with more than 3,000 women (initial age 42 to 52 years), the average weight gain was 4.6 pounds. The weight gain occurred in all women, regardless of their menopause status. (Sternfeld, Am J Epidemiol, 2004).
Question: If weight gain isn't due to the hormonal shifts of menopause, what does cause it?Here are a few culprits:
When you're sleep deprived, your appetite grows. That is, the hormone that curbs your appetite (leptin) is reduced and the hormone that increases your appetite (grehlin) become more active. (Taheri, PLoS Med, 2004) Hence, you can have a hard time differentiating between "Am I tired?" or "Am I hungry?" You hear the cookie monster answer "You're hungry and need many cookies ...!"
Tips for preventing midlife weight gain and optimizing health
The exercise program should include both aerobic (to enhance cardiovascular health) and strengthening exercise (to preserve muscle strength and bone density). The book Strong Women Stay Thin, by Miriam Nelson, is a good resource for developing a health-protective exercise program.
If you're tempted to take a supplement instead of consuming low-fat dairy foods, think again. One supplement doesn't replace the whole package of health-protective nutrients in low-fat milk and yogurt. Also, recent research suggests women who drink three or more servings of milk or yogurt a day tend to be leaner than milk-abstainers. Milk can help you lose -- not gain -- weight.
This means, fuel your body with enough breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack to curb your appetite (and energize your exercise program). Then, eat a lighter dinner. Think small calorie deficit. That is, consuming 100 fewer calories after dinner (theoretically) translates into losing 10 pounds of fat per year.
To find peace with food and your body, meet with a registered dietitian (R.D.) who specializes in sports nutrition. This professional can develop a personalized food plan that fits your needs. To find a local R.D., go to www.eatright.org and enter your zip code into the referral network.
Also ask yourself: Am I really overweight? Maybe there is just more of you to love. Your body may not be quite as perfect as it once was at the height of your athletic career, but it can be good enough. I encourage you to focus on being fit and healthy, rather than being thin at any cost. No weight will ever do the enormous job of creating midlife happiness.
Sports dietitian Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., counsels casual and competitive athletes at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, MA (617-383-6100). Her best-selling Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Food Guide for Marathoners and Cyclist's Food Guide are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com.
Copyright Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., April 2005