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What's the best way to prevent weight gain during menopause? Experts explain

Hormonal fluctuations related to this midlife change can cause weight gain, especially around the belly. Here’s what you can do to combat it, say experts.

The onset of menopause, the point when a woman hasn’t had a period for the past 12 months, and the bodily changes that occur in the years leading up to it can trigger a number of symptoms, including weight gain. During perimenopause or the menopausal transition, production of the female hormones — estrogen and progesterone — shift, which causes a redistribution of fat to your belly. Weight gain and an expanding waistline are common complaints during this period, according to Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and co-author with Hillary Wright of “The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness.”

“Aging reduces your calorie-burning capacity and a reduction in estrogen often results in extra belly fat,” Ward told TODAY. She also cautioned that the shift in estrogen levels can also have consequences for bone and heart health. So, even if your main goal in dieting during menopause or perimenopause is to lose weight, there are other factors to consider.

A health-minded menopause diet can help you manage these issues and lose weight — or prevent weight gain in the first place.

What is a menopause diet?

There’s no singular menopause diet, however, Ward pointed out that the menopause diet plan in her book with Wright grew out of decades of working with women, personal experiences and a deep dive into the scientific literature. The research resulted in an eating plan that works well both before and after menopause. Here are the basic principles of the book’s menopause diet:

  • Eat a plant-based diet. “A balanced eating plan rich in plant foods supplies the right mix of healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, therefore promoting better health in women, particularly those ages 45 and older who may be going through the menopause transition,” said Ward.
  • Eat according to your body clock. Ward explained that we are ruled by natural body rhythms that affect our health. “Meal timing is one of the most important principles of a menopause diet,” she said, adding that meal timing is involved in weight control, regulating blood glucose levels, better sleep and possibly lowering cancer risk.
  • Know your calorie limit. It’s an inconvenient truth, but trial and error is an unavoidable part of the weight-control process, and women over age 40 will need to adjust their food intake to avoid menopausal weight gain. “We hate the thought of counting every calorie, and we realize that the thought of doing that can trigger bad memories of dieting. However, everyone has a calorie ‘budget,’ and simply eating a plant-based diet may not be enough if you aren’t aware of your limits,” Ward said.

Science-backed benefits of a menopause diet

Ward told TODAY that the menopause diet in her book is a mash-up of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. Similarly, it encourages consuming ample amounts of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and other nutritious foods to help women feel satisfied. This is key, she said, “so women don’t reach for that extra serving or two of snack chips, candy and cookies.” The Mediterranean and DASH diets have been studied extensively and findings suggest that both diets can contribute to health improvements, such as a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and healthier blood pressure levels.

Additionally, said Ward, “a Mediterranean-style eating pattern reduces the chances of being overweight, and women may experience fewer symptoms associated with menopause, so their quality of life may improve.” She also noted that this approach is “good for your gut, lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and may help improve mood in menopausal women.”

Can you lose weight during menopause?

Losing weight may be more challenging during the transition to menopause, but some eating patterns may be better than others. Ward suggested that the best way to lose weight during menopause likely involves eating higher levels of protein and lower levels of carbohydrates than the Mediterranean and DASH plans. In one large observational study from the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national health study and government program, women who closely followed the reduced carbohydrate eating plan (about 40% carbohydrate, moderate in fat and higher in protein) were at a decreased risk for postmenopausal weight gain. On the other hand, a low-fat diet, which was about 60% carbohydrate, seemed to promote weight gain among these women.

Ward explained that unlike traditional eating plans, including those designed for weight loss, her book’s menopause diet encompasses multiple pillars, including a plant-based eating plan with more protein and less carbohydrates, a focus on meal timing, calorie control and regular exercise. “It’s a satisfying and enjoyable way to eat,” she said, adding that nothing is off-limits. “You don’t have to worry about having dinner and drinks with friends, going on vacation or having to follow an unrealistically restrictive plan for the rest of your life.” That said, she noted, if you want to lose weight during menopause, you should probably be consuming the minimum amount of added sugars, highly refined grains and alcohol.

Ward also stressed the importance of physical activity for weight loss and other problems that can arise as you enter menopause. “Regular exercise maintains muscle and bone health, reduces the likelihood for heart disease, lowers type 2 diabetes and cancer risk, reduces stress and more,” she said.

What you’ll eat on a menopause diet

While nothing is excluded, these foods are emphasized on the menopause diet:

  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy foods
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains

A sample day on a menopause diet

Here’s what a day of eating on the menopause diet by Ward and Wright looks like. Since meal timing is important, snacks are ideally eaten before dinner.

  • Breakfast: 1/2 cup of oats made with 1 cup of low-fat milk mixed with 2 teaspoons of almond butter and a small, sliced banana served with 1 scrambled or hard cooked egg and coffee with low-fat milk.
  • Lunch: Tuna mixed with 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise layered with lettuce and tomato between toasted whole-wheat bread. Serve with sliced red peppers.
  • Dinner: Salmon served with 1/2 cup of cooked whole-wheat pasta tossed with 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil and roasted broccoli.
  • Snacks: 1/2 cup each plain, nonfat Greek yogurt and berries (fresh or frozen); 3 cups popcorn sprinkled with 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese.

Can you achieve long-term results on a menopause diet?

Ward explains that because the menopause diet in her and Wright’s book includes satisfying portions of enjoyable foods, and since it’s not overly restrictive, it’s more likely to be sustainable and effective. “The word ‘diet’ invokes deprivation, but a menopause diet should be thought of as a way to enhance well-being,” Ward said. “This eating pattern can help you look and feel your best while reducing the risk of chronic conditions that may affect your quality of life later on.” She also pointed out that no one, including dietitians, eats perfectly all the time. The menopause diet is meant to help you make small changes to your routine that will stick in the long run.