An essential part of becoming and staying healthy is maintaining a healthy diet. While it’s important for everyone to eat well at all stages of life, a good diet is essential for women who are peri- and post-menopausal.
Menopause is often a difficult part of aging for women. Most women are concerned about hot flashes and weight gain, both of which are common during menopause. But the risk for diseases like osteoporosis, breast cancer and heart disease also increases after menopause.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to glide through menopause and reduce your risk of all of these issues.
Where did that spare tire come from?
Most women assume that weight gain is an automatic effect of the hormonal changes that come with menopause, but most research suggests otherwise. It’s most likely that mid-life weight gain is due to a natural slowdown in metabolism combined with less activity. Hormones do play a role, however, in how a woman’s weight is distributed, and anyone who’s been through menopause is familiar with the “spare tire” that often seems to pop up out of nowhere.
A change in hormones is responsible for a redistribution of a woman’s weight, favoring an overall decrease in lean body mass (muscle) and an increase in body fat—especially around the abdomen. That increase in visceral fat is what puts women at risk for chronic diseases.
If you notice that you’re gaining weight more easily, take a good look at your diet. Figure out how many calories you really need each day by working with a registered dietitian or using a computer or smartphone program like My Fitness Pal. Even an extra 100 calories a day over what your body requires will add up, resulting in a ten-pound weight gain each year. It might be time to cut out that nightly glass of wine or dessert.
It can also be helpful to increase your protein to about 25 grams with each meal. This can slow down the loss of muscle and stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Try to meet part of your protein needs with fatty fish like salmon. It’s a rich source of omega-3 fats, which might help reduce the risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
In addition, make it a point to move more, not less. Increase your activity to a minimum of thirty minutes of brisk exercise at least five times each week, with two to three days of strength training as well. This helps to offset the slowdown in metabolism by burning an additional few hundred calories, while maintaining muscle mass.
Calcium and exercise do a body good.
Another major concern for postmenopausal women is bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis or thinning of the bones. Women can lose up to twenty percent of bone density in the first few years after menopause. Women who are thin, small-boned and fair-skinned are at the greatest risk for osteoporosis. The best strategy here is to go into menopause with “a full tank,” meaning make sure you get your recommended amount of calcium and vitamin D combined with regular, weight-bearing exercise (like walking, running, and weight lifting) well before menopause. For women older than 50, the recommended calcium intake is 1,200 mg per day, which is the equivalent of 4, 8-ounce glasses of milk or yogurt each day. That’s a lot for most of us, but the good news is that in addition to calcium, those foods also provide the extra protein many of us need.
Is it hot in here…?
Hot flashes are probably the most common concern across the board for anyone going through menopause, and unfortunately, they can occur for several years. Hot flashes during the day are bothersome, and at night they can significantly disrupt sleep. While there isn’t a proven way to prevent them, you’re more likely to have disruptive hot flashes if you’re overweight, don’t exercise, smoke, or drink alcohol. There’s also some evidence that stress plays a part in the frequency and severity of hot flashes, so try to focus on stress reduction techniques if you need to. Increase your exercise, try some yoga, and follow rules of the de-stress diet.
Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN has been a nutritionist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates for the past 15 years, and she currently works as the “Virtual Nutritionist.” Her professional interests include weight management, heart disease, and women’s nutritional issues.