How to eat to beat the menopause (and shed those midlife pounds): These are the surprising reasons chocolate will stop your snacking, fibre is like natural Ozempic and cottage cheese will keep you calm

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Should menopausal women be eating like weightlifters? That’s certainly what a new analysis suggests. Scientists from Semmelweis University in Budapest looked at 134 studies and found that certain eating habits, including high consumption of protein, could alleviate some of the most common symptoms of midlife hormonal fluctuation — with weight gain, a chief concern for many women, among them.

We asked EMMA BARDWELL, a leading menopause nutritionist and co-author of The Perimenopause Solution, to give us the lowdown on what we really need to eat to avoid the average 10kg weight gain — or lose it if that menopausal muffin top has already settled in — and sail through those hormonal changes.

Weighty matters

Fibre works in a similar way to Ozempic. The injections send signals to the brain to tell it to turn off your appetite hormones — and when fibre fills up your stomach it does the same thing

First, the good news. You can eat your way through the menopause — and feel considerably better for it. You don’t have to accept that spare tyre, and you won’t be alone in wanting to shift it.

READ MORE: ‘Menopause is not a disability, but it is debilitating’: Women say ‘virtue-signalling’ quiet rooms and cool uniforms could shame female staff – as others welcome new workplace equality policy which recognises ‘brutal’ symptoms

Unfortunately, muscle mass declines with age, and this, combined with being more sedentary due to menopause symptoms such as joint pain and urinary incontinence, plus, potentially, emotional eating, can exacerbate weight gain.

Menopause can have other effects on weight and body shape. One hypothesis is that fat cells produce oestrogen, and this is why it can be so hard to shift: your body is clinging on to oestrogen at all costs. We know that oestrogen encourages fat to be stored, preferentially, around the bum, hips and thighs, so when levels dip, we become less pear and more apple shaped.

Not sleeping, because of hot flushes or anxiety, also affects hunger hormones. Ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry, is higher, and leptin, which is produced when you’re full, reacts more slowly. So you can see you’re in the perfect storm.

Worse, putting on weight doesn’t just add to low mood, it can also exacerbate hot flushes and potentially increase the risk of chronic diseases further down the line.

At its most basic level, weight gain is about consuming too many calories. It’s simple physics. So, whatever you eat, as long as you’re in a calorie deficit, which is to say consuming fewer calories than you’re using, you will lose weight.

There was a very famous study done called the Twinkie diet, where, instead of eating meals, a professor in America ate only Twinkies (sponge cakes with a creamy filling) and other sugary snacks — and he lost almost 30 pounds.

I don’t, however, suggest you follow suit. It makes sense to eat healthy, nutrient-dense foods at all ages, but especially during the menopause transition. This is where protein comes in, because it’s very filling.

Then there’s volumetrics, where you fill up on lots of nutrient-dense but low-calorie foods, such as vegetables, fruit and wholegrains.

If weight loss is your goal, it’s important to be realistic, consistent and patient. You could, perhaps, shave between 300 and 500 calories from your current food intake.

This could come from drinks such as lattes, juices and alcohol, or the frequent snacks and grazing that makes up so much of our diets. It doesn’t have to mean deprivation or restriction.

An interesting fact, given the buzz around weight loss injections such as Ozempic and Wegovy, is that fibre works in a similar way.

The injections send signals to the brain to tell it to turn off your appetite hormones — and when fibre fills up your stomach it does the same thing.

It’s not quite as much of an overnight success as the jabs, but it’s the same pathway — and certainly less expensive.

Nature’s Ozempic, if you like.

How much protein?

So, how much protein do you need? If you’re dieting but you want to minimise muscle loss, or are trying to build up muscle, then I’d aim for 1.6g of protein per kg of lean body weight. (If you’re currently overweight, use your goal weight instead when working this out.)

It needs to be consumed pretty regularly in order to stimulate what’s called muscle protein synthesis, which is the mechanism of turning it from food into muscle.

If you eat protein first thing, it helps stop snacking later on. At the very least, try to bookend your day with a protein-rich meal. That might be Greek yoghurt for breakfast and a crispy tofu or shredded chicken stir-fry for supper.

Mix your protein sources for optimal nutrients and gut health. Animal sources such as chicken, fish and eggs are fine, but tofu, soya, yoghurt, cottage cheese, edamame and other beans, chickpeas or lentils are also excellent. What’s more, combining plant sources of protein means that you get all the amino acids you need.

Lots of people think eggs are protein powerhouses, but bear in mind they contain only about six or seven grams of protein each, so you could bulk out your breakfast with some egg whites. Two Chicks Free Range Egg White (twochicks.co.uk) comes in a carton all ready to add to your omelettes, protein pancakes or frittatas. I chuck a good slug, about 150ml, into my two egg scramble.

Protein powder can be convenient, too. Pop it in a smoothie with lots of greens. And protein bars can be OK at a push. Look for bars containing around 20g of protein and no added sugars. If you’re pushed for time you could have one for breakfast, and they’re better than chocolate bars as snacks.

Reduce hot flushes

To reduce menopause symptoms, it’s generally recommended that women follow a Mediterranean diet containing healthy fats, whole grains, fruit and vegetables.

Not only can this help with your weight, it can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

A Mediterranean diet is also rich in foods containing phytoestrogens — compounds that act a little like oestrogen in the body.

Phytoestrogens include soy, nuts and flax seeds, barley and oats, and apples and berries and research suggests that eating these regularly can help reduce the frequency of hot flushes and night sweats.

But this only works for 50 per cent of women. It’s all to do with a metabolite called equol: some of us produce it when we eat phytoestrogens, and some of us don’t.

If you’re concerned about breast cancer, studies show phytoestrogens are fine to eat: just avoid the supplement forms if you’re taking medications such as tamoxifen, as they’re highly concentrated and haven’t been well researched.

Top mood foods

Eat chocolate after a balanced meal when the protein, fat and carbs help blunt the glucose¿s absorption into the bloodstream. Having a few squares for pudding may also help you stop snacking at night

Eat chocolate after a balanced meal when the protein, fat and carbs help blunt the glucose’s absorption into the bloodstream. Having a few squares for pudding may also help you stop snacking at night

Often the first sign of perimenopause can be anxiety and low mood, and low blood glucose hugely influences how you’re feeling.

Menopause and getting older can lower insulin sensitivity. This means the body is less efficient at regulating blood sugar, which can make you feel irritable and hangry.

Research shows we’re more insulin sensitive in the morning, so you should eat a bigger breakfast containing protein — Greek yoghurt, omelettes, frittatas, chia puddings with cottage cheese blended through them (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!).

Avoid simple carbs, like cereal and pastries, at breakfast. It can put you on a blood sugar roller coaster for the remainder of the day.

At lunchtime, you should have another fairly substantial meal, then a smaller meal in the evening.

If you’re going to eat chocolate, then do so after a balanced meal when the protein, fat and carbs help blunt the glucose’s absorption into the bloodstream.

Having a few squares of chocolate for pudding may also help you stop snacking at night. Not eating after dinner will provide enough of a ‘fast’ to make a big impact on blood glucose, night-time waking, mood and gut health.

Better bones

In the years after menopause, when oestrogen production has declined, you can lose as much as 20 per cent of your bone mass, and you want to do as much as you can to preserve this via both diet and exercise.

You need to consume a considerable amount of calcium, especially if you’re over 50 — around 1200 mg a day (equivalent to 1 litre of milk).

Fortified plant milks are also a good source, as are yoghurt, cheese, almonds, sardines, tofu, broccoli, white beans, oranges and figs. Obviously weight bearing exercise and weight training have a tremendously beneficial influence on bone health, too.

Sleep easy

Poor sleep affects at least 60 per cent of menopausal women. Lower progesterone can affect GABA production (this is a hormone that helps us to relax), and fluctuating oestrogen often means waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep.

I suggest having a two or three-hour gap between the last meal of the day and going to bed. Eating raises your temperature, and to get a good night’s sleep your core temperature needs to go down.

It’s also important to keep blood glucose levels nice and steady throughout the day — and this is particularly important with your last meal — as dips can cause you to wake with a start and will often precede night sweats.

As tempting as an evening glass of wine is, I advise avoiding alcohol as much as possible — it interferes with deep sleep, meaning you wake up much more easily.

Certain foods, such as cherries, poultry, bananas, oats and milk contain tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin — a hormone that regulates sleep.

Caffeine, on the other hand, blocks adenosine, the chemical that makes you feel sleepy. Try to keep caffeine to mornings only.

Boost the brain

One of the most common complaints in menopause is brain fog, though this tends to be a short-lived problem. Many of us are dehydrated without realising — and the minute you start getting dehydrated, the brain stops working so well. Aim for two litres of water a day.

Choline and Omega 3, which you can get from eggs and oily fish respectively, are also important for brain function, while exercise has big benefits, too. It increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which has been likened to MiracleGro for the grey matter. It literally increases brain volume.

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