How Women Can Keep the Weight Off After Menopause

The deck is stacked against women hoping to keep slim after menopause, but researchers say some simple eating habits can keep weight down

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There’s no denying that losing weight is tough, and keeping it off is even harder. We tend to be less physically active as we get older, which is why women tend to gain weight after menopause. But a  four-year study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says there are ways that women can keep the pounds off as they age.

“As women move through menopause, it’s thought that without decreasing calories or increasing exercise, [they] may be prone to gaining weight,” said lead study author Bethany Barone Gibbs of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Health and Physical Activity, discussing the study in a podcast. Americans live in an environment that makes weight gain easy thanks to the availability of cheap and calorie-dense foods, and aging women also have a host of physiological changes working against them.

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For instance, after menopause women experience a natural decline in energy expenditure coupled with a lower resting metabolic rate and an increase in appetite-related hormones. It’s not exactly a recipe for a slim figure. Add in the fact that when people lose weight, their brain’s reward system is revved up and increases their desire to eat and it’s a wonder anyone can lose weight and keep pounds at bay.

In the study, the researchers followed 508 post-menopausal and overweight women for four years between 2002 and 2008. They examined their early and long-term weight loss in order to identify any eating behaviors that distinguished women who were successful in keeping their weight down and women who weren’t. The women were assessed at six months and again at the four year mark and filled out questionnaires detailing their food consumption at both check-ins.

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The volunteers were split into two groups. Half participated in a Lifestyle Change group and met with nutritionists, exercise physiologists and psychologists while the remainder were in the Health Education group, which simply listened to general seminars about a variety of issues involving women’s health . The Lifestyle Change group also attempted to reduce their fat and overall calorie intake, increase their consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and exercised regularly.

In the short term, the researchers found that at six months the eating behaviors associated with weight loss included eating fewer desserts and fried foods, drinking less sugary beverages, eating more fish and eating less at restaurants, a trend that continued at the four year mark.

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“That means that eating less as restaurants and eating less fried foods were either not effective in the long term, or were unsustainable,” said Gibbs in the podcast. “Eating more fruits and vegetables did not predict weight change at six months, but was one of the most important predictors for long-term weight change. That means if you increase your fruit and vegetable intake you may not see a big result at six months, but it may be a very sustainable behavior change that can help you with long-term weight control.”

The authors speculate that the sustainability of various weight loss strategies are what make some better than others in the long run. “People are so motivated when they start a weight loss program. You can say, ‘I’m never going to eat another piece of pie,’ and you see the pounds coming off,” said Gibbs in the podcast. “Eating fruits and vegetables may not make a big difference in your caloric intake. But that small change can build up and give you a better long-term result, because it’s not as hard to do as giving up French fries forever.”

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The authors say that slashing dessert and sugary drink consumption is consistently effective for short and long-term weight loss and more fruits and veggies and less meat and cheese are best for long-term pound-shedding. “If the goal is to reduce the burden of obesity, the focus must be on long-term strategies because changes in eating behaviors only associated with short-term weight loss are likely ineffective and not sustainable, they write. That seems to make sense for anyone hoping to keep their weight in check, not just for women after menopause.