How to Prevent Dangerous Belly Fat After Menopause

Lose that Menopot

Mature woman practicing yoga in studio
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Of the many changes our bodies undergo as we get older, getting a thicker middle is one of the least appealing.  Women who have enjoyed flat stomachs throughout their adult lives may barely recognize their bulkier waistlines. But the fact menopots (and in men, "beer" bellies) are at least in part, a natural consequence of aging. Here's how you can avoid some of that fat migration as you go through and emerge from menopause.

Frustration and mystery:  Many studies have found that as older women go through the menopausal transition, they tend to lose lean muscle mass, gain fat, and suffer an expanding waistline to boot, even if their body weight remains stable. Determining exactly how much of this shape-shifting is due to the aging process, hormonal changes, or increasingly sedentary behaviour among older women has been a subject of ongoing debate.

Why worry about more belly fat?  If too much fat around our middles was simply a cosmetic nuisance, it might not deserve much thought.  That's probably true of subcutaneous abdominal fat - the kind of adipose tissue which lies on the outside of the abdominal muscle wall, just beneath the skin.

But visceral fat is another matter entirely; that's the fat surrounding our internal organs, deeper within the abdomen.

 It's metabolically active tissue, and leaves you at greater risk of age-related diseases like heart disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Unfortunately, some small studies have found that visceral fat - along with subcutaneous fat - tends to increase in women after menopause.


For example, a small investigation conducted by researchers from the Department of Molecular Endocrinology at Louisiana State University in 2008 found that among 106 older women subjects followed for 4 years, only those who finished menopause during the study period experienced a significant increase in visceral abdominal fat.  Interestingly, this fat increase began in the year or two prior to the onset of menopause in those subjects.

Dietary patterns shifted as well, with menopausal women eating more saturated fat, and lower amounts of appetite-satiating protein and fiber. Indeed, the researchers point to previous data that longevity-boosting fiber consumption alone has been identified as a predictor of whether or not an adult will gain weight.

All of the subjects - regardless of menopausal status - experienced an increase in the less-dangerous subcutaneous fat during over the course of the 4-year study.  All of the women were also less active over time, expending less energy (i.e. burning fewer calories) while awake, or asleep - but the shift was more pronounced in the menopausal subjects.


What really causes belly fat during and after menopause?  The researchers' conclusion? That fluctuating hormones (less estrogen, more follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH) affect fat metabolism, slowing it down and promoting fat deposits deeper within the abdomen rather than just beneath the skin.  Appetite preferences may be influenced as well, predisposing women to weight gain in their later years.

Can dangerous belly fat after menopause be avoided?  Here's the good news: regardless of the precise way that menopausal women tend to develop more visceral fat, certain lifestyle factors seem to influence how much of it we get. 

For example, data from a longitudinal study of more than 3,000 older American women going through menopause (Study of Women's Health Across the Nation - SWAN) revealed that those subjects regularly participating in physical activity like biking or walking for transportation experienced no gain in weight, and in many cases weight loss.  The researchers write in the American Journal of Epidemiology that maintaining or increasing physical activity in midlife can offset trends of increasing weight and expanding waist circumference.

Bottom line:  Studies like one published in 2009 in the journal Metabolism suggest women approaching menopause are facing a bit of an uphill battle when it comes to fending off abdominal fat. Using detailed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of female subjects' abdomens, it found that both types of belly fat increased in the 8 subjects after menopause - without any overall weight gain.  

To keep your waistline from expanding as you age, track your calorie intake and make sure you incorporate both aerobic and strength-training exercise into your regular routine. Such a regimen will help preserve your bones and your memory, as well as your physique.


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