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Menopause and Weight Gain: How Do French and Italians Stay Leaner?

I wrote this article a bit later than I promised dear (and faithful) readers, Scusa! (sorry!). Menopause and weight gain is not an easy topic to write about because there are no simple answers on how to stay weight stable during menopause. Living in France gives me insight on what middle-aged French women do to stay leaner and my various trips to Italy make me realize that Italian women have a few techniques they use too. This article is part of a series on tips to keep body weight stable that I learned from the French and Italian culture. If you are new reader here and want to read other articles in the series take a look: French and Italian Diet Methods on Time, Culture, The Plan, Fitness, Sugar Addiction, Discipline.

Menopause and Weight Gain: How French and Italian Women Keep Their Bodies Lean as They Age

Menopause and weight gain: why do some women seem ageless?

Many French women gain weight during menopause. This is the same for Italian women. And English. Australians. Americans. All women will notice body changes during menopause. This is normal, because menopause is a period of major hormonal changes. And along with physical changes, there are (for many women) changes in moods, sleep, and appetite.

But there this perception in the media that certain cultures have this aura of an ageless woman. And, in particular, French women crown this ‘honor.’ This perception of an ageless women is an illusion, because depending on the statistics reported in each country, between 50-80% women gain weight during menopause, (between 4-7 kilograms) and this holds true for French women.

However, my experience in both the French and Italian culture show me that the women living in these countries move thru their late 40’s, thru 50’s, 60’s and upward with a certain ‘ageless’ flair.

And I think I understand how they do it.
And I want to share these tips with you.

But before I do, let’s take a look at the physical changes that occur during pre and post menopause.

The physical changes that occur during pre-menopause and menopause include:

1. A co-effect of gaining fat mass and loss of muscle mass.

2. A phenomenon of ‘masculization’ (transformation to a more male shape) of the body’s silhouette : including a weight exchange to the abdomen area, legs that expand from looser skin and the butt and breasts which sag more (oh la la!).

3. The body retains water and has more difficulties eliminating toxins.

4. Blood circulation lowers.

5. Starting around 45 years old, the need for calories lowers to between 1500-2000 calories daily as energy expenditure (how many calories the body burns) decreases (probably from decreases in muscle mass).

6. There is a lowering of metabolic rate and increase in appetite-related hormones.

7. There is a decline in bone mineral content and bone health.

8. There is a decrease in collagen synthesis.

Physical changes are due to hormones without a change in eating habits

NOTE: most women will gain weight between the age of 42-50 years old. Some of this weight gain may be attributed to hormonal effects of menopause, some weight gain not.

My experience in France tells me one big thing: start early and stay ‘strict’

I wouldn’t agree that every French women flies thru this middle-aged period with ease, non bien sûr que non. Pre and post menopause are periods of big changes for every women. But what I do see is that the French start early to keep their bodies in shape/’in check’ and they stay strict with this ‘in check’ weight method (sometimes too strict because French women can control their weight by cutting back too much on calories and increasing cigarette consumption!)

There are the potential negatives of being too weight strict (disordered eating and increasing smoking) but on the other side, keeping in shape in your middle age, along with a balanced surveillance on weight can help with a women’s self esteem and acceptance of a slightly different body, while still wearing the same size clothes.

My observations in Italy show me that the ‘Dolce Vita’ helps Italian women stay leaner

Ah, La Dolce Vita, The Sweet Life! If Italian women don’t count calories or look at the scale as much as French women do, they certainly enjoy a slow and sweet way of eating long meals with fresh foods together with family. Here is a view from an American women living over in Italy:

So my main observations on why Italians are generally thinner than Americans are: totally different ways of preparing food, eating fresh foods, eating organic foods, taking time to eat healthier at home, eating at a slower pace, eating and drinking in a logical order, drinking less amounts of everything, eating less sugary unnatural desserts, walking more, and having a balanced life/work schedule leading to a less stressful life.

Looking at it from the ‘outside’ it seems like the Italian and French culture support an easier transition thru middle-age.

And here are my tips to help you transition over in this pre and post menopausal period.

Ways to ease the body’s changes during pre-menopause and menopause, while eating healthy and listening to your body.

1. Keep a weight ‘discipline’: Keep an eye on weight throughout middle-age while being strict without excess surveillance. French women weigh themselves once or twice a week, and if they find themselves a bit over their normal weight, they cut back for a few days. This is a typical example from a New York Times article here:

“The No. 1 response to my informal survey of Frenchwomen about the years of magical aging is not gaining weight. Ever. If a Frenchwoman happens to see an additional kilogram or two on her bathroom scale, she will do whatever is necessary to force the needle back where it belongs. “I keep my weight steady, no ups and downs,” Ms. Caron said. “I avoid all excess.” She claims to eat all kinds of food in small — her friends say minuscule — portions, and she doesn’t drink alcohol. It’s not so much that “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” as the title of Mireille Guiliano’s best seller had it. Rather, Frenchwomen won’t get fat. “

2. Start early during pre-menopause to keep a regular surveillance: hormonal changes start around age mid-forties. Don’t wait until after menopause to do something about your weight. (And that is where the rest of the tips here (#3-#10) are important).

3. Because muscle mass decreases during menopause exercise is now a top priority and I would consider it a necessity. Read below on the best exercises for women.

4. What you eat should be nutrient dense. Energy expenditure decreases, and there is lower need for calories than previously, so food eaten should be high nutrition/power foods.

5. Practice mindful eating (eating when hungry and stopping when full) because hunger and appetite increases. Appetite hormones increase during menopause (making women more hungry), while calorie needs decrease (not a good combination)!

6. Bone health and bone mineral content decrease so weight bearing exercises like walking, swimming, and light weight lifting are essential to keep bone health. These exercises also help to keep muscle mass, something that decreases during menopause. (Note: Lifting weights is as equally important to keeping bones healthy as is consuming calcium rich foods!)

7. As bone health and muscle mass decrease, flexibility exercises and core abdominal muscles like practicing yoga and Pilates help keep the body flexible and abdomen strong.

8. Think esthetically to feel good in oneself. French women spend more money on esthetic well-being than many other populations.

“Frenchwomen also recommend facials, massages and spa “cures” in their campaign against wrinkles, cellulite and saggy bottoms, bellies and breasts. One spa favorite is thalassotherapy, the seawater-based treatment that originated in France. It involves water jets, seaweed wraps, mud baths and sea-fog inhalation, meant to improve circulation, promote sleep, tone muscles and reduce cellulite.””According to a 2008 Mintel report, Frenchwomen spend about $2.2 billion a year on facial skin care — as much as Spanish, German and British women put together.”

9. Because the body retains more water and eliminates less toxins than previously the drink of choice should be water (or water with lemon juice) to circulate the body’s urinary system. Alcohol and salt intake in moderation.

10. Find outlets to control stress to help with overall health and decrease risks of emotional eating.

11. Because our moods and lack of sleep can affect eating, daily doses of exercise and natural light can help with better sleep patterns and lessen ‘blue’ and irritable moods.

What do you think?

What is missing on this list? Do you have any feedback?

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5 Responses to Menopause and Weight Gain: How Do French and Italians Stay Leaner?

  1. Marie April 6, 2016 at 21:18 #

    Great article. Personally, post menopause, I find I need to eat much less in general. What works well for me is a few whole fruits, some protein, vegetables and some carbohydrates. Also to eat five or six very small portions a day. One day would be….wake up, small glass 6 oz of half juice half water mix, or lemon water, coffee or teas, one whole orange, 1 oz cheese, half tin tuna, one quarter of an avocado, one cup popcorn, salad oil and vinegar dressing, 5 olives, 2 lite beers. That would be a days food without excercise, that is enough food for a post menopasue women without alot of activity. You can have a burger and fries but that is your days food, with an apple added. So no more three square meals a day. No more wine every night without consequences. I depend ALOT of teas, and coffee tooo. But tea is very good, TEA is your friends in menopause. Any type of tea. I never liked tea at all before but now it is my big friend. Diet soda as a treat…now and then….GET MORE SLEEP if fat…

  2. Lety April 6, 2015 at 18:16 #

    Thank you very much, Mary!

    I’m starting of thinking about increasing muscle mass. This year I’ll be 40 years old. My period started at 9 years old and six months, so, although there’s not relationship between the first and the last period (the sooner first one doesn’t mean necessarily the sooner last one), I believe that my menopause may be closer and closer… So… I started to furtherly improving my diet and my daily “training” (walking).

    Grande Mary, grazie ancora!


  3. Sonya October 9, 2014 at 17:04 #

    I just love your blog, and this post was equally informative as they all are… I have about 10 years to go, but feel better prepared already 🙂

  4. diane October 9, 2014 at 04:03 #

    Very nice post, Mary. I totally agree. Very important to start early (when you’re in your 20’s ) and be consistent with healthy eating and exercise.

  5. Shashi @ runninsrilankan October 8, 2014 at 14:18 #

    I am elated to have stumbled by your blog through FB’s Recipe Redux link share – I love all this info – as I get older, I have noticed weight training brings better results – and is a lot easier on my knees than running is!!

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