Many of us women struggle to maintain a healthy weight during midlife, menopause and beyond, the impact of which can often lead to low mood, low confidence, lack of libido and even eating disorders.
Katie speaks to nutritionist, author and founder of the award-winning WellWellWell nutrition clinic, Jackie Lynch about the role our hormones and lifestyle play and how we can optimise our diet to improve our mental and physical health.
Listen to the full conversation in The Latte Lounge podcast episode above.
Why do we gain weight during perimenopause and menopause?
Everything changes for women in midlife due to the hormone fluctuations caused by perimenopause and menopause. We have oestrogen receptors all over our bodies so as our hormone levels drop, we feel the effects right the way through us.
Our metabolism also slows down at roughly the same time as the menopause. This is related to ageing rather than hormonal changes. It happens to men too but the combination and the timing have a big impact on us women, not just in terms of actual weight gain and extra fat around our middles but in the way it can affect our body confidence. As progesterone declines and you may already be feeling paranoid or have low energy then it can be even harder to motivate yourself to get to the gym which then creates a vicious cycle.
Gone are the days when you can lose half a stone in a week for a little black dress, it’s a case of managing your expectations and making long term changes. It’s not the methodology we have been trained to follow but try to think in terms of nutritional value rather than calories which aren’t necessarily the enemy. We are conditioned to believe that fat is bad but in actual fact, flax seeds or avocado are high in fat but are very good for you. The body uses fats to make hormones and support heart and brain health so including them in the right way is important, always think nutrition first.
What should we be eating with nutrition in mind?
Women in general don’t eat enough protein and a bit of chicken in the evening is not enough. The good thing about protein rich food like meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and lentils is that they contain both protein and fats which we need. Our heart is a muscle and the risk of heart disease increases exponentially after menopause because of the loss of oestrogen so we need to make sure that muscle is in good shape.
Our body is made almost entirely of protein and so will prioritise your internal organs over things like your hair, skin and nails, which will therefore suffer if you don’t get the nutrients you need.
From a weight management point of view, protein and fats also help us to realise when we’re full. They also regulate blood sugar levels and slow down the release of carbohydrates which helps to keep us going for longer making it easier to avoid snacking between meals.
What makes a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner?
A combination of protein and complex carbohydrates because not all carbs are equal. Complex carbohydrates are high in fibre and are our quickest and easiest source of energy. They also support digestion which helps with your metabolism. It’s about balance, eggs with wholemeal toast and spinach or avocado in an excellent breakfast. Cereal should be whole grain and anything that’s more than 5-10g of sugar per serving should be avoided. Adding a spoonful of seeds will boost the protein content and add fibre.
In terms of portion control, most of us probably eat more than we need. 30g of cereal is enough so weigh that out a few times and remember what it looks like for future meals.
For lunch and dinner, ¼ of your meal should be protein. Think a salmon steak, a chicken breast or a couple of dollops of hummus if your diet is plant based. Carbohydrates should be wholegrain and only a fist sized portion or another ¼ of your meal. Consider avoiding starchy food in the evenings and if possible, make ¾ of your meal vegetables instead.
Ultimately, it’s all in the planning. Try to eat enough of a balanced meal at mealtimes to see you through but for snacks if they are really needed, try fruit with edible skin such as apples, a palmful of nuts or a protein bar.
Sugar plays a big part. Menopause does increase our risk of certain conditions including type 2 diabetes. Cutting down on sugar not only helps with weight management but it also makes sure that you don’t reach a state of insulin resistance. If you’re experiencing blood sugar spikes, your body produces insulin to deal with it and the insulin’s job is to clear the sugar off to the liver to be stored. If you’ve been eating excessive sugar in things like cakes and muffins, this excess sugar will be stored as fat cells and this is the quickest way to gain weight. As this is your body’s emergency response, it’s not carefully measured to leave the right amount of sugar in your blood and will then result in a dip which leads to the stress hormones starting the whole process again. Should this go on over time then you would be at risk of becoming insulin resistant and eventually diabetic.
If you experience dizziness or lightheadedness when you stand up suddenly then start to think about adding more complex carbohydrates and proteins to your diet to keep you full and help to regulate your blood sugar.
What part can supplements play in your diet?
A good quality multi vitamin and mineral can be helpful as many factors can affect the nutrients in our diet.
Vitamin D is non-negotiable and we should all be taking 1000-3000 units per day in winter and summer as we are now so careful about using SPF which prevents us absorbing as much of our Vitamin D from sunlight. We need this for strong bones, mental health and immune function.
What are superfoods?
This is a marketing term but it is one that we all understand. Provided you have the basics in place, to also get lots of Omega 3 fatty acids such as sardines, mackerel, salmon, linseeds and walnuts to support your nervous system and brain and heart health as well as your skin and hair. Flaxseed is a real superfood, it contains protein and fibre, is full of Omega 3 and also a good source of phytoestrogens which mimic the hormones we are deficient in due to menopause.
Gut health is a big thing at the moment in the media. What is it and why is it important?
The gut tract starts in the mouth and digestion technically starts before you even eat. Your body begins to release enzymes to break down the food and tell you that you’re full as soon as you smell it which is why your mouth waters so chewing and tasting your food is really important. Not doing so can cause bloating and issues with absorption.
In the large bowel you have your gut microbiome which are the makeup of beneficial bacteria supporting both our digestive system and our immune system. 70-80% of our immune system is in our gut wall and good nutrition is important to help it thrive.
We thrive on variety. Try to have 50 different foods each week and mix up different types of fish, nuts, grains and seeds to help your gut microbiome perk up and multiply. Fermented food and drinks like kefir or kombucha are high in naturally beneficial bacteria.
Mindful eating is all about savouring and enjoying your food which is very important. Chewing your food means that your digestive system has less work to do in breaking it down so you won’t suffer indigestion or need to eat quite so much. The brain and memory play a role so if you rush to eat then your brain won’t imprint the memory and you will feel hungry sooner.
Taking time to eat your meals and doing so at the table, not in front of the tv, is a very easy way to regulate your appetite.
A holistic approach is very important in perimenopause, menopause and beyond. Stress, digestive issues, headaches and fatigue can all be helped substantially or eliminated altogether in many cases with a healthy diet and exercise.
There are lots of different ways that lack of energy can affect us – perhaps you feel constantly tired and low, or you experience energy highs and lows; maybe you’re low in mental energy and struggle to concentrate or think creatively; you might be experiencing loss of motivation; or a lack of physical strength and stamina could be your issue.
Here's a few ways to boost your energy levels in midlife.