The female body goes through so many changes in a lifetime. Starting from puberty and the commencement of menses (need I say more?), to early 20s and preparation for childbirth, even though many of us are not even dreaming about it yet. Then childbirth really does a good number on our body in terms of changes and just as we though we were getting our body back to ‘normal’, perimenopause kicks in. We really don’t catch a break!
All the meanwhile, our brain still thinks we should look like we did at 20, thanks to Hollywood, social media and all those unattainable, photoshopped images that depict women in their 50s looking like barely out of high school.
What’s a woman supposed to do when sex hormone levels are declining, that is around your mid 40s and body shape starts changing? A smart woman is going to embrace the change, like all the other changes she has been through before, and work with what she’s got! What do I mean by that? Keep reading!
During the 5 years before menopause our sex hormones go through high peaks and low drops until around menopause (1 year after your last period) they drop to a low level permanently. With these hormonal changes we see an increase in body fat %, more so in the abdominal area (I hear you) and fat oxidation during moderate exercise increases, meaning we use more fat for fuel than carbohydrates. Metabolic flexibility is reduced, that is the body’s ability to switch between fuel sources (carbohydrates and fats), the symptoms of menopause increase, and we are seeing our lowest muscle quality. On top of it all, our cholesterol levels increase. So really, not a pretty picture!
So, what was I talking about when I said embrace the changes? Have I gone mad? Not completely! You can’t stop menopause from happening, but you can certainly work with:
Make wise dietary choices. With the decrease of sex hormones we become a lot more efficient in using carbohydrates, so we need less in our lives. Choose a smaller portion of good quality, complex carbohydrates like quinoa, barley, brown rice, grainy sourdough bread and prioritising carbohydrates when being active.
Increase the veggies in your life. They are super rich in nutrients and help with fibre intake and satiety! Learn to love them at lunch and dinner, aim for ½ of your meal to be full of colour.
Maximise your protein intake, protein is key and should be distributed evenly throughout the day. This means your breakfast should have similar protein content as your lunch and dinner, as well as a good quality protein snack after exercise.
Healthy fats are important for health and should be included in small amounts, by healthy fats I am talking extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.
Dairy becomes more important to support bone health. If you choose a plant-based option, make sure it is calcium fortified.
Micronutrients to focus on include iron, calcium, Vitamin D, Magnesium, and fibre. Variety in plant foods and protein sources as well as adequate dairy or alternatives is key.
Alcohol and caffeine may not be so helpful, they elevate your cortisol levels (stress hormone) and exacerbate your symptoms. Reducing or avoiding may be needed, sorry!
Movement is absolutely key in supporting your transition into menopause and staying strong through it. Research tells us that 2-3 strength training sessions a week plus some high intensity interval training are key to attenuate those body changes and maintain muscle mass. This helps maintain metabolic flexibility (ability to use the different fuel sources), function and mobility. Muscle mass is key to continue to move and enjoy movement as we age.
All this talk of age I am sure is a little unsettling, it not depressing. The reality is menopause is going to happen and peri-menopause is the best time to start making changes to our lifestyle to be the best version of ourselves we can be. It can sound overwhelming and figuring out where to start can be daunting. That is where professionals like a dietitian that works in the space like me, maybe combined with an exercise physiologist can help you with lifestyle changes that are manageable and fit with your life.