Belly Aching About Menopause

Featured Article, Healthy Living, Menopause, Women's Health
on May 21, 2012


DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I am a 62-year-old woman who has been slim most of my life. But once menopause set in, so did middle-age spread, and I’ve developed a belly. I used to exercise all the time, but in December, I had to have major back surgery. I am a very picky eater and I don't like very many vegetables, only lettuce, peas, corn, carrots, tomatoes and green peppers. I am not a very good cook—I try to make fresh chicken breasts in the oven and I always overcook them! I would like to lose 20 lbs. Do you have any suggestions?–Carol

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DEAR CAROL: Ah, yes—the double whammy of menopause: Not only are you losing muscle mass as you age, but according to the Mayo Clinic, the post-menopausal drop in estrogen may cause weight to be redistributed from your arms, legs and hips to your belly. That doesn’t mean post-menopausal women are meant to have muffin tops—it’s just that we have to work a little harder to keep weight from settling there. Frankly, that’s going to be difficult for you until you heal and are cleared to exercise again. It’s notoriously difficult for women to lose weight and keep it off by just making dietary changes—working out is crucial in the fight against flab.

That said, though, we can only do what we can. For you, that means closely following doctor’s orders for your recovery from back surgery. Rest, even though you may be impatient to move. Start rehab as soon as you are cleared, and do no more or no less than you’re allowed. Don’t give into the temptation to push yourself beyond what you’re able to do—it’s not worth the risk of doing further damage to your back and ending up immobile and in pain. Once you’re able to exercise again, get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise a day, most days of the week (if not every day). Do some type of resistance training at least twice a week—Pilates is a particularly good way to build core strength and improve posture, something that a person with back problems may need. (But please, please, please! Clear any fitness pursuit with your doctor before trying it!) Don’t fall for the fallacy of spot-toning: There’s no way to lose weight just in your belly, so focus first on burning calories through cardio and then on strengthening exercises.

While you’re still recovering, work on your diet. Now, I have never been one to believe in the whole “can’t-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks” adage. So when you say there are only SIX vegetables you like among the bazillion veggies in the world, I have to struggle to control myself. How long has it been since you’ve tried, say, butternut squash? How many different ways have you had it? You may be holding on to impressions you formed when you are a kid—and (hate to break it to you) you are no kid now. You can change your tastebuds if you make your mind up to do just that—believe me. The only vegetables I ate until my late 20s when I made up my mind to lose the weight for good were corn, carrots (raw, never cooked) and potatoes. Now I eat everything—even Brussels sprouts, which I have found taste WONDERFUL roasted with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. In fact, roasting makes just about any veggie taste great, and it’s really simple to do, no recipe required. You have to stop telling yourself you don’t like veggies and you’re not a good cook, and make up your mind to find more healthy dishes you enjoy, and focus on learning how to make them.

RELATED: Our Quick-and-Easy Guide to Making Veggies Dishes You'll Love 

That said, vegetables aren’t the only healthy foods to include on your plate. Lean proteins and whole grains will also help you manage your weight. About that chicken breast problem: There are several ways to combat dryness. Try marinating in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pepper for at least 30 minutes to add moisture and flavor. Then bake at 350-375, using a meat thermometer to test for doneness (this is key)—chicken breasts are done when they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Because the meat will cook even after you remove it from the oven, go ahead and take it out if you’re a few degrees shy and let the chicken rest for 5 minutes before cutting. Avoid cutting into the breast to see if it’s done—if you haven’t already noticed, that releases the juices and leaves you with some tough bird. Or, buy chicken breasts on the bone and cook with skin on, removing before you serve (the skin may be tasty, but it’s full of fat and calories). Try this recipe for Marinated Lemon Chicken Breasts.

Most important, be super conscious of your portion size, and keep a food diary, especially during this time when you can’t exercise. Be completely honest about what you’re eating, and make adjustments if you see the needle on the scale creeping up. Don’t expect to lose much—if at all—until you’re healthy; simply try to maintain your weight, knowing you can go full force when the doc gives you the OK. I hope this helps, and happy healing!