Mayo Clinic study finds explanation for postmenopausal belly fat

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2013 - 10:47 AM

The post-menopause belly comes from revved-up proteins.

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Menopausal belly fat diagram from Mayo Clinic.

Weight was never a concern for Stephanie Brondani, 52, of Minnetonka. Until last year, when she hit menopause.

Suddenly, she noticed her midsection thickening. “I think everybody feels [like], ‘I’m eating the same way I always have been and yet I’m getting this roll.’ What is that about?” she said.

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, cause fat cells to store more fat.

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 “post-meno 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.

That comes as welcome news to Brondani, who has tried a new exercise program, wears a pedometer and has cut back on sugar and junk food.

“There’s that sense of ‘Oh, this is just normal,’ ” she said. “While you don’t have to just lay down and take it, you know you’re not doing anything wrong. At least you feel like it’s OK, everybody is going through this. Not just me.”

Sudden changes

More than 50 million U.S. women are 50 or older; 75 percent of women age 50-55 are post-menopausal, according to the Menopause Center of Minnesota. Most — if not all — of them will have to confront post-menopausal weight gain.

How much weight a woman gains after menopause varies. According to a 2010 study in the International Journal of Obesity, women gain an average of 12 pounds within eight years of menopause. But even women who maintain the same weight say they notice their waistline expanding.

Cassandra Clay-Chapman started putting on 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.”

Clay-Chapman, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of 24 women who participated in the Mayo study, the results of which were published recently. The group included Minnesota women who were both pre-menopausal and post-menopausal. They were all about the same age — 49 to 50 — and had the same body fat levels, Jensen said.

Beyond beauty

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 illness. 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.

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