Hormonal fluctuations at midlife cause more than just hot flashes and night sweats—they can lead to weight gain, too.
By Beverly Burmeier
When Cathy Hofer, 56, of LaPorte, Indiana, entered her menopausal years, she was surprised to find a muffin top peeking out over her waistband. She couldn’t understand why—the high school choir teacher rarely snacked and worked out four or five times a week in her home gym. Wasn’t that enough to stay in shape? “Despite those efforts, I watched myself gain weight,” Hofer says.
What Hofer didn’t know is that menopause itself can actually lead to weight gain. Nutritionist Mickey Harpaz, PhD, says, “Many women don’t realize the importance and consequences of their bodies gradually burning fewer calories as they age, and of the decreasing estrogen levels that cause the body to deposit fat cells at a higher rate than before menopause.”
The North American Menopause Society estimates that 6,000 American women reach menopause every day. Harpaz, who practices in Redding, Connecticut and is the author of Menopause Reset (Rodale Books), says nine out of ten will add pounds, generally around the midsection.
Hormones Out of Kilter
Insulin resistance is a crucial reason women gain weight as they pass through menopause—even if their caloric intake hasn’t changed, says Florida weight management specialist Caroline J. Cederquist, MD.
In this condition, insulin—the body’s chief blood-sugar control hormone—has a difficult time moving glucose into cells to be burned as fuel. “The resulting energy deficiency stresses the body so that further hormones are released, signaling the body to both store more fat and to increase appetite. The result is weight gain,” Cederquist explains.
Hofer believes a hormonal imbalance contributed to her struggle with belly bulge. Here’s why: As estrogen production from ovaries decreases, a woman’s body looks for other estrogen sources.
“Fat cells can produce estrogen, so her body works harder to turn calories into fat to increase estrogen levels. Unfortunately fat cells don’t burn calories the way muscle cells do,” Harpaz says.
The type of estrogen produced also changes; ovaries create estradiol while fat produces estrone.