If you know your body, you also know where extra pounds tend to show up first: the hips, thighs, breasts, and so on. But shifting hormone levels can change all of that, causing fat to settle in places that have never been “trouble spots.” The most common place to see perimenopause and menopause spread? Right at the waistline.
How estrogen levels affect fat storage
Nope—you’re not imagining it. As you age, it gets harder to button up your jeans. Even though most of us tend to put on a little weight as we get older, you might find your old clothes don’t quite fit, even if the scale still reads the same number.
The reason: hormones play a big role in telling our bodies where to store fat. Estrogen is highest in peak reproductive years, playing a part in helping us have and maintain monthly cycles and fertility. During these childbearing-age years, estrogen levels guide our bodies to strategically store adipose tissue in specific locations—mostly in the hips and thighs.
Estrogen and body fat in perimenopause
At the start of perimenopause, some women have higher levels of estrogen in relation to progesterone, a hormone that balances the effects of estrogen. With estrogen as the dominant hormone, you may notice that you’re gaining weight—and it’s happening primarily in the hips and thighs. Because our bodies don’t create as many new fat cells as we age, that fat may cause existing fat cells to expand. When new fat cells push on the structure of the skin, it creates cellulite.
But, as you move toward menopause, your estrogen inevitably declines. Even though low estrogen isn’t directly correlated to weight gain, it can affect body composition and change where your body stores fat. Instead of fuller hips and thighs, it’s common to notice a pooch developing around the midsection. Most of that fat should be subcutaneous fat—fat right under the skin. However, sometimes more extreme weight gain can cause a buildup of visceral fat, which surrounds the organs and can be unhealthy.
How to lose perimenopause belly fat
Exercise, portion control, and focusing on protein can help you deal with perimenopause belly fat and send the extra layer around your middle packing.
Go for satiety over calorie restriction
You know how, right after a meal, you’re not thinking about food? At first, that may be due to feeling full—like there’s no more room in your stomach. And satiety is different. Satiety helps you avoid overeating by allowing you to feel satisfied even after your belly’s no longer full.
The best way to promote satiety is to put some thought into what makes up your meal. Ideally, you should go for fiber-rich whole foods. Make sure each meal includes protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Eggs, oatmeal, fish, vegetables, soups, and meat are all nutrient-dense options that are also filling. By choosing satiety-promoting options, you’ll limit your need to restrict calories. Excessive calorie restriction promotes weight loss short-term. But, over the long haul, it can cause hormone fluctuations beyond what you’re dealing with from perimenopause. It also can contribute to loss of muscle mass. (And, therefore, increased risk of bone loss as you head into menopause.)
Make room for yoga
Building balance and flexibility now helps you maintain greater health as you move from perimenopause to menopause. But another reason to say yes to yoga: its mind-body benefits. Yoga greatly reduces stress and your ability to cope with stressful situations, which helps maintain normal cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels lead to increased belly fat, along with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance makes it even more difficult to maintain or lose weight.
Start resistance training
We all know exercise does a body good. But so many women skip strength training in favor of cardio when the truth is: you need both. Lean muscle mass is more metabolically active than fat. That means it helps you burn more calories at rest and can help you lose or maintain your goal weight.
If you can, set up a meeting with a personal trainer—or ask your gym if they do one free consult or session. Even if that option’s not available, many fitness centers have knowledgeable employees who can walk you through how to use free weights or machines.
Gym’s just not your scene? Body weight exercises, like knee-down pushups, are a great way to start building strength. Resistance also offer a great workout and are easy store. Plus, they can be a gentler on joints than some weights or even body weight exercises.
Walk (or run, bike, or swim) it off
Best of all, aerobic exercise gets your blood flowing faster. That means it’s heart healthy and can reduce your risk for heart disease. It also helps you burn calories, which is important if you’re dealing with weight gain.
If you have trouble sticking to a routine, talk with a fitness professional. They can help with accountability, exercise recommendations, or help you find group classes that are a fit for your lifestyle. The person you work with should be familiar with the hormonal shifts women experience during perimenopause. For some women, intense cardio could put undue stress on the body. As estrogen declines, we go through joint, muscle, and vascular changes. Joint pain may arise and can make some exercises (and recovery) a challenge.
Be kind to yourself
In perimenopause, you can feel like (and be doing!) so many things right, only to wonder if you’re doing them in vain or missing something entirely. But the thing is: hormonal shifts can cause very stubborn weight gain and changes to body shape. If you’ve always really struggled with body image, this time of life can amplify those feelings and make you feel like your body isn’t under your control. Do what you can to stay healthy, focus on how you feel, and talk with medical and mental health providers about ways to minimize weight gain and how to accept natural changes associated with aging.