Banish symptoms of pre-menopause (like hot flashes, foggy brain, and weight gain) with just a few simple tweaks to your diet.
If you’re in your 40s and have noticed your weight creeping up even though your diet and exercise routine haven’t changed, you can blame your muscles (or lack thereof–here are five daily habits for preserving your muscle). “Beginning in your thirties, you will lose about one percent of your muscle mass each year, and in the following decade, you will lose muscle at a higher rate,” says Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center. Muscle is metabolically active, meaning it’s burning calories on your behalf, even if you’re just binge watching House of Cards. “All lost muscle will be replaced by fat–and your metabolism will slow down correspondingly–unless your habits actively counteract this process,” says Dr. Apovian. “Eat a diet rich in lean protein sources and incorporate at least two strength training sessions into your weekly routine.” Shoot for about 30 grams of protein per meal.
Shift down on sugar
The changing hormone levels you begin to experience in your 40s could feel oddly like your tumultuous teen years, except now there’s the added bonus of hot flashes in addition to fatigue and mood swings. It may be tempting to reach for sugary comfort food, but any happy feelings will be short-lived when you suffer a post-carb crash. (Already over-indulged? Here’s how to reverse a sugar binge.) Worse, eating like this will lead to weight gain and exaggerated hormonal responses. “During menopause, your hormone levels affect your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar,” warns Dr. Apovian. “In addition, added sugars cause energy surges and crashes, and lead to cravings for more sugar later on, without providing any nutritional benefit for the calories consumed. Eating a diet low in added sugars will benefit weight loss at any age, but especially during menopause when blood sugar is less stable.
Feed your gut
By now, we’ve all heard the importance probiotics play in having healthy gut, but a recent study suggests another good reason for premenopausal women is that a diverse population of gut bacteria may be more efficient at managing estrogen–potentially lowering the risk for breast cancer. “I always suggest that women in their 40s include more prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods in their diet, like kefir, sauerkraut and tempeh,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD. Most of us aren’t likely to eat those foods every day, which is why Rizzo recommends a probiotic supplement. But with so many probiotics flooding the shelves which do we choose? Our gut is home to over 100 trillion live bacteria containing a plethora of strains, and each person has their unique collection. “That’s why it’s recommended that you take a probiotic that has the most cultures and strains possible,” says Rizzo. “That will help you cover your bases. It’s perfectly fine to take a probiotic supplement and eat probiotic rich foods.”
Eat less calories
Sorry, but it tends to be true for most of us–and losing even a pound may be tougher than any of us realize. “Women begin to lose body mass in their 30s, so by your 40s, you might notice you are gaining a few pounds, especially around the waistline, much more easily than you did when you were younger,” says nutrition specialist, Adrienne Youdim, MD. As we get older, our lean body mass ages and metabolism slows; the result is we need fewer calories to maintain the same weight. Youdim recommends a diet rich in lean proteins and high-fiber to control hunger and fight a sluggish metabolism. “Exercise will certainly help burn calories and increase metabolism by preserving or helping to build muscle,” says Dr. Youdim. If you’re looking for hard numbers, Mindy Haar, PhD, registered dietitian and director of program development and interdisciplinary health sciences at New York Institute of Technology says, “While eating just 100 extra calories per day beyond what we need will translate into a weight gain of 10 pounds in one year, eating 100 calories fewer per day will lead to a 10-pound loss during the same time period. Thus, drastic measures are not necessarily needed.”
Cut back on the java?
Cut back on calories and caffeine? Maybe. “A little caffeine in the morning is permissible,” says Dr. Apovian, “but relying on it throughout the day will actually increase your overall fatigue, in addition to interfering with the sleep you vitally need to balance hormones and repair muscles.” However, studies show caffeinated beverages may help improve mood, memory and concentration in some menopausal women, while it can trigger and worsen hot flashes in others. If you’re not sure whether caffeine is a keeper, try keeping a food journal and recording your meals, drinks, and hot flashes. You should be able to identify if caffeine is a friend or foe.
Watch the salt
You may be shocked at the amount of sodium hiding in some of your favorite foods. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams daily, but ideally no more than 1,500 milligrams. It’s especially important to keep an eye on this number as women reach menopause because eating a diet high in salt can contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure). “According to the American Heart Association, until age 45, men are more likely to develop hypertension than women, however from age 45 to 64, men and women develop hypertension at similar rates,” says Abby Sauer, a registered dietitian at Abbott. It’s not just about cutting back on salt though. Lisa Cohn, registered dietitian consultant for miVIP Surgery Centers suggests adding natural diuretics and anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, such as fresh parsley, fennel, oregano, basil, cucumber, or lemon. Check out these other foods that fight inflammation.
Say yes to soy
Soy is a high-quality protein source that contains healthy fats and a variety of vitamins and minerals. According to Mark Messina, PhD, co-author of The Simple Soybean and Your Health and expert for the United Soybean Board, soy directly lowers blood cholesterol by about five percent and may also lower blood pressure, two issues that can pop up in the menopause years. “Most soy research has focused on the benefits of soy for postmenopausal women, such as hot flash reduction, improvement in endothelial function, and reduction in bone loss,” says Dr. Messina. But you’ve probably been leery of eating soy for the possible connection to breast cancer risk. “The controversy about whether breast cancer patients can safely consume soy has been resolved,” says Dr. Messina. “The American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, and the World Cancer Research Fund International has all concluded breast cancer patients can safely consume soy foods.” Reach for whole soy like tempeh, soy nuts, and edamame as they provide fiber, omega-3 fats, and isoflavones. “Refined soy foods that are based on more concentrated sources of soy protein can be low or lacking in some of these constituents. Even tofu, which is only minimally processed, lacks soy fiber,” says Dr. Messina. But if your focus is solely protein, Dr. Messina says a soy burger is an excellent choice.
Eat nutrient-dense foods
If you think getting older means hanging up your sneakers and enjoying more porch sitting, think again. Diabetes risk goes up as we gain weight and become less active with age, says Sauer. “Since we are often less physically active, we need to alter how much we eat and what we eat to balance the amount of calories we are taking in with the amount of calories we are burning off to help maintain a healthy weight or even help with weight loss,” says Sauer. That’s where nutrient-dense foods (high in nutrients, low in calories) can help. According to choosemyplate.gov, instead of eating foods with empty calories like soda, baked goods, candy, and chips, opt for nutrient-dense foods like veggies, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry. That’s quite a haul; make sure they all have little or no saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
Eat more often
Dipping estrogen and progesterone levels alter how our cells respond to insulin–sometimes resulting in higher blood sugar levels. (Here are some more silent signs of perimenopause.) “Some women develop diabetes, some women gain weight more in the middle, and some feel these fluctuations through headaches, low energy, poor sleep, changes in body temperature, cravings, or feeling light-headed,” says Cohn. Besides a healthy diet and exercise, you may want to consider eating more often. “Eating smaller, balanced meals every three-and-a-half hours can help maintain steady blood sugar levels, providing mental clarity, more energy, and proper digestion,” says Cohn. What does a smaller, balanced meal look like? Cohn has these suggestions: a poached egg over arugula, cucumber slices, a radish, a half cup of papaya or blueberries, and mint tea; a smoothie made with a small pear, a cucumber peeled and sliced, a squeeze of fresh lemon, a cup of baby spinach, a quarter avocado, and a half cup of water; or a half turkey breast sandwich with lettuce, tomato, two slices of avocado, thin bread, radishes, and a small clementine.
Keep bones strong
Keeping your skeleton strong requires movement, but that’s painful to do if you have osteoporosis. To prevent or reduce the extent of this painful condition, be proactive.”Women in their 40s should be sure they are getting the recommended 1200 milligrams of calcium each day,” says Dr. Haar. “One cup servings of low-fat milk and yogurt or non-dairy substitutes usually have 300-400 mg per serving.” Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium so you’ll want to make sure you get 600 international units (IU) a day.
Less wine, more water
Premenopause often signals the decline of some sleep-promoting hormones, and you may suddenly experience insomnia because of this. (Of course, there are multiple subtle causes of sleeplessness.) Wine may be your go-to for relaxing and inducing sleep, but that can worsen your troubles.”Alcohol can interrupt a restful night’s sleep, which can be a challenge as women transition through menopause,” says Angie Murad, wellness dietitian at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. If insomnia doesn’t keep you awake, hot flashes and night sweats will surely make you a zombie the next day. Tame your temps by cutting back on alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, and hot beverages as they can trigger hot flashes and night sweats in some women. Drinking water is even more important when you hit your 40s. “Consuming water throughout the day is also important for restoring water loss, as we tend to experience hot flashes, night sweats, and an increased overall dryness as we age,” says Cohn.
Eat to avoid B12 deficiency
“Vitamin B12 is more poorly absorbed as the body ages, typically starting around 50 because that’s when stomach acid levels deplete,” says Dr. Youdim. Get a jumpstart now on boosting your stores of this vital vitamin, because a B12 deficiency can sneak up on you. You need the vitamin for energy and focus–two major issues for women during premenopause and menopause. B12 is found in animal products like, milk, eggs, cheese, and meat. While it’s hard to get from plant foods, B12 does turn up in fortified products like breakfast cereals. Talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
Raise HDL levels
Menopause or aging isn’t an automatic ticket to a jelly belly, but extra belly fat in the abdomen can contribute to high cholesterol, Murad says. It’s important to raise the “good” (HDL) cholesterol levels because HDL removes extra cholesterol and plaque buildup in your arteries. How can we amp up HDL? “Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids which help raise good cholesterol. Oily fish are also good sources of vitamin D, which aids in calcium absorption,” says Murad. If fish doesn’t bait your appetite, try these other foods to raise HDL.