If you struggled to button your jeans this morning, gal, you are NOT alone.

Most women gain some weight during midlife – anywhere from two pounds to 15 is within “average” range, depending on whom you ask. Like most things menopause, the experience can vary widely from woman to woman, but some weight gain is common.

While it doesn’t appear that menopause itself causes weight gain, where body fat goes is impacted by the decrease in reproductive hormones. In midlife, weight is more likely to gather around the middle instead of in the hips and thighs.

Hey, wherever you wear your weight, however much weight you wear, we think you look terrific. However, because excess abdominal weight brings more risk factors, it’s our Symptom of the Month.

Why do I suddenly have a belly?

Even women who typically carry weight in their hips and thighs can find themselves gaining around the middle once they hit perimenopause.

Why there? Well, estrogen, according to Gloria Richard-Davis, MD, tells the body to deposit fat in the thighs and backside rather than around the middle. When estrogen declines, the body begins to accumulate abdominal fat.

Why does it matter where fat lands? Metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance

A larger waist circumference puts women at risk of metabolic syndrome (also known rather more dramatically as “Syndrome X”). Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health issues that, together, significantly increase health risks.

You are said to have Metabolic Syndrome if you have three or more of the following measurements, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Abdominal obesity (40+ inch waistline for men; 35+ inches for women)
  • Triglyceride level of 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or greater
  • HDL (“good”) cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women
  • Systolic blood pressure (top number) of 130 mm Hg or greater, or diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 85 mm Hg or greater
  • Fasting glucose of 100 mg/dL or more

According to the Mayo Clinic, metabolic syndrome, or even just one of its components (like larger waist size), can lead to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.

You may also have heard the term “insulin resistance” – it’s a warning flag for heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver, vascular disease, and stroke. Increased belly fat is considered a primary risk factor for insulin resistance.

In insulin resistance, your body’s cells don’t allow the natural hormone to do its job of making glucose available for energy. When your body ignores insulin at normal levels, your pancreas has to start producing more of the hormone to compensate and continue to meet the body’s demand for energy. Blood sugar levels rise, and above a certain level, the person is said to be diabetic.

So yes, increased abdominal fat can be a real danger to your health.

What to do about belly fat?

Sadly, it’s difficult to impossible to lose weight from a specific area of your body. The best way to manage abdominal fat – if you’re not genetically predisposed to lose from your belly first – is to lower bodyfat overall.

And the steps to lowering overall bodyfat and otherwise getting healthier? Yep:

  1. Eat well. Lots of fiber, greens, veggies. Good for you, they’ll fill you up. However, you may burn through the fruits and veggies quickly, so make sure your meals and snacks also contain protein and healthy fats. The Independent recommends soluble fiber (or fibre, in this case ?) in foods like avocados, Brussels sprouts, and flaxseeds for improved digestion and avoiding the afternoon slump.
  2. Hydrate. Drink water, not sugar! Not only is water good for you, it can give you some temporary feelings of fullness, which might help you reduce portion sizes in your next meal. How much water? Our PTs recommend that you calculate the water you need by dividing your body weight in half to get the number of fluid ounces: two-thirds of that should be plain, uncarbonated, unflavored, no-sugary-stuff water.
  3. Eat mindfully. Turn off the television, put away the smart phone, just back away from screens altogether. Sit at a table (no hunching over the kitchen sink) with an actual plate and silver (and a glass of water) and enjoy your food. Being aware of the tastes and textures, of the people you’re with, all those good things, can help you eat more slowly and feel full sooner.
  4. Exercise. Sitting too much can contribute to your risk of metabolic syndrome. Find that thing you’ll do – walking, biking, swimming, dancing, gardening – and do it. Lifting weights is particularly good, so do that too, if you can: you build muscle mass, which helps further reduce visceral fat.
  5. Sleep. I know, I know, way easier said than done, particularly at this time of life. But we know lack of sleep contributes to poor dietary choices and subsequent weight gain, so take steps to get good sleep.
  6. Ditch the sugar. So hard around the holidays, but an excess of sugar does you no good at all. Even the temporary lift in mood is exactly that … temporary. Sugar messes with your hormones and generally disrupts your health. If you can’t cut it out, at least cut back.

The good news is that as little as a 5% reduction in body weight can help with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Weight loss can be tough – even when just 5% is your goal – but you can do it with a few lifestyle modifications. Build some healthy routines. Stick to them until they become habit (remember how hard it used to be to remember to take your reusable grocery bags into the store with you?). Enjoy a healthier you.

Need some support? Join a group like our Midlife & Menopause Solutions group on Facebook, and we’ll be behind you all the way.

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Shannon Perry

Shannon is a celebrated author and global educator. Whether she’s interviewing a physician or producing a podcast, her appetite for research, facts, and truth culminates in credible health education and programming that women can rely on. An avid runner, cyclist, and climber, Shannon knows a thing or two about thriving in midlife and lives in Seattle with her cat, dog and boyfriend.

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