Mayo Clinic study finds explanation for postmenopausal belly fat


Star Tribune

Weight was never a concern for Stephanie Brondani, 52, of Minnetonka, Minn. 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 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.

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.”

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.”

Chapman-Clay, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of 24 women who participated in the five-year Mayo study, the results of which were published recently. They were all the same age — between 49 and 50 — and had the same body fat levels, Jensen said.

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.

“We do a lot of counseling with our patients about nutrition and exercise,” Greenquist said.

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. “I give them some basics on changes that could be helpful. Exercise needs to be muscle-building exercise — doing things that will increase their metabolism.”

The Mayo research might lead to other strategies for maintaining a healthy weight after menopause. For example, Jensen said it raises questions about the kinds of dietary changes doctors might suggest. It also raises questions about whether hormone replacement therapy may play a role in offsetting weight gain.

“Those kinds of questions we weren’t able to address with this study,” he said, “but that’s something we’ll have to consider in the future.”

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.

Mary Rossi, 64, of Minneapolis, used to take pride in her “marked waist.”

Since menopause, she’s watched her midsection grow five inches, despite the fact that she now eats less and is still active. She’s healthy and her body is proportionate, but she says, “I’ve given up trying to go back to the waist I had when I was 50.”

Read more Health stories from the Miami Herald

  • Nutrition

    Seven ways to help kids eat healthy

    Well, isn’t that good timing? Right when my daughter and grandkids are here for a visit, I learn that August is Kids Eat Right Month ( And along with this proclamation, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has released a new position paper on feeding kiddos in the 2 to 11 year-old age range.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">SLEEP SPECIALIST:</span> Dr. Belen Esparis, medical director at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Sleep Disorder Center and Laboratory.

    Sleep deprivation

    Lack of sleep leads to weight gain and vicious cycle

    A cascade of side effects from a lack of sleep can lead to runaway weight gain, which itself can trigger even more unhealthy physiological events.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">IN STUDY:</span> Bruce Daily of Kendall is a patient in a clinical trial of a stroke treatment using stem cells.

    Medical research

    Stem cells are being tested to determine if they help mobility after a stroke

    When Bruce Daily woke up after having lumbar surgery a year ago, he realized he couldn’t move the right side of his body.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category