One area that isn't often discussed, especially when it comes to nutrition, is menopause and the impact that our diet can have on how we feel once we reach menopause. This week I had a question from a client around whether increased risks of health conditions and weight gain are inevitable when we reach menopause.
Menopause, according to Google, is a condition that “can’t be cured”, which is a really interesting way to describe an absolutely natural phase of life that women experience going into their best years. What isn’t natural or inevitable, are the symptoms associated with menopause which can begin up to 10 years before going through this and at any age from 35 onwards (this is highly variable).
With menopause, we see a decrease in progesterone, which changes the balance of progesterone to estrogen (you may have heard the term “estrogen dominance”), testosterone reducces, then finally we also see a drop in estrogen too. We still produce some- but the amount is around 30-60% less. As we know, hormones have many roles in our bodies (mood, energy, bone mass, brain health) and any change in hormones can result in an array of symptoms including hot flashes, heavy periods, breast tenderness, insomnia, lower mood, brain fog, and unfortunately many more.
It's important to know that although we can see an increased risk in some health conditions and can sugger from many different symptoms- these things are absolutely not inevitable and it is possible to make some changes to the diet to support our health at any stage of life.
Weight gain is a common occurrence during this phase of life, partly due to changes in insulin sensitivity making it more difficult for us to metabolise carbohydrates for fuel, but also due to other reasons beyond this. With shifts in hormones as we go through menopause, our metabolic rate can reduce. However although menopause is often the only thing blamed for this- we do need to look at our activity level and muscle mass as these things will absolutely affect our metabolic rate too. We may have been eating for a more active body for many years or able to maintain a high level of muscle mass through our daily activities but with age and as we move less, our muscle mass can easily reduce. With a reduction in muscle mass- we also see a reduction in metabolism.
The key to counteract this is activity. Include exercise throughout your week that uses body weight such as pilates, incline walking, strength training, or even gardening. Building muscle by using your muscles is key.
Why the increased risk of health issues?
This one is linked quite closely to the way in which we store body fat post-menopause. Due to hormonal shifts- we begin to store body fat more centrally around our organs. This equates to greater risk of health issues as opposed to previous years when we may have been more likely to store body fat in our hips. Exercise as previously mentioned is important for this, but also having a look at our bodys ability to burn body fat. Yes calories have a role to play here as we might be eating for a more active body than we are actually living in, but also considering whether or not our body gets the message to burn body fat. Frequent intake of high sugar/ processed foods, insulin production, and stress hormone production can skew this message and leave us frustrated as to why we aren't seeing any change in our weight.
Focusing on restorative sleep, stress reduction methods like breathing exercises, long walks, sunlight on your skin, and some time spent doing things that make you feel happiest are important.
With different stages of our lives come different nutrient requirements. The risk of osteoporosis increases as we age and increases further after menopause. Our calcium intake therefore increases and it becomes important that we ensure we are hitting our recommendation every day. Dairy foods are amazing, or milk-alternatives fortified with calcium for when you can't tolerate dairy. Some women benefit from omitting dairy- but this is very much a case-by-case recommendation. Protein is also important and those who work with us know that we recommend a protein-rich food with every meal and snack for many reasons, muscle retention included.
Vitamin D is important too as this nutrient helps your body to absorb calcium from the foods that you eat. You can get your vitamin D through sunlight on your skin, or through foods such as oily fish, eggs, dairy, meat and chicken. Oily fish such as sardines and salmon are incredible for vitamin D intake but also for your intake of Omega 3 fatty acids. Majority of New Zealanders are not meeting their required intakes of Omega 3's and therefore not benefiting from the affects optimal Omega 3 intake can have on mood, brain health, cognition, memory, and reduction in inflammation.
We don't hear as much about antioxidants anymore however the importance of including these in our diet has never been greater given our rates of stress, cancer, and health issues among NZers today. Brassica veggies such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage, tick this box and also add a huge benefit to your liver health too. The liver is a powerhouse when it comes to ensuring the detoxification of estrogen and conversion of cholesterol to maintain health cholesterol levels and lower risks of cardiovascular disease. If our liver slows down, then we can see an imbalance of cholesterol and as a result, an imbalance in hormone production at any stage of life.
You can find antioxidants primarily through colourful fruits & veggies. Aim to include 5 serves (big handfuls) of veggies in your diet every day. Variety is key! Fruit is great too with our recommendation being 2 serves/ day. This equates to seven servings of fruit and veggies a day, which takes over the previous guideline of five servings a day.
We don't advocate any one diet, as we focus specifically on you and your personal needs and requirements. However the research of a mediterranean dietary pattern shows the benefit that this can have not just for menopause and symptoms associated with menopause, but also our risk of cancer, diabetes, and CVD. The main theme of the mediterranean diet is to include plenty of vegetables, fruit, unsaturated plant-based fats, oily fish, extra virgin olive oil, and remove sugar and processed foods from the diet as much as possible.
A healthy gut is also important too. The basics of less alcohol, including fermented foods and prebiotics (high fibre foods) in the diet, exercise, and adequate rest are important for this. Check out my recent blog post on a case study for gut health for more information on this.
Look at your current diet then have a think about where you can make some tweaks to better match the guidance above. Small changes can have a big impact on our health.
If you feel like you would like some more support with your diet for improving rates of inflammation, overcoming fatigue, experiencing better quality sleep, and balancing hormones- then please get in touch. You can book your free call with us to get started on your journey with personalised, 1:1 dietary advice and support.