If you don’t know someone who has complained of having gained weight after menopause, then you must be living under a rock, because, whether it is physiologically related or not, somewhere in your circle of besties is a woman who saw her weight go up around menopause. Then again, it might have gone up after attending “The Empty Nest Cooking School in Tuscany. Here’s the thing, not only is post-menopausal weight gain not an absolute given, it’s a great time to put down the value sized bag of pretzels and redirect.
“I always tell women to look at this as a time where they can finally put their own health first and make some good changes,” says Libby Mills, a Philadelphia–based registered dietitian and health coach who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
What is happening to your body before and during menopause can impact the number on the scale, mainly because a perfect storm of a slower metabolism that comes naturally with getting older is meeting up with the loss of estrogen that occurs during menopause. The result is not just a loss of muscle mass (think underarm wings) but a redistribution of body fat to your midsection (some call it the menopause muffin top, others dub it the menopot). And if you’re one of the many women in menopause dealing with ongoing insomnia, chances are good your daytime energy is shot, which makes it that much more tempting to reach for junk food or calorie-laden comfort foods.
“It doesn’t just seem harder to keep your weight in check, it actually is harder to stay at a healthy weight at this point of life,” says Holly L. Thacker, MD, director of the Center for Specialized Women’s Health at the Cleveland Clinic. Without active intervention, she says the extra pounds can up your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and insulin resistance.
Now back to those good changes. Dr. Thacker and Mills both agree that you don’t have to accept weight gain as a given. “Take a closer look at your food choices and get in a good 30 minutes a day of exercise and you’ll be in a better position to control your weight,” says Dr. Thacker, who’s a big fan of strength training to protect lean muscle tissue.
As for the foods you should choose, Mills advocates a “fill in the blanks” approach to meal planning. “At every meal and snack,” she explains, “you need lean protein, fiber and a little bit of healthy fat to help your body absorb the nutrients. From there you’re just filling in the blanks with foods you like that hit those targets.”
Protein not only protects your lean body tissue, it also helps keep you full between meals. Just about every American needs to eat more fiber—the rule is 14 grams per 1,000 calories—so that means choosing more whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils), vegetables and fruit. Nutrients that are especially important after menopause include vitamin B12 (for energy and healthy red blood cells), vitamin D and magnesium (to help you better absorb calcium) and, of course, calcium (1,200 milligrams a day is needed to maintain bone strength and ward off osteoporosis). Check out the list of good post-menopausal foods at the end of this piece to add them to your weekly grocery or farmer’s market run. If you are a committed calorie counter, you can always visit Choosemyplate.gov and click on “Online Tools” to find the “My Plate Plan” calculator, or better still, focus more on what you eat and less on how big the caloric number. A whole bushel of kale won’t hurt you.
Notice what word hasn’t come up? That’s right. Dieting. Even if your doctor has recommended you take steps to lose weight, Mills stresses that the word carries too much baggage for women and should be wiped from your vocabulary. “Studies show that trying to eliminate foods in the name of weight loss just backfires,” says Mills, who tweets at @nutricooking. “No one should give up foods they enjoy.” Instead, plan out your meals with an eye toward nutrient-rich foods that will meet your energy needs and carry you through from one meal to the next. Couple that with increased physical activity (60 to 90 minutes a day, vs. the recommended 30) and “you’re on a successful weight loss course,” she says.
Good Foods to Eat During Menopause
- Apricots, avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes. Why? They’re good sources of potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure.
- Berries. Why? They’re high in fiber, low in calories and packed with disease-fighting antioxidants.
- Dark, leafy greens. Why? Where to begin… how about they’re high in fiber and rich in calcium and vitamin K, both of which help support strong bones.
- Iron-rich foods. Why? Hormonal changes conspire against your energy levels, and iron-rich foods are one antidote. A few choices: lean red meats, poultry, fish, kale, spinach, lentils, beans.
- Salmon and other oily fish. Why? They’re one of the few good food sources of vitamin D, which your body needs to absorb calcium. Plus, they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to raise good cholesterol.
- Whole grains. Why? In a word: Fiber. Studies show the soluble fiber in whole grains help your body remove cholesterol. Plus, it’s key to a healthy digestive system. Good choices: oatmeal, whole wheat bread, popcorn, quinoa.
- Yogurt. Why? It’s another good source of calcium, plus it’s a good protein choice and contains probiotics for a healthier GI tract. Look for low-sugar varieties, or buy plain yogurt and add your own sweet or savory stir-ins.
- Water. Why? Okay, it’s not a food, but it is necessary to keep your body systems functioning and, hello, it comes in handy during a hot flash.
For everything you need and deserve on your menopause journey, check out our Menopause Registry.