Menopause officially starts when a woman has not had a period or menstrual cycle for 12 months and will occur between the ages of 45 and 55. The time leading up to menopause is known as perimenopause, which can last for years. During this time women start to experience changes in their bodies, one of those changes may be weight gain. During perimenopause and beyond, estrogen starts to decline, disrupting the cyclical pattern of estrogen and progesterone that exists during child bearing years. The decline in estrogen can have far reaching effects on your health and weight.

Let us examine some of the effects of lower estrogen on a woman’s body and health:

  • Metabolism may be disrupted resulting in weight gain.
  • For many women, the way their body processes carbs changes. If they continue to eat a high carb diet, weight gain may also ensue.
  • Cholesterol levels are often affected which may put the perimenopausal/ menopausal woman at risk of heart disease.
  • Although not all women experience all side effects, hot flushes, headaches, difficulty with sleeping, mild depression or emotional outbursts may occur.
  • A decline in bone density is common, with the increased risk of fractures.
  • Muscle mass starts to decline.

When looking closer at the possible reasons for weight gain, we have to consider the following changes which take place around this time in a woman’s life

  • Estrogen fluctuations may be responsible for increased fat storage. Fat also tends to shift from the thighs and hips to the belly which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
  • Most women start to lose muscle mass at this time and this decline in muscle continues as we age. Decline in muscle mass can be attributed to hormonal changes, age and decreased physical activity. It is essential for perimenopausal and menopausal women to continue to exercise. Weight bearing exercise will not only keep you functionally strong but slow the rate of muscle decline. Muscle tissue is metabolically more active and burns more calories than fat. As you lose muscle, you burn fewer calories. If you changed nothing in your diet, you would gain weight because of a calorie excess . . . less muscle, less calorie burn.
  • Insulin resistance is often associated with this stage in a woman’s life and may result in weight gain.
  • Sleep disruptions may play a big role in weight gain, or the inability to lose weight at this stage. Bad sleep is common during this phase. Compromised sleep may be attributed to hot flashes or a decline in GABA and melatonin as we go through menopause.

Fortunately there is a lot that can be done to counteract weight gain at this time. Weight gain need not be an inevitable consequence of perimenopause or eventual menopause.

There are 3 areas that you need to pay attention to in order to avoid excess weight creeping on during perimenopause and menopause namely the food you should, and shouldn’t be eating, sleep quality and purposeful exercise.

In this article we examine your diet. What you eat, or don’t eat, will affect your weight, health, bone density, muscle and how badly you are affected by symptoms of menopause.

The best diet for a woman to follow in this phase of her life is one that consists mainly of whole foods and eliminates processed foods. We will also look at the foods that make symptoms worse and should thus be eliminated or reduced in order to minimise symptoms.

Foods to eat

Fruit and vegetables should be eaten daily to ensure an abundance of minerals and vitamins, fiber and antioxidants.  Eat as much variety as possible, ‘eat-the-rainbow’ should be your daily goal. Fruit and vegetables should make up the bulk of your meals.

Good quality protein forms an important part of the perimenopausal/menopausal woman’s diet. A drop in estrogen results in decline in muscle mass and bone density.  In order to buffer this decline 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight is recommended. Animal protein sources include eggs, grass fed beef, free range chickens and cottage cheese. Plant based sources include legumes, vegetables, hemp seeds, nuts, quinoa and chia seeds.

Calcium, along with phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and vitamins D and K, is an important part of a woman’s diet in this phase of her life as it supports good bone health. Dairy, although high in calcium, is not the only source. Lactose intolerance has become more prevalent in the last decade and can cause gastrointestinal disturbances. Calcium can be derived from plant-based sources including certain leafy green vegetables, broccoli, tofu, tempeh, tahini, almonds, black beans, vegetarian baked beans, oranges, seeds, and blackstrap molasses and calcium-fortified foods like plant milks. Magnesium can be derived from nuts, avos, dark chocolate, tahini, pumpkin seeds, bananas, legumes, tofu, whole grains and leafy green including kale, spinach and collard greens. A diet high in calcium and magnesium is recommended. In Part 3 of Managing Menopause we will examine the importance of magnesium in your diet.

Whole grains are high in nutrients, fiber and B vitamins including thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid. Whole grains may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Good sources of whole grains include quinoa, brown rice, oats and buckwheat.

Omega 3 fatty acids may help to reduce the frequency of hot flashes and the severity of night sweats. A good ratio of omega 6 : 3 is always recommended as part of a healthy diet. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish like mackerel and salmon and seeds like hemp, chia and flax seeds.

A healthy diet of fruit and vegetables, good quality protein, whole grains, nuts and seeds, healthy fats will keep weight gain under control and may relieve some menopause symptoms.

Foods to avoid

There are a number of foods to avoid during these perimenopausal and menopausal years. Not only are they bad for your health, they will result in weight gain, poor sleep and may make the symptoms on menopause worse. Eliminate the following foods wherever possible, or reduce them to an occasional indulgence.

Sugar and processed carbs . These foods are generally high in calories and devoid of nutrients which will lead to weight gain. Sugar and processed carbs also play havoc with your blood sugar levels. A spike in your blood sugar will be followed by a sharp drop, leaving you craving more. High blood sugar levels are also associated with an increase in hot flashes in perimenopausal women. Try to eliminate simple carbs and added sugar by eating less white bread, biscuits, crackers and sugary drinks. Replace this with whole food versions, fruit and naturally flavoured water.

Coffee. Although one cup of coffee a day probably won’t make a difference, be sure to limit your caffeine intake. Caffeine may trigger or increase the intensity of hot flashes, although it has also been known to reduce hot flashes in perimenopausal women. It may be worth testing the effects of caffeine on hot flashes. Try not to drink caffeinated drinks after lunch time as they may cause sleep disturbances. As sleep you may already be battling to get a good night’s sleep, try not to further compromise it. Alcohol may have the same effect on hot flashes and compromise sleep, so be sure to watch your alcohol consumption.

Fatty meats. As estrogen declines, your cardiovascular disease risk increases. Reduce fatty red meat and replace it with more heart healthy fatty fish like salmon or tuna which is packed with omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA that help to decrease cardiovascular disease risk.

Spicy Foods. It is often recommended that women going through menopause reduce spicy foods in their diet as they may increase the intensity and frequency of hot flashes. There is however no research to back it up. It may be worth experimenting with spicy foods. Warming spices are known to assist the body in fat burning, but if they worsen symptoms, rather avoid them.

High Sodium Foods. As estrogen declines, your risk of developing high blood pressure increases. By following a low sodium diet you may lower this risk.  A high sodium diet may reduce bone density in perimenopausal women. As bone density is already compromised, it is worth reducing high sodium foods in order to lower this risk. High sodium foods include most packaged, processed meals, roasted and salted nuts, processed meats and salty snacks.

Avoiding sugary carbs, alcohol, caffeine, fatty meats, spicy and high sodium foods will make it easier to maintain your weight, benefit your health, improve your sleep and may minimize the severity of menopausal symptoms.

Part 2: Menopause and Exercise. This article covers the importance of maintaining muscle mass and bone density. It also looks at the challenges facing perimenopausal and menopausal women exercising and competing in sport.

84days2health has a plan specifically designed for perimenopausal and menopausal women. This plan is further personalised, taking your particular circumstances and goals into account. Meals are naturally high in calcium and magnesium, low in processed carbs, high in nutrients and based on the correct number of calories for you.

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