Diet, menopause and me
Menopause impacts all women, normally between the ages of 45 and 55. It is defined as the period where the regular menstrual cycle stops.
Unfortunately this transitional period is often associated with some uncomfortable symptoms that can make life a little challenging and less enjoyable.
In the following article we will share some of the scientifically sounds, fundamental diet alterations that you can make to help make menopause more manageable.
What changes occur during menopause?
The most significant change that occurs during the menopause is a significant drop in circulating estrogen. This hormonal alteration is responsible for a shift in metabolism and can result in weight and fat gain, alongside changes in fat distribution. In a survey conducted in 1993, 50% of European women reported gaining at least 4.5 kg (9.9lbs) during menopause, with US women also reporting significant increases in body fat reported during the menopause.
Fluctuating hormones also cause symptoms such as hot flashes, mood and sleep disturbances, unstable energy levels, each of which can impact quality of life and daily frustrations. Falling estrogen can also have detrimental effects on bone health, muscle mass, skin and cardiovascular health.
With this knowledge we now know of 5 key areas that need to be considered when building a menopause diet:
- Increase or maintain metabolic rate
Adjust the quantity of food you are consuming and also the types of food on your plate. A greater emphasis should be placed on low energy density, such as vegetables, fruits, soups and salads, low fat protein sources (chicken, prawns, fish etc.) and low fat dairy and higher fiber foods.
Adding more protein to your meals and overall daily diet can help increase the amount of calories you burn between 0.8 - 22%. Protein is also the most filling macronutrient, so it can prevent cravings that crush almost all diets. Incorporating eggs or low fat dairy at breakfast, lean meats, fish or seafood with lunch and dinner, snacking on beef jerky, low fat Greek yogurt, protein smoothies or shakes in the evening will be incredibly beneficial.
Becoming more active in your daily life is also important. A simple 30-minute walk combined with taking the stairs, walking instead of driving, gardening etc. can easily increase energy expenditure by 350 kcal per day.
- Support strong bones
Bones need load, so to increase activity throughout the day, walking, taking the stairs and exercising are a great starting point. Beyond this you must also consider total energy intake, protein, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K. Very low calorie diets (crash diets) are disastrous for bone.
Including calcium and protein rich foods such as low fat Greek yogurt and milk, or fortified soya milk will certainly help bone mineral density. It is often tempting to remove dairy products when dieting, but this is not such a great idea when nearing or going through the menopause. Research has shown that dairy can delay the onset of menopausal symptoms and improve sleep quality.
Supplementing with vitamin D during winter months particularly, is also a very good idea. Not only for bone, but your immune system, mood, muscle and more.
- Maintain muscle mass
Much like bones, muscles also needs load. So a newfound active lifestyle combined with regular resistance exercise will be of greater benefit. Resistance training undoubtedly improves quality of life, functional strength and mental wellbeing as you age.
Increasing protein intake will most certainly support maintenance of muscle mass too. As we age, our muscles become less responsive to the signals of protein and amino acids that normally stimulate muscle growth and repair processes, making it more difficult to maintain muscle and thus we become frail.
Incorporating more protein-rich foods into your diet, at all meals and snacks will most definitely help in maintaining muscle mass, with research demonstrating that a 60% increase in daily protein intake combined with some form of resistance training can help build lean muscle mass.
Building muscle will actually be the best thing that you can do for your long-term health and to offset many of the menopausal symptoms you want rid of, particularly those vasomotor symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, heart palpitations and changing blood pressure. Lean muscle mass is metabolically active, it’s a calorie consuming monster. Increase your protein intake and lose weight, simple as that.
Beyond helping with weight loss here is a short list of things that can be prevented or improved through increased muscle mass:
- Reduced risk of sarcopenia, frailty, falls and fractures
- Reduced risk of numerous chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer
- Improved bone health
- Improved skin strength, joint health and organ function.
- Boost collagen production
Declining levels of the hormone estrogen during the menopause significantly impact the body’s production of collagen. Research has shown that estrogen deficient women experience a 1.13% reduction in skin thickness and 2% reduction in collagen content in the skin per post-menopausal year. Skin collagen content can drop by as much as 30% in the first five years after menopause. These alterations result in significantly reduced skin strength and structure, fine lines and wrinkles, and aging skin.
Consistent supplementation with a high quality hydrolyzed collagen peptide at a dose of 2.5 - 5 grams per day significantly improved skin elasticity in a group of 45 - 65 year old women as a result of increased production of pro-collagen type 1 and elastin production through supplement ingestion. Post-menopausal women in the UK consumed a drink containing hydrolyzed collagen peptides and some other vitamins and experienced visible reductions in wrinkle depth and improvements in subjective skin appearance. Similarly a review paper concluded that regular hydrolyzed collagen peptide supplementation at around 10 grams per day has beneficial effects on skin structure and appearance.
Supplementing daily with a high quality, hydrolyzed collagen peptide at a dose around 10 grams per day is recommended.
- Supplements to overcome other symptoms
Phytoestrogens are essentially nutrients that bind to estrogen receptors and mimic the effects of estrogen in the body, they are found naturally in soy, chickpeas, flaxseeds, grapes and more. A review paper from 2014 concluded that women who ate more phytoestrogen-rich foods reduced the frequency of hot flashes, with no serious side effects.
A number of other supplements have shown some promise in treating other menopausal symptoms. Ashwagandha, the ancient Ayruvedic herb may reduce hot flashes, improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety during the menopause.. Similarly omega-3 supplementation or just a general increase in dietary omega-3 intake from salmon, mackerel and various seeds may improve mental wellbeing and reduce risk of depression.
Increasing your intake of antioxidants and dietary polyphenols such as those found naturally in fruits, vegetables and spices such as turmeric and maca root can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, and may also help menopausal women reduce hot flash symptoms.
The gut microbiome changes during the menopause and these alterations can increase susceptibility to gain weight and body fat, and become resistant to insulin, increasing the risk of diabetes. Supplementation with probiotics has shown beneficial effects on body weight and hormonal balance in menopausal women.
What not to do?
The aforementioned diet alterations will most definitely help in reducing common symptoms associated with menopause, but we also know that there are a number of diet related risk factors that can ramp up the severity of menopausal symptoms, which are certainly best avoided.
- Refined carbohydrates
- Regular caffeine
- Regular alcohol
- Spicy and salty foods
Menopause is linked to numerous alterations to metabolic rate, muscle, bone, heart health, mood and more.
Adopting a diet made up of low energy density, high protein, high fiber whole foods, while also considering supplementation with vitamin D, collagen, whey protein, creatine and probiotics will help.
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