Keys to Weight Loss After Menopause

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Updated: 10/13 10:50 pm

Aug. 28, 2012 -- As she approached her 50s, Susan Williams found it harder and harder to maintain her weight, let alone shed the extra pounds she had been working to lose for some time.

“I was working out as hard as I ever have, but I was gaining weight,” the Atlanta-based film production executive says. “It’s a constant struggle.”

Now 52, Williams says she has recently revamped her diet to include more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and white flour -- and she's managed to lose a few pounds.

Menopause Weight Gain Inevitable?

Conventional wisdom says weight gain is inevitable with menopause and that losing weight is difficult. But a new study questions this wisdom.

Researchers examined eating behaviors among postmenopausal women in their 50s enrolled in a weight-loss study. They identified those behaviors that were common in women who managed to shed pounds and keep them off.

Cutting way back on sugary desserts and drinks topped the list, followed by limiting meats and cheeses and eating more fruits and vegetables.

“People who were able to decrease their consumption of desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages tended to have more success losing weight and keeping it off,” says researcher Bethany Barone Gibbs, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh.

Eat Less Sugar, Lose More Weight

The study included about 500 overweight and obese postmenopausal women with waist sizes greater than 31.5 inches. None of the women had high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes.

Half the women followed a weight loss plan that included regular meetings with nutritionists, exercise specialists, and psychologists. None of these options were available to the other women, but they were given the opportunity to attend seminars on general health.

The women were followed for four years. During this time those in the nutrition and exercise group lost an average of 8 pounds, compared to around half a pound among those in the general health group.

Behaviors associated with weight loss at six months in the combined groups included eating:

  • Less sugar (desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages)
  • Fewer fried foods
  • More fish
  • Eating out in restaurants less often

After four years, behaviors linked to long-term diet success emerged:

  • Also eating fewer desserts and drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages 
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer meats and cheeses

 The study appears in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Some Eating Behaviors Weren’t Sustainable

Barone Gibbs speculates that strategies that led to short-term but not long-term weight loss, such as restricting fried foods and eating out less often, may be difficult to sustain.

Margery L. Gass, MD, who is executive director of the North American Menopause Society, tells WebMD that while weight gain is common among women in their 40s and 50s, menopause is not to blame. Gass is a professor of obstetrics at the University of Cincinnati.

“It happens to men as well as women,” she says. “For some reason, as we get older weight seems to redistribute to our middles. This is not good because fat in the abdomen increases [heart disease and stroke] risk.”

Eat Less, Exercise More to Avoid Weight Gain

Gass says that while weight gain is not inevitable, most middle-aged women need to eat less and exercise more than they once did to maintain their weight.

“Virtually all of my patients who have been successful tell me they have done this,” she says.

She notes that weight gain around the time of menopause is much less common in Japan than in the U.S., suggesting that Western eating patterns are largely to blame.

Women in Japan typically eat more fruits, vegetables, and fish, and less sugar, red meat, and fast food than women in the United States.

“Japanese women also live longer than women in any other country (an average of 88 years), and their healthier diets are a major reason for this,” Gass says.

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