Women experiencing perimenopause often undergo extensive physical and emotional changes throughout this period of life. While it can feel uncomfortable, foreign and stressful to navigate the symptoms and emotions that can come with peri, some side effects are more distressing than others. Many women find that the weight gain, particularly around their middle or belly area, which tends to occur alongside menopause is one of the more challenging symptoms to accept. However, while your chances of gaining some fat during this time of life are higher, if you understand the factors causing this increase in belly fat, you can make some simple lifestyle tweaks and dietary changes to help manage or reduce this fat gain. 

First, let’s dive into the factors driving the weight gain around your belly, also known as visceral fat.

  1. You’re doing less physical activity.

Women going through peri can experience symptoms such as hot flushes, poor sleep, low mood, low energy and headaches, all of which can make it much harder to hit the gym or find the motivation to smash out a sweaty workout. These symptoms can leave you feeling less confident in yourself and your body, less inclined to make healthy choices when it comes to food and movement, and less in control of your strength, fitness and physical ability.

Not to mention, peri can mark a challenging life stage mentally for many women. At this time, many people are navigating the difficulties of ageing or elderly parents, navigating teenagers or young children, complicated work situations or moving towards retirement, and many other new obstacles. You may notice you’re not feeling as energised as normal, or your moods are lower and your willingness to put others first decreases. You might feel more irritable, stressed, moody. All of these things can again make it more difficult to find the energy and motivation to exercise in the same ways you may have previously, which over time can contribute to weight gain – particularly around your middle.

 

  1. Your sleep is disturbed.

40-60% of women also experience sleep disturbances at some stage during perimenopause. This can include having trouble falling or staying asleep, waking early in the morning, or waking throughout the night. This can be due to many different factors (or a combination) including:

  • Changes in your production of hormones which support sleep, including melatonin, cortisol and growth hormone
  • Other peri symptoms such as night sweats or hot flushes keep you awake or wake you up through the night
  • Mood changes, including depression or anxiety
  • Changes to your natural circadian rhythm (or your sleep-wake cycle, again hormones play a big role in keeping this consistent, so changes to your hormones can interfere with your normal feelings of tiredness and wakefulness at the “right” or ideal times during the day and night)
  • Other lifestyle factors, such as doing less physical activity, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, and having poor sleep hygiene or no consistent nighttime routine or bedtime.

Sleeping for less than 7 hours per night may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and weight gain, mood changes and diabetes, and worsen your quality of life and general health. So this is something you want to address and consider making changes to in order to support better quality and quantity of sleep. Similarly, reduced sleep can result in changes to your metabolism, increasing the risk of weight gain around your stomach.

  1. Your bowels and nutrient absorption can be compromised.

As you undergo menopause, most women experience some decline in their digestive function, or uncomfortable gut symptoms such as bowel or abdominal discomfort, bloating, gas, or changes to bowel movements. Studies suggest that decreasing levels of oestrogen and progesterone are somewhat responsible for the increase in unwanted GI (gastrointestinal) symptoms, which can also interfere with your digestive system function. The muscles involved in your digestive system may degrade or weaken during perimenopause, meaning your body’s ability to digest your food and absorb the nutrients it contains can decrease.

In turn, this can have flow-on effects for the health of your bowels and bowel movements, meaning you may experience diarrhoea, constipation,ongoing bloating  or anything in between. If you’re not absorbing nutrients from your food properly, and your digestion isn’t working as normal, this can again result in weight gain around your middle over time.

  1. Your muscle mass begins to decline.

One of the most common aspects of peri is that your reduced production of oestrogen results in the amount of lean muscle mass stored in your body to gradually decline. Muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning the more of it you have, the more energy or calories you burn even when you’re at rest. So, naturally, when your muscle mass begins to decrease, your metabolism slows down and you burn less energy throughout the day. So if you’re using less energy and your diet isn’t changing at all, this often results in weight gain or fat storage around your waist.

Even if you’ve previously stored your fat around your thighs and hips (or elsewhere), the hormonal changes you experience during peri see this fat distribution move more towards your stomach. In fact, women who have undergone menopause tend to store between 15 to 20% of their total body weight on their bellies, compared to just 5 to 8% stored here in pre-menopausal women. This is largely the result of your reduced production of oestrogen, which is responsible for many of the typical peri symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats that you know and (don’t) love!

Belly fat, or visceral fat, is considered “unhealthy fat”, as it can increase your risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, dementia, and even worsen peri symptoms including hot flashes.

 

So now what? Here’s how to prevent gaining fat around your stomach…

Given your body’s energy expenditure, ability to break down and absorb nutrients from your food, sleep quality, hormone production and many other processes are going through significant change, it makes sense that your body will also change in response – unless you rethink your diet to support these transitions and manage any fat gain that may otherwise occur.

Your nutrient baselines or requirements change during peri, so you can’t just eat the same way you always have in the past and expect your body to stay the same. There are a few tweaks and considerations to take into account when it comes to your macronutrient intake moving forward.

  1. Consider your carbohydrates.

With your reduced activity levels and the changes to your hormone production, eating in the same way as you did when you were 30 is no longer suitable for your current body if you want to prevent weight gain. Another side effect of the lower oestrogen levels you experience during peri is that your appetite hormones change in response. 

Oestrogen plays a significant role in regulating your appetite and metabolism, acting to reduce your food intake and hunger levels. So when you produce less and less of this hormone, you’re less in control of your hunger and food choices, meaning you’re more likely to consume more food, or more energy-dense types of food – like high-sugar, or refined carbohydrates. Studies have shown that hormone replacement therapy with oestrogen is effective in counteracting the belly fat gain linked to peri, so we know that oestrogen levels are strongly contributing to this change in fat accumulation and distribution at this time in your life.

Oestrogen also acts to regulate your production of cortisol, or your stress hormone. When your levels drop, your cortisol production tends to increase – and this can lead to an increase in appetite. You may also notice you feel less satisfied or satiated after your meals thanks to these stress-induced appetite changes.

Oestrogen has an effect on your insulin levels too. When you enter perimenopause, your insulin sensitivity and ability to regulate your blood glucose levels tend to fall, again as a result of lower oestrogen production. This means you’re at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance, or other metabolic conditions which can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes or obesity – or an accumulation of fat around the midline. This reduced ability to tolerate and manage your blood sugar and insulin levels means the amount and distribution of carbohydrates you’re eating becomes more important than ever. Ideally, you want to spread your carbohydrate intake across the duration of the day, meaning you’re not consuming a huge amount of carb-heavy foods in one go at any single meal. This helps to manage your insulin and blood sugar levels, without causing significant spikes and crashes in your energy levels and putting you at risk of insulin resistance.

Under no circumstances should you try to cut carbs from your diet altogether. You need carbohydrate foods to provide your body and brain with energy and to get an adequate amount of fibre to keep your gut and digestive system healthy. But you should consider the quality of carbohydrate foods you’re choosing to eat. Opting for high-fibre, low GI carbohydrate sources can further help to prevent insulin resistance and weight gain, while still giving your body and gut the fibre you need for optimal digestion, nutrient absorption, and weight management. Plus, these higher-quality carbohydrates will keep you feeling fuller for longer, helping to combat the effects of low oestrogen on your hunger and appetite levels.

High-fibre, low-GI carb sources include:

  • Legumes, lentils and beans
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, barley and brown rice
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Most fruits

Eating higher quality carbs like these has been shown to reduce menopause symptoms, and help to prevent visceral fat gain.

  1. Prioritise protein.

Many women going through menopause neglect their protein intake – when in reality, protein is one of your greatest weapons to prevent belly fat accumulation. Not only does eating more protein help you burn more energy throughout the day, even when you’re just chilling out on the couch, as it requires more energy from your body to break down and absorb the nutrients it contains, but it’s also the most satiating of all the macronutrients. That means eating a diet higher in protein will leave you feeling fuller for longer, and help prevent overeating, snacking on sugary or fatty snacks and processed foods, and likely reduce your overall energy intake across the day. Protein also helps to preserve your muscle mass – which is particularly important as you age and enter menopause – when used in combination with resistance training. And as you know already, more muscle mass means a faster metabolism – again helping to prevent fat gain during peri.

Make protein a primary focus of your diet if you want to manage peri symptoms and avoid fat accumulation. Try to distribute your protein intake evenly across 3-4 meals throughout the day, as this allows your body to absorb and use more of the protein you’re eating, compared to simply loading up one or two meals with a bunch of protein. It’s also an excellent idea to make sure your breakfast contains a decent serving of protein, as this will help regulate your appetite and prevent overeating throughout the rest of the day.

In addition to animal sources of protein, such as poultry, seafood, eggs and meat, consider incorporating soy foods (like tofu, tempeh and edamame) and legumes into your diet too, as these are excellent sources of plant-based proteins which also contain phytoestrogens. During peri, these phytoestrogens can weakly mimic the effects of oestrogen in your body when your natural production is low, meaning they’ve been shown to be really useful in reducing some peri symptoms including hot flashes.

3. Fix your fats.

    1. Fats are still important to consume during peri, but once again you need to consider the types of fats you’re choosing. Healthy fats have a supportive effect on your reproductive and sex hormones, and can greatly help to relieve symptoms of peri such as mood changes and depression. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help to reduce inflammation, which often occurs alongside peri, and prevent irritability. Diets high in both fibre and omega-3s have been linked to reduced risk of depression, anxiety and stress during peri.

      Try to prioritise unsaturated fats over saturated fat sources. This again combats inflammation, can improve your cholesterol levels and heart health, and may support your cognitive function and mood stability. Foods rich in unsaturated fats include avocados, nuts and seeds, fatty fish and extra virgin olive oil.

      Instead of heaping high-fat foods into one meal per day, make sure you’re aware of your fat intake. While they’re important for managing peri symptoms and keeping you healthy, fats are energy-dense, so consuming too much of them can easily lead to weight gain. Things like topping your salad with too much high-fat dressing, or adding in too many high-fat foods like feta, nuts and avocado can result in you eating more fat than you ideally want to in one meal. Instead, try to keep your serving sizes in check, and limit foods high in saturatedin unsaturated fats such as butter, coconut oil, cakes and biscuits, fatty meats, cured meats, sausages and bacon.

    Key Takeaways

    If you’re not active in the same way as you once were, and your body is undergoing extensive changes to your hormone levels, muscle mass, metabolism, mood and so on, you’ll likely need to reassess your dietary choices and overall energy intake as you experience perimenopause. If you’re regularly engaging in resistance training, this is an excellent way to maintain or build muscle, and prevent some of the adverse effects of peri – and over time, you may be able to gradually increase your daily energy intake again to support muscle growth as you continue to get stronger.

    When it comes to your diet, while many women tend to overconsume carbs and fats, and neglect the protein part of the equation, your key priority should be to evenly distribute your protein intake throughout your day – taking particular care to include plenty of protein in your breakfast and lunch. 

    By making these small dietary tweaks, and considering the macronutrient breakdown of your meals and the types of carbohydrates and fats you’re eating, you can help to reduce your peri symptoms and prevent fat accumulation around your stomach. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective! 

    My Princess Peri Package is designed with you in mind. Approaching your diet and lifestyle in a tailored, personalised way to ensure the dietary strategies and interventions I provide are directly tailored to you and your individual needs means you’ll get the most effective, powerful tools to improve and reduce your symptoms and unique experience of perimenopause. Don’t suffer in silence – get the relief you deserve. Find out more here.