Updated 11th August 2023

Menopause weight gain and why you should stop dieting

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Many factors can promote weight gain during menopause.

Among these are changes to your body shape, your gut microbiome, and the way you metabolize fat and sugar. Other factors are reduced exercise and sleep quality.

Rather than counting calories and dieting, eating nutritious foods and getting enough sleep and exercise can help you stay healthy and avoid unwanted weight gain.

Menopause begins when your periods have stopped for 12 months in a row. It's a natural, healthy transition.

During menopause and the years leading up to it — a stage called perimenopause — it’s common to have physical and psychological symptoms. Many people report weight gain and changes in mood, mental clarity, and sleep habits.

If you’ve noticed weight gain during this transition, rest assured that you’re not alone. In fact, the average woman gains about 5 pounds.

Your hormones change during menopause, and this may contribute to weight gain, along with the factors we mention above.

Read on to learn more about why weight gain happens during menopause. We also explore the health risks and list ZOE’s top, science-backed tips to prevent unwanted weight gain during this time.

Why does weight gain happen during menopause?

Many women gain weight during menopause, but research suggests that menopause itself may not be the cause. 

Different factors can lead to weight gain during menopause, including changes to your:

  • body composition

  • gut microbiome

  • fat and sugar metabolism

  • lifestyle patterns

We explore each of these factors in depth below.

Body composition

As you age, your body composition naturally changes. Your lean mass, or muscle mass, decreases, while the rate at which you gain fat mass increases.

While menopause may not directly cause weight gain, many scientists believe that changes to your hormone levels contribute to these differences in fat mass and distribution.  

Estrogen is one of the main sex hormones in females. During menopause, estrogen levels begin to decrease. 

As this happens, the accumulation and distribution of fat changes. A recent study found that the number of fat cells in female participants actually decreased, but the amount of fat stored in each fat cell increased.

Menopause and belly fat

Where you store fat also changes. Before menopause, women mostly store fat on their hips and thighs. In contrast, men store their fat around their bellies. 

After menopause, fat accumulates around women’s bellies. This is called visceral fat, and it lies deep inside your belly, in the spaces between your abdominal organs.

Our unpublished research found greater amounts of visceral fat in women who are in perimenopause and those who have gone through menopause. 

Higher levels of visceral fat increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. 

Menopause and the gut microbiome

Your gut microbiome is the collection of all the microbes in your gut. They influence your body’s responses to foods and are important for your overall health.

Research suggests that the diversity of the microbiome is linked to estrogen levels and menopausal state in women. Because of the changes happening in the body during menopause, there may be a change in microbiome diversity, as well.

ZOE’s PREDICT study, the world’s largest in-depth nutrition study of its kind, explores the relationship between your gut microbiome and your health. The results so far indicate that the gut microbiome is linked to how your body’s metabolism responds to food. 

That’s why changes in the microbiome as a result of menopause may contribute to changes in weight.

Based on this cutting-edge research, the ZOE program can help you learn more about your body’s unique metabolic responses to food.

Fat and sugar metabolism

Recent studies also suggest that the way your body metabolizes fat changes during menopause. 

ZOE scientists are currently exploring the relationship between menopause and your body’s metabolic responses. Their evidence suggests that it isn’t just fat metabolism that changes during this time. 

They found that during fasting and after eating, blood sugar, blood fat, and inflammation markers were higher in postmenopausal women than those who hadn't yet gone through menopause.

Understanding how menopause may affect your body’s metabolic responses may help you avoid unwanted weight gain during the transition.

Lifestyle changes

Beyond the biological changes of menopause, behavioral factors can shift, as well. For example, as we age, many of us sleep less or don’t sleep as well, and this can contribute to weight gain.

Night sweats in the time leading up to menopause may also make it harder for you to sleep.

Research by ZOE scientists found that your sleep affects your blood sugar levels the next day, after you eat. Specifically, not getting enough sleep can lead to blood sugar spikes after breakfast.

This, in turn, may result in larger blood sugar dips, which increase the likelihood of eating more throughout the day.

Also, it's common to do less physical activity during this stage, which can contribute to weight gain. 

Editor’s summary

Many factors can lead to weight gain during menopause, including changes to your body composition, gut microbiome, fat and sugar metabolism, and lifestyle patterns.

As you age, your lean mass decreases, and the rate at which you gain fat mass increases. Your body also stores fat differently during and after menopause, with fat around the belly increasing.

Meanwhile, hormone changes during menopause can affect your gut microbiome and metabolism, and you may find yourself sleeping less. These factors can also contribute to weight gain.

Hormone replacement therapy

Many women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help manage menopause symptoms.

Research suggests that HRT is safe for most women and may improve unwanted side effects, including hot flashes, bone loss, and vaginal atrophy. This involves the lining of your vagina becoming thinner and drier.

HRT has not been scientifically shown to cause weight gain. In fact, unpublished ZOE research found that postmenopausal women who take HRT tend to have less visceral fat than those who don’t take HRT.

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Health risks of weight gain during menopause

Having overweight or obesity during any stage of life, including menopause, can have negative health effects. 

Obesity is associated with an increased risk of:

  • cardiovascular disease

  • metabolic syndrome

  • type 2 diabetes

  • stroke

  • mental health conditions

  • osteoarthritis

  • gallbladder disease

  • early death

Menopause itself also increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis. This is one reason why looking after your weight and your health is important.

Science-backed tips to avoid weight gain

Below are some strategies backed by science and that can help you prevent unwanted weight gain and feel better.

Stop dieting

Contrary to the claims of fad diets and their proponents, crash dieting is not an effective way to lose weight.

A drastic reduction in calorie intake actually works against your desire to shed pounds. It can even have long-term negative effects on your weight loss goals.

Your body needs calories for energy. When it doesn’t get enough, it goes into survival mode and adapts to the situation.

This means that your body starts to burn less energy by lowering your metabolic rate. As a result, long-term weight loss becomes more difficult to achieve and maintain.

To avoid weight gain during menopause, develop a healthy diet rich in minimally processed foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, lean proteins, and sources of healthy fat, like olive oil and avocados.

It's a good idea to consider ultra-processed foods — like baked goods, sugary drinks, and chips — an occasional treat. 

Eating the best foods for your individual metabolism can help you avoid weight gain during menopause. You can learn more about your body’s unique response to foods with the ZOE at-home test kit.

Look after your gut

A healthy gut is key to your overall health. ZOE scientists have found 15 “good” types of gut bacteria that are linked with better health and 15 “bad” bugs that are indicators of worse health outcomes, including more visceral fat.

Using the ZOE at-home test, it’s possible for the first time to learn which gut bugs you have and which foods can help you support the "good" ones.

Here are our top tips for looking after your gut:

  • Eat plenty of unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, and whole grains.

  • Eat a variety of plant foods that have different colors — your "good" gut microbes like diverse foods that contain fiber and polyphenols, a type of antioxidant.

  • Aim to eat 30 different plant foods a week to get that variety.

  • Try fermented foods, like unsweetened yogurt, aged cheddar, parmesan, Swiss cheeses (like gouda), cottage cheese with live or active cultures, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha.

  • Avoid eating late at night to give your gut bugs enough time to clean up the lining of your gut.

  • Limit your intake of ultra-processed foods, like fast foods, baked goods, and sugary drinks. You could view these as occasional treats.

Prof. Tim Spector, ZOE co-founder and gut microbiome expert, shared his tips for gut health in this article.

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is a very important time for our bodies. But one-third of adults in the United States say that they're not getting the recommended 7 or more hours.  

Numerous studies have shown that not getting enough sleep is associated with obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

ZOE's research has found a link between the amount of sleep you get and your body’s blood sugar responses the following day.

If you're struggling, try to go to sleep earlier. This helps prevent blood sugar spikes after breakfast the next day.

If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, avoid sugary foods, and opt for a high-protein or slow-release carbohydrate breakfast instead.

Some strategies for sleeping better during menopause include:

  • developing an effective nighttime routine and sleep schedule

  • limiting naps in the afternoon

  • avoiding screen devices, like TV, right before bedtime

  • paying attention to how large meals and caffeine later in the day affect your sleep

  • exercising regularly during the day, if possible

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get 7 or more hours of sleep at a time, but your own needs may be a little different.

Find out how many hours work best for you, and strive for that each night.

Move more

Current guidelines suggest that each week, adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, with muscle strengthening activities on 2 days of the week.

Moderate-intensity exercise, also known as cardio or aerobic exercise, includes anything that gets your heart rate up.

This can be dancing, actively cleaning the house, swimming, going for a walk, or anything similar that you enjoy. The key is to move in a way that gets your heart pumping a little faster.

Muscle strengthening activities make your muscles work harder. Yoga, lifting weights, gardening, and using resistance bands are just a few examples.

It's important to move in a way that works for you and your lifestyle.

These are guidelines to work toward, but any physical activity is better than none at all. Start where you are, and begin by making small changes.

You might add one walk around the neighborhood each week. Or, you might start taking the stairs or parking toward the back of the parking lot to get in some extra steps. Small activities can add up to big health benefits

Editor’s summary

Making certain lifestyle adjustments can reduce the likelihood of unwanted weight gain during menopause. 

Avoid crash dieting. Instead, aim to eat a variety of plants, limit heavily processed foods, and opt for fermented foods.

In addition, try to get plenty of sleep by developing an effective nighttime routine, limiting naps, and paying attention to your meal sizes and caffeine consumption closer to bedtime.

Finally, aim to move more each week. Any physical exercise can have an effect. 

Will menopause weight gain go away?

Many factors that can lead to weight gain during menopause are still in effect after menopause. Any new weight won’t disappear when menopause ends.

Also, because of your body’s changes during menopause, lifestyle approaches that once limited weight gain may no longer have the same impact. 

With that said, the strategies we mention above — having a healthy diet with a variety of plants, sleeping well, and exercising — can help make managing your weight easier after menopause.

So, while many people gain weight during this time, that weight doesn’t need to be permanent.

How much weight do you gain during menopause?

On average, women gain around 5 pounds.

Research also suggests that women gain an average of 1.5 pounds per year during their 50s and 60s.

This is true regardless of ethnicity, race, and body size. And this weight gain may coincide with menopause.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these numbers are just averages — everyone’s experience of menopause and aging is different. 

The stages of menopause

There are three stages of menopause:

  • Perimenopause: This is a transitional stage in which levels of your sex hormones begin to fluctuate, then decline. Eventually, your periods stop.

  • Menopause: True menopause begins 12 months after your last period. Some people also mean the earlier, transitional stage when they say “menopause.”

  • Postmenopause: This is the stage of life after menopause ends.

The changes that can lead to weight gain begin during perimenopause. And some people find that they gain weight more easily during each of these stages.

Summary

Many factors can influence weight gain during menopause. Changes in fat and sugar metabolism, body composition, the gut microbiome, and lifestyle habits can all affect your weight. 

To avoid unwanted weight gain during menopause, be physically active, get plenty of rest, and eat a high-quality diet rich in minimally processed foods that keep you (and your gut) healthy. 

But it's important to have a diet that you enjoy — engaging in the emotional, social, and cultural pleasures of food is crucial for your overall well-being.

At ZOE, we believe that no food is off limits, so don’t deny yourself small pleasures. 

We're all unique in our responses to food. To find out which foods are best at nourishing your body and your gut microbiome, take our free quiz.

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