How much protein do I need in the menopause?
I’ve been hearing a lot about protein and the menopause recently including a few dubious things about diet and the menopause especially as it relates to protein so thought it was time for a deep dive into protein and the menopause.
What is happening to my body through perimenopause?
As our body shape begins to change, due to declining oestrogen levels in the perimenopausal years, it’s quite normal to put our food intake under the microscope and look for ways to improve things by changing what and how we eat.
You’ll often hear protein connected to the best diet for menopause. That’s because as we transition into menopause, lowering oestrogen levels are associated with a loss of lean body mass and an increase in fat mass in the form of visceral fat (the type inside our body as opposed to under the skin). This visceral fat may go from 5-8% of our total body fat pre menopause to 15-20% of our total body fat post menopause.
In the longitudinal Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, lean body mass (muscle) decreased on average by 0.2kg per year.
What do we know about protein intake, muscle mass and the menopause?
As we age, our protein requirements increase as our muscles get less capable of using the protein effectively. Observational studies tell us that higher protein intakes are associated with higher lean muscle mass in postmenopausal women.
For example, in the Women’s Health Initiative study, a higher protein intake (1.2 g per kg of body weight) was associated with a 32% lower risk of frailty and better physical function.
But when we see these associations in observational cohorts, we have to then prove cause and effect. Otherwise, it’s a stab in the dark as to whether those two things are actually linked. Randomised controlled trials are the way to do this, and so far, these haven’t shown on the whole that extra protein is always associated with higher lean muscle mass in post-menopausal women.
So, what should we do about our protein intake in the menopause?
It’s quite misleading to look at food purely through the lens of its macronutrient content, especially when our food relationships tend to be quite complex and intricate. As our bodies move into their fourth and fifth decades, they bring with them a history that is unique to us. We may have battled with our weight before, so when the body yet again seems to be changing against our will and best efforts, it can feel incredibly disheartening.
There is a lot of diet noise out there, and a general sway towards fearing the carbs and favouring protein. You’ll see lots of blanket advice on social media with recommendations to hit certain targets. Personally, I haven’t got time to get my calculator out, so prefer to be a little more pragmatic about these things.
3 steps to assessing your protein needs through menopause.
1. Reflect on where you’re currently getting protein from in your diet.
A useful ready reckoner is below.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it is still achievable, but you will need to do some careful planning, as it is usually combinations of different plant-based protein sources that come together to support your needs per meal.
2. Consider your activity level
More weight bearing exercise is definitely beneficial in menopause and combining this with higher protein intakes is helpful. The body doesn’t store protein though so how we eat it in real time across the day makes a difference, aiming to include it in meals and snacks. 10-20g protein is enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
If you can hit a minimum of 20-25g per meal, this would be ideal. This is easy to achieve with animal proteins and also very doable with a combination of plant- based proteins together, for example pulses and grains. Have a look at the ready reckoner below.
If you do a lot of activity, this will increase your protein needs further to at least 1.4-1.6g per kg of body weight, depending on type and duration of exercise you’re doing.
3. Consider your own body, how it feels and its journey so far.
Some women report they feel better with a diet proportionally higher in protein and lower in carb and that this supports them to feel better through menopause.
We don’t however, have the evidence that this is a superior way of eating, so I would say it comes down to the types of carbs you consume. There is a lot of misinformation about carbs so if you’d like some clarity you’ll like this free guide to gaining clarity with carbs.
Wholegrain carbs for example are a good source of protein, containing 25% more than refined varieties. It’s one of the reasons why getting too simplistic with food groups doesn’t make sense – ‘carb’ foods contain protein too.
Often, we find ourselves craving sugars, and giving ourselves a hard time in the process. Simply trying to avoid these and convincing ourselves brown rice surprise is definitely what we want, is a flawed strategy.
This free guide to cracking the cravings is a useful 3 step process to working out your relationship with sugar and how to tackle it in a helpful and productive way. It’s not simply just a case of shunning one food group in favour of another. There is value in balance, and looking at the actual foods you eat, not just their macronutrient breakdown.
Your genetics to a certain extent will control your hunger and fullness signals, and protein (along with fibre) can be helpful for those that struggle to feel full. It’s worth noting if you’ve dieted a lot in previous years, your lean muscle mass will have taken a hit. Calorie deficits put pressure on the body, and often lean muscle tissue is used as a fuel instead. It can be useful to explore your relationship with food, and what’s driving you to continue to restrict your food intake. I can help you with that.
What is the best diet for menopause?
As far as the menopause diet is concerned, the Mediterranean diet consistently comes out on top – this diet contains a blend of carb and protein with no particular emphasis on macronutrient composition. Rather it’s the type of foods that confer the benefits to lean muscle mass. For example, fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrains, monounsaturated oils such as olive and omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish.
It’s thought to do this in different ways; by acting directly on oxidative stress (which is when the body is subjected to free radicals which can cause damage unless they’re neutralised), inflammation and insulin resistance.
All these are regarded as risk factors for muscle breakdown and therefore the components of the Mediterranean diet have been associated with better muscle measurements in postmenopausal women.
This is a useful read to explore and reflect on the best diet for you and your menopause.
Here are my top 10 meals to boost protein in your diet.
- Soaked oats made with greek yogurt and milk and topped with nuts, seeds and fresh fruit
- Scrambled egg, spinach and smoked salmon served with wholegrain toast
- Bean burritos
- Tofu and edamame bean stir fry with brown rice
- Moroccan chicken with chickpeas
- Wholewheat spaghetti with tomatoes, rocket, chickpeas and feta
- Oat pancakes served with greek yogurt and honey.
- Baked beans on wholegrain toast with cream cheese topping.
- Chicken and cashew nut wholewheat noodle stir fry
- Soya mince and lentil Bolognese
To help get a handle on amounts, here are some examples of what 20g and 10g protein looks like:
Animal protein – portions providing about 20g protein
|Beef, lamb, pork
|2 medium slices
|1 small breast
|1 small fillet
|6 fish fingers
|1 small tin/ fillet
|2 serving spoons
Vegetable Protein – portions providing approximately 10g protein
|Nuts (e.g. peanuts, cashews)
|Seeds (e.g. sunflower, sesame)
|Half a large tin
|Kidney beans/split peas
|5 tablespoons- cooked
|Tofu (Soya bean curd)
|Approx 2/3 pint
|3 tablespoons (~ half a tub)
|Thickly spread on 2 slices bread (2 heaped tablespoons)
Check out ‘How much protein do I need through menopause‘ for more protein guidance and myth busting.
You can find me @menopause.dietitian on Instagram for more tips. I hope this has been a useful read.
Thanks for reading!