Weight gain during menopause?
The transition to menopause is often characterised by weight gain and increased visceral fat. Weight gain is a prevalent occurrence during perimenopause and menopause, impacting around 50% of women. This weight gain is primarily concentrated in the abdominal and upper body areas. Some studies indicate that as estrogen levels decline, there is a rise in visceral fat, increasing from 5-8% of total body weight to 10-15% of total body weight. Simultaneously, the metabolic rate decreases as lean muscle mass diminishes.
Menopause represents the irreversible cessation of ovarian function and the permanent cessation of the menstrual cycle. To confirm the onset of menopause, menstruation must be absent for 12 consecutive months. Reproductive function at this stage ceases due to the depletion of sex hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone. Research in different countries indicates varying age thresholds for menopause onset. The average age is 51 years, though approximately 10% of women experience menopause earlier (between 40-45 years), and in 1% of women, it may occur prematurely before the age of 40.
Perimenopause is the period that precedes menopause itself. This period is characterized by irregular menstruation, which is primarily due to fluctuating levels of sex hormones. Many women during this period complain of hot flashes and night sweats. Perimenopause can begin four to eight years before the onset of menopause. During perimenopause, the hormonal levels of estrogen and progesterone do not decrease linearly but are rather in a state of imbalance, fluctuating between elevated and lowered levels. This is what can lead to all the symptoms like irregular menses, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, mood changes, depression, and anxiety.
Nutrition during menopause - the Mediterranean diet
According to recent research, the Mediterranean diet is one of the most studied dietary patterns when it comes to nutrition during menopause. The Mediterranean diet can be beneficial both during menopause itself and in the transition to it. Following this dietary regimen can help control weight and is characterised by a reduced cardiometabolic risk.
Plant-based estrogens or phytoestrogens are plant-derived compounds with a chemical structure similar to estrogen and can have estrogen-like effects in the body. Some studies show that phytoestrogens can help alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness by binding to estrogen receptors and mimicking estrogen's effects in the body.
However, the evidence for the effectiveness of phytoestrogens for menopausal symptoms is mixed. Some studies suggest that phytoestrogens may be helpful, while others suggest they may not be effective or could even have negative effects. Additionally, there are concerns about the potential long-term effects of phytoestrogens on the body, especially in women with a history of breast cancer or other estrogen-sensitive conditions.
What are foods rich in phytoestrogens?
- Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are a good source of phytoestrogens and are also high in fibre and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Soy products: Soybeans and soy products like tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame are some of the most well-known sources of phytoestrogens.
- Legumes: Many legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and beans contain phytoestrogens.
- Whole grains: Whole grain foods like oats, barley, and rye contain phytoestrogens, as well as fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
- Fruits: Some fruits like strawberries, peaches, and raspberries contain phytoestrogens.
- Vegetables: Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and cabbage also contain phytoestrogens.
It's important to note that the levels of phytoestrogens can vary widely depending on the type of food and how it's prepared. Maintaining a well-rounded diet that is abundant in essential macro and micronutrients plays a crucial role during menopause, alongside staying physically active. In my next article, we will delve into more practical tips that can be applied throughout the phases of perimenopause and menopause.
- Barrea, L., et al., Mediterranean diet as medical prescription in menopausal women with obesity: a practical guide for nutritionists. Crit Rev Foos Sci Nutrition, 61(7), pp. 1201-1211.
- Chen, M.N., Lin, C.C, and Liu, C.F., 2015. Efficacy of phytoestrogens for menopausal symptoms: a meta-analysis and systematic review. Climacteric, 18(2), pp. 260-269.
- Cano, A., et al., The Mediterranean diet and menopausal health: An EMAS position statement. Maturitas, 139(1), pp. 90-97.
- American Menopause Society (2023). Changes in Weight and Fat Distribution. Available at: https://www.menopause.org/for-women/sexual-health-menopause-online/changes-at-midlife/changes-in-weight-and-fat-distribution. Accessed: 5th November 2023.
- Hillard T. et al., 2017. BMS Handbook: Management of the Menopause. Sixth Edition, British Menopause Society.British Menopause Society (2023).
- Menopause, Nutrition, and Weight Gain. Available at: https://thebms.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/19-BMS-TfC-Menopause-Nutrition-and-Weight-Gain-June 2023-A.pdf. Accessed: 5th November 2023.