Menopause is a natural part of ageing. Years ago, not much was known about it, but now there is a lot more research out there to get answers. But isn’t menopause all about hormones? What does nutrition have to do with it? In this blog I’m going to tell you exactly that!
Menopause doesn’t just happen overnight, even though it might feel like it. Side from the different symptoms from hot flushes, mood swings, sleep disturbances, aches, and pains….one that seems to surprise most women is the sudden weight gain. Weight gain during and after menopause is normal for a few reasons.
Why the sudden weight gain??
Number one, the hormone oestrogen sends messages to your brain to tell you you’re full. During menopause your oestrogen levels drop so many women tend to eat more and go for hyperpalatable foods (Poliquin, 2021). Hyperpalatable foods are food high in sugar, salt and saturated fats, you know the foods your belly keeps telling you “Stop”, and your brain keeps telling you “Keep going!”.
Another reason is that you lose lean muscle mass and it’s replaced with fat during menopause(Duyff, 2017). Muscle burns more energy than fat so you might be the same height and weight and same activity level, but because you’ve less muscle you don’t need as many calories. Now I don’t mean you need to drastically cut your calorie intake so don’t panic!
Other changes that occur
Some less visible body changes that occur during menopause is loss of bone mass, so you’re more likely to develop osteoporosis. Increased blood pressure and cholesterol combined with reduced oestrogen levels mean woman from age 55 and on have the same level of risk as men for heart disease (Duyff, 2017).
If you’re starting to feel a bit depressed now, please don’t. Although I said menopause is natural, and weight gain during menopause is natural, that doesn’t mean a few small simple diet and lifestyle changes cant’s keep you looking and feeling fit and healthy!
Tips to staying fit & healthy during and after menopause
- You do need less calories, but this doesn’t mean you need to be hungry. Eat smart by using hunger suppressing combinations. That is meals high in fibre, protein, and healthy fats. These nutrients fill you up quicker and keep you fuller for longer, so you won’t feel you need to raid the biscuit press every half an hour!
- You lose about 1% of your lean muscle mass during menopause, so it’s important to stay active and grow and maintain muscle mass. With any muscle if you don’t use it, you lose it. Cardio, core conditioning, resistance training all helps. Specifically, resistance training which also helps strengthen and maintain bone mass. Dance, Pilates, swimming and using the gym are all great ways to stay active!
- Drink plenty of water. I’m going to use the work detox here, but I mean it in a sense that you need to drink plenty of water so your kidneys can do their job and flush out toxins. Herbal teas are also a good way to stay hydrated.
- Make informed choices about your food. I don’t want you obsessively reading the nutrition information on everything you buy, but it doesn’t hurt to maybe compare similar products and see which one had less salt, more fibre, less saturated fat or more healthy fats. You could be surprised that the less expensive brand is better for you nutritionally!
- Manage your stress levels. Yes, this is easier said than done! Having an outlet is important whether it is going for a walk, listening to an audio book, having a warm bath. Also avoid things like skipping meals, consuming a lot of caffeine and a lot of sugar as these can put pressure on your adrenal glands which release stress hormone. Stick to decaffeinated as much as possible.
- Maintain you blood glucose. This isn’t just something you should think about if you have diabetes. Maintaining your blood sugars does require a little bit of effort on your part even if you have a fully functioning pancreas. Skipping meals can lead to a hypoglycaemic event (low blood sugar). Eating foods that are basically sugar and nothing else (fizzy drinks, jelly sweets, boiled sweets, ice pops, energy drinks) also known as low GI foods, can lead to a spike in your blood sugars. This is quickly followed by a crash (AKA sugar crash). This isn’t good for anyone so try to avoid snacking on these foods alone when you’re hungry.
- Because you’re at a higher risk for heart disease, a heart healthy diet is a good idea. This just means plenty of fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, healthy oils like olive oil and rapeseed oil. Healthy fats from oily fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines. Plenty of wholegrains. Reduce the amount of red meat you consume. This will help with high blood pressure and cholesterol. Basically the Mediterranean diet.
- For bone health you need plenty of calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Also, if you live in Ireland or a northern country that doesn’t get a lot of sunny weather then it is recommended all adults take a vitamin D supplement. You MUST consult your doctor or pharmacist before you start taking them though, and never take more than the stated dose. Calcium is found in dairy, green leafy veg, calcium set tofu, some foods like flour, bread and breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D doesn’t occur naturally in many foods, just egg yolks, offal, mushrooms, and oily fish. You should be getting at least 15 of vitamin D per day and 1200mg of calcium per day (Dietary Reference Values | DRV Finder, 2017).
- For iron you don’t need as much as pre menopause because you aren’t losing iron through menstruation. Your needs go from 18mg/day to 8mg/day (Dietary Reference Values | DRV Finder, 2017). You get iron from red meat, leafy green vegetables, seafood, beans, dried fruit and iron fortified cereals and grains.
- Your folate needs stay at 400µg/day (Dietary Reference Values | DRV Finder, 2017), but you don’t need to take a supplement unless directed by your doctor) as you don’t have to worry about foetal abnormalities .
Sometimes food can trigger those other symptoms like mood swings, hot flushes, and sleep disturbances. For example studies have shown that alcohol, especially red wine, can worsen hot flushes for some women (Velez, 2020). Alcohol and caffeine can also cause hot flushes and effect sleep (Velez, 2020). As usually everybody is different, so you need to see what affects you!
Dietary Reference Values | DRV Finder (2017) EFSA. Available at: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/interactive-pages/drvs (Accessed: 19 November 2020).
Duyff, R. l. (2017) ‘Manage Women’s Unique Nutrition Concerns’, in Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. 5th edn. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pp. 557–563.
Poliquin (2021) Nutrition Priorities To Prevent Fat Gain With Menopause, Poliquin Group. Available at: https://www.poliquinstore.com/articles/nutrition-priorities-to-prevent-fat-gain-with-menopause/ (Accessed: 19 January 2022).
Velez, A. (2020) Why Alcohol Affects Women More in Menopause, EndocrineWeb. Available at: https://www.endocrineweb.com/menopause-alcohol (Accessed: 19 January 2022).