Published: May 28, 2014
Diet and Nutrition
Midlife is a time of natural transition and a time to take a closer look at your overall health and well-being. As we enter this natural aging process, women know that it will bring forth many hormonal and physical changes but become surprised when the changes become noticeable.
Studies show that on average women gain between 10-15 pounds during menopause and most of this weight accumulates around a woman’s middle section, which many women call it their “menopot”.
You may try to eat healthy and exercise but the pounds don’t come off and the fat goes to places it has never gone before. It is important to understand the reasons why you gain weight during menopause, and then you can start to address the problem.
Your diet has always been important, but it is even more important during menopause. Weight gain during the menopause transition is largely determined by the following factors:
There has been an ongoing myth regarding menopause alone causing this weight gain. The facts do argue that women in midlife do pack on the pounds, but the culprit is not menopause alone.
A comprehensive review of the International Menopause Society found that going through menopause does not cause women to gain weight but hormonal changes at menopause are associated with a change in the way that fat is distributed leading to more belly fat.
This is due to the hormones directly involved with weight maintenance.
During menopause estrogen decreases rapidly and your body looks for other places to get needed estrogen from fat. Fat cells produce estrogen so your body works harder to convert calories into fat to increase estrogen levels.
Fat cells don’t burn calories the way that muscles do, thus packing on the unwanted pounds. Progesterone also decreases during menopause causing water retention, water weight and bloating. Androgen is responsible for sending new weight to your middle section and testosterone helps your body create lean muscle mass out of the calories you take in. Muscle cells burn more calories than fat cells, increasing your metabolism.
In menopause levels of testosterone are lowered resulting in the loss of this muscle thus lowering your metabolism. Lack of estrogen may also cause the body to use starches and glucose less effectively (insulin resistance), thus increasing fat storage and making it more difficult to lose weight.
Every five years an important publication is released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The publication reports scientific findings from an array of studies addressing American nutrition issues. These Dietary Guidelines are used by policy makers, nutrition educators, nutritionists and healthcare providers to promote recommendations of HHS and the USDA1. The Dietary Guidelines, 2010 are based on the premise that nutrients consumed should come primarily from foods.
Along with providing sources of vitamins and minerals, foods also contain naturally occurring substances (i.e., carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavones, protease inhibitors) that may prevent chronic health conditions. Fortified foods provide additional sources of nutrients that may not always be present in some food sources.
Adequate nutrition includes balancing calories, weight management, physical activity, managing fats, carbohydrates, sodium and potassium, alcoholic beverages and recognizing food safety concerns. Acquainting oneself with proper eating patterns and selecting food sources for particular nutrients are vital to planning your next trip to the grocery store.
The Calorie Balance Challenge
We always hear about ways to “cut calories and lose weight” but do you know how many calories you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle? The truth of the matter is it’s different for everyone depending on your age, gender, activity level, genes and metabolism. General guidelines according to the Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes macronutrients report (2010) are as follows:
For women between 31 and 50 years old
- With a sedentary lifestyle, 1800 calories should be plenty
- With a moderately active lifestyle, 2000 calories are appropriate
- With an active lifestyle, 2200 calories are needed
For women over the age of 50
- With a sedentary lifestyle, 1600 calories should be plenty
- With a moderately active lifestyle, 1800 calories are appropriate
- With an active lifestyle, 2000-2200 calories are needed
Our calorie balance is often referred to as “the calorie equation.” It requires us to evaluate and balance the amount of daily calories we can consume depending on the amount of physical activity we endure. When out at a restaurant or at the grocery store, a good rule of thumb is to choose low calorie, high-nutrient foods such as dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains and low-fat milk and milk products.
Nutrient-dense foods provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively few calories. Stay away from the less refined grains, total fats (especially cholesterol, and saturated and trans fats), added sugars and calories. Reducing the calories does not necessarily mean reducing eating. So with the calorie equation in mind, what are the important nutrients for women our age?
Nutrients to Ponder
According to Dietary Guidelines, 2010, American adults are not consuming an adequate amount of some important nutrients. Among them are calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium and vitamins A (carotenoids), C and E. Specific to our population group (i.e., people 40-50 years old) are not consuming enough foods rich in vitamin B12 and vitamins E and D.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is associated with neurological dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, asthma, depression, multiple sclerosis, and diabetic neuropathy. It is a crucial vitamin that is often found in low levels in older people since the ability to absorb the vitamin declines with age. It is possible (and recommended) older people consume and absorb the vitamin in crystalline form. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) suggests 2.4 µg/day by eating fortified foods (fortified cereals) or by taking supplements.
Older men and women are at a greater risk of low vitamin D concentrations. In order to reduce the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis accompanying aging, it is important to maintain an adequate intake of vitamin D and calcium. A balanced intake of these vitamins and minerals are vital for maintaining healthy bones and teeth. As one ages, the need for increased consumption is tremendously important.
Daily sunshine may help prevent osteoporosis! Soaking in the rays for just 15 minutes a day (remember to use an appropriate sunscreen) will boost the vitamin D levels. If you don’t feel comfortable spending time in the sun, foods can provide you with sufficient amounts of the vitamin. Three cups of vitamin D-fortified milk, 1 cup of vitamin D-fortified orange juice and 15 ug of supplemental vitamin D would provide a sufficient amount.
In a May, 2000 article from Cornell University’s Medical College Center for Women’s Healthcare Vitamin E has the “longest list of potential benefits”2, experts say out of all the vitamins, Vitamin E “…boasts the longest and most diverse list of potential benefits.” Many chronic conditions associated with aging and menopause can be avoided with the consumption of Vitamin E. Some of these conditions include diabetes, asthma, Alzheimer’s, low immunity and cancer. Vitamin E is often used as an alternative therapy to the symptoms of menopause (specifically hot flashes and vaginal dryness)*. A suitable dose of Vitamin E for the menopausal woman is usually around 400 International Units twice daily with food (it is an oil soluble vitamin that is absorbed best with food). An alternate way of consumption is through foods that have high amounts of Vitamin E including wheat germ oil, nuts, egg yolks and leafy green vegetables.
Foods to Fight Menopause Symptoms
A good diet during menopause is no different than one we should follow to promote healthy living during any time in our life. If it is menopause that makes you change your diet for feeling better from the inside out, that’s great. Many of the following suggestions are from women who have found the foods to be useful for battling their symptoms. Many clinical trials are being conducted and explored further. The North American Menopause Society3 posts the latest clinical trials, so it may help to browse their website for updates.
Soy foods have been the rage lately. Researchers are debating their efficacy against hot flashes. Some women swear by them claiming eating or drinking two servings of soy a day relieves their hot flashes. Try adding some soy (4) to your diet with soy milk (1 to 2 eight ounce glasses), soybeans (1/4 cup), tofu (1/2 cup) or soy protein powder (25 to 40 grams).
The discomforts of menopause may be calmed by consuming phytoestrogens found in plants such as soybeans and many other fruits and veggies. Phytoestrogens act like a weak estrogen that may ease the symptoms of menopause**. The trace nutrient boron is important during menopause because it increases the body’s ability to absorb and hold onto estrogen and vitamin D. Some fruits and veggies that are good sources of boron and estrogen include:
Fruits: plums, prunes, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, pears, grapes, grapefruit, oranges
Veggies: cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, soybeans, sweet potatoes
Another great source of phytoestrogens is found in beans. Beans are beneficial for many reasons including providing good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals including folic acid, minerals and vitamin B-6. For menopause, they provide omega-3 fatty acids (“the right fats”) which may help relieve the hot flashes. Other sources of omega-3s include fish, olive and canola oils.
Folic acid is also important to reduce the risk of colon polyps, some causes of arthrosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and birth defects (neural tube defects). Recommended dosages are 400 mcg/day.
Varieties of foods are important to maintaining good nutrient levels. Select an assortment of nutrient-dense foods to ensure the correct amount of beneficial substances are consumed. Know which foods to add to your meals and which to eliminate. Eat more of the right fats; eat more fruits, vegetables and beans while avoiding the high-fat, high-sugar foods. Following this simple approach to good nutrition during menopause and beyond will ensure a wholesome, healthy lifestyle.
For the Red Hot Mamas complete guide to nutrition at menopause, check out Eat to Defeat Menopause, a must read for those who want to maximize their lives at menopause.
Some additional resources on healthy eating habits:
1 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010: http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/
2Vitamin E has “Longest List of Potential Benefits”: Cornell University Special Report on Vitamins, Ithaca, New York, May 22, 2000.
3The North American Menopause Society: www.menopause.org
*Women with a history of hypertension should consult their healthcare provider prior to consuming Vitamin E therapy.
4 Seibel MM. The Soy Solution for Menopause: The Estrogen Alternative. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003.