Scientists have long known that lower estrogen levels after menopause can cause fat storage to shift from the hips and thighs to the abdomen. Now, a groundbreaking study, co-authored by the Mayo Clinic, has determined why: Proteins, revved up by the estrogen drop, causing fat cells to store fat more efficiently.
The study also revealed a double whammy: These cellular changes also slow down fat burning by the body.
Even though the research doesn’t provide weight-loss solutions, it may bring a sense of relief to millions of middle-aged women who have been fighting an often losing battle against the dreaded “postmeno belly.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re absolutely doomed,” said Dr. Michael Jensen, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic and one of the study’s authors, “but it does mean it’s going to be harder probably” to lose weight.
More than 50 million women in the United States are 50 years of age or older; and 75 percent of women age 50 to 55 are postmenopausal, according to the Menopause Center of Minnesota. Most – if not all – of them will have to confront postmenopausal weight gain.
How much weight a woman gains after menopause varies from person to person. According to a 2010 study in the International Journal of Obesity, women gain an average of 12 pounds within eight years after menopause. But even women who maintain the same weight say they notice their waistline expanding.
Cassandra Chapman-Clay started putting on the pounds soon after she entered menopause a few years ago. Before she knew it, she was 10 pounds heavier.
“It just happens,” she said. “You just blow up like a balloon.”
Weight gain, especially around the abdomen, is one of the top complaints women have when they come to the Menopause Center of Minnesota, said Sandy Greenquist, the center’s director.
But beyond vanity concerns, there are health risks associated with having an extra layer of padding around the waist.
Belly fat is a sign of visceral fat around vital organs and increases a person’s risk for obesity-related illnesses. According to the Mayo Clinic, a waist measurement of 35 inches or more can lead to a greater risk of problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
That’s why medical professionals focus on the health issues related to weight gain.
At one of the menopause chats she regularly gives, Greenquist said she talks about ways to combat the muffin top, sleeplessness, hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. She also talks about diet.
“We tend to overindulge on carbohydrates and not get nearly enough protein. Those two conditions contribute to fat on their bodies,” she explained. “Exercise needs to be muscle-building exercise – doing things that will increase their metabolism.”
Sylvia Santosa, an assistant professor of nutrition science at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec and the study’s co-author, added that while science doesn’t offer any fixes for the postmeno belly, the findings shed much-needed light on the issue. “It puts us one more step toward understanding how estrogen affects how and where we store fat,” she said.
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