By Charlotte Debeugny, a British nutritionist and author, based in France.
Is weight gain really inevitable once we reach the menopause? So many anecdotal tales of women waking up overnight 10 pounds heavier and then facing an uphill struggle to get their weight back under control? Is this really what is in store for us?!
Let me reassure you. Weight gain is not inevitable and it is possible to remain healthy and active well into menopause and beyond using a few dietary and lifestyle tweaks. It is completely possible to flourish in our 50s and sizzle into our 60s!
In terms of our energy or calorie requirements, we do require slightly less calories, but this does not happen overnight either, our metabolism starts to slow down in our 20’s at a rate of about 2% every decade. A moderately active 20-year-old woman requires about 2000 calories to maintain her weight, whereas a moderately active 50-year-old woman requires about 1800 calories, a difference of 200 calories. That’s an apple and 20g of almonds (or a 180 ml glass of wine!), certainly not huge, but possibly enough over time to cause a gentle weight gain if this is not taken into consideration.
There are certainly hormonal changes as our oestrogen levels fall as we approach the menopause, and this means that there are then more androgens, male hormones, in proportion to oestrogen which shifts female fat storage from the legs, hips and buttocks to the stomach, hence the famous ‘menopausal barrel’ shape. And, unfortunately, it is this type of fat storage which is the most dangerous for our health, as excessive fat stored around our abdomens is in the form of visceral fat, a type of fat linked with higher levels of inflammation and an increased risk of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
There’s also some research to indicate that our levels of ‘hunger’ hormones may fluctuate as we age. Leptin generally helps to decrease appetite while ghrelin increases our appetite. In an ideal world, we’d obviously like to optimise our leptin levels while keeping our ghrelin levels under control. One theory is that as we age our bodies become ‘resistant to leptin signals’ which means even if we are producing lots of leptin to tell us to stop eating, our cells have ‘head phones’ on and don’t hear the message so we keep eating.
In a similar way we can also become more ‘insulin resistant’ as we age. Insulin is a hormone responsible for regulating blood glucose levels and fat storage. When we become ‘insulin resistant’ our bodies become much more effective, in fact too effective at storing fat.
As the French would see ‘mince alors’ which basically means – ‘oh deary me’ So what practical advice can we follow to help us manage these four factors?!
5 Tips on Maintaining a Healthy Weight During Menopause
- Maximise your nutrients, not your calories! Yes, you need slightly less calories but you need to spend your calorie allowance wisely. You need to focus on both the quality and quantity of foods you eat – the quantity in order to manage your weight and the quality in order to maximise your health. A Mediterranean style diet of fresh vegetables and fruits, wholegrains, quality protein and healthy fats tends to tick both of these boxes.
- Ensure every meal contains a form of protein and no, I’m not talking about having a 8 oz steak for breakfast (!) but adding small amounts of protein to every meal helps to regulate the appetite and keep you feeling full longer. Additionally, protein becomes even more important as we age for helping us to preserve our muscle mass. For example, add a natural yoghurt, egg or nuts and seeds to your breakfast, include vegetable proteins such as beans and lentils in your diet on a daily basis as well as moderate quantities of animal protein in the form of meat, poultry and fish.
- Limit refined carbohydrates and sugars and moderate your carbohydrate servingAnd, I’m going to be generous and explain exactly what I mean by limit! Sugary desserts, biscuits or sweets should be limited to once a week and make the most of it. Have a lovely homemade dessert or a slice of cake and savour every mouthful. Don’t ‘waste’ it on processed sugary foods or chemically flavoured sweets!
In my experience, carbohydrate portions (bread, pasta, rice, quinoa etc) tend to be on the generous side, so even though whole grains do have a place in a healthy diet, a portion size is about 100g/4 oz cooked weight, about the size of a small tea cup, not a small saucepan!
- Love your vegetables
A gentle reminder that the 5 a day message is (in my opinion) the minimum amount to be aiming for and it should be more like 5+ a day with ideally more vegetables than fruits as vegetables have been shown to have a slight edge on improving health outcomes. In terms of weight control, vegetables add bulk and volume without too many calories so they are perfect for keeping our appetites under control. A serving of vegetables is about 80g, the size of a cupped palm.
If you think eating 5 vegetables a day is ‘mission impossible’ try:
Starting your meal with a vegetable soup or raw vegetables with a dip (2 servings of vegetables)
- Base your lunch around a form of protein and a large mixed salad (2-3 servings of vegetables)
- Aim for a least 1 vegetable serving with your supper and a small green side salad (2 servings of vegetables)
- As for my favourite snack? Carrot sticks with a large dollop of peanut butter!
- Watch the alcohol
Are you a steady 2-3 glasses of wine a night person? In terms of calories, a bottle of wine contains about 750 calories, so drinking 2-3 glasses of wine on a daily basis is going to add 300 calories to your energy intake. It’s also important to underline that new guidelines recommend a maximum of 14 units a week for both men and women, which equates to about a bottle and a half per week. What to do? Limit alcohol to the weekends and aim for at least 2-3 non-alcohol days a week to give your liver a bit of breathing space!
As a final comment, it’s worth underlining that weight control is all about being a healthy weight which suits you. A weight which feels right for you, which can be maintained (relatively!) easily and allows you to do everything you want to do. It does not need to be text book perfect and a body mass index (BMI) of anything between 25-28 which is technically in the ‘overweight’ category does not generally cause health issues. Indeed, over the age of 65, we tend to lose weight so being slightly heavier in our 50s and 60s might actually be protective for our health in later life.
So stand tall, stand proud and keep flourishing!
By Charlotte Debeugny a British nutritionist and published author, based in France.