THE POWER OF PROTEIN DURING MENOPAUSE
It used to be that high protein diets were associated with bodybuilders eating a 12-egg omelette or diets like the ‘Atkins'.
It’s increasingly understood that protein is, in fact, incredibly important for all of us and particularly through perimenopause and menopause, so we wanted to dig a little deeper into why protein is so powerful.
What is protein?
Proteins are large, complex molecules made up of twenty amino acids and are the building blocks of life. Some of these amino acids can be made inside the body, but nine can only be found in foods and are known as the ‘essential amino acids’.
Proteins can either be complete or incomplete depending on whether they deliver all of these essential amino acids.
Complete proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy contain them all. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids – eg. legumes, nuts, and grains and so you need a variety of plant sources in your diet to ensure you eat enough of the essential amino acids.
Why is protein so important during menopause?
The amino acids from protein are essential for the structure, function, and regulation of almost all biological processes from maintaining and repairing tissues, producing hormones and enzymes to supporting the immune system.
Every structure in your body requires protein – your muscles, bones, gut, tissues, liver, hair, skin, and nails.
Protein is particularly important through mid-life due to its key role in:
Muscle growth and repair:
As we age, we encounter sarcopenia (the decline of muscle tissue). Eating enough protein can help support muscles and prevent muscle loss. This helps maintain strength and metabolism (muscles are more metabolically active than fat tissue) which means they require more energy (calories) to maintain and support overall health.
Protein is necessary for the production of hormones and also for transporting them around the body. For example, proteins are involved in the production of insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels, and also in the production of oestrogen and progesterone.
Eating protein can help you feel full and satisfied, which can reduce your overall calorie intake and support healthy weight management.
Fascinating research by Raubenheimer and Simpson demonstrated that we are driven to consume food until we have eaten sufficient protein and essential minerals, this has also been shown to be true specifically for menopausal women. This begins to explain why some women never feel satisfied after a meal and they seek out more food – often something sweet and unhealthy.
Research also shows eating sufficient protein helps avoid weight gain via a mechanism known as the Protein Leverage Effect. This kicks in when insufficient protein prompts an increase in cravings.
Other research backs this up with a study that indicates that postmenopausal women who consumed a higher-protein diet had lower fat mass compared to those on a lower-protein diet.
Blood sugar control:
Protein can help regulate blood sugar levels by slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates and reducing insulin spikes.
Women are at an increased risk of osteoporosis after menopause due to the decline in oestrogen levels. Eating enough protein, along with other key nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, can help support bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
How much protein do we need?
As we age, and through the menopause transition, our bodies begin to use protein less efficiently so it’s even more important that we eat enough.
But how much?
As with so much in the world of nutrition, there are mixed messages in terms of guidelines, and they also vary in terms of age, sex, and activity level.
In the UK, the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is only 0.75 g/kg of your body weight.
However, researchers are now recommending higher amounts of protein per day and particularly for those over the age of 50 years.
The European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis and Osteoarthritis (ESCEO) recommends optimal dietary protein intake of up to 1.2g/kg of body weight. A further study known as the PROT-AGE study group (amongst those 60+ years old) proposed up to 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight, especially for those who are active or have an acute or chronic disease.
From our years of experience, we suggest aiming at the upper range of these recommendations. For example, if you weigh 70kg (11 stone), aim for a minimum of 100g of protein a day.
This may well be more than you currently eat. Despite all the hype about protein (and the huge range of protein powders and protein bars now available), many of us don’t eat enough.
Gone are the days when we’d have eggs for breakfast and meat and two veg for dinner. It’s likely that breakfast has been replaced with sugary cereals or toast and mealtimes now consist of convenience foods that can be low in protein and filled with unhealthy fats, additives, and fillers.
As a guide, remember these rules
A portion of protein is approximately 20g:
Aim for a palm size portion of meat, fish, tofu, or Quorn, 3 eggs, a tub of cottage cheese, 2 tubs of regular yogurt, or a scoop of whey protein powder.
Eat protein at least three times a day:
Our muscles contain protein, and if you don’t consume enough in your diet, the body will break down muscle.
Choose complete proteins:
Make sure your diet contains enough complete proteins by eating meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. To achieve the full amino acid profile from a plant-based diet you need to take care to consume a variety of incomplete proteins, such as rice and beans.
As you can see, eating adequate complete protein throughout the day is essential for our muscles, metabolism, skin, hair, nails, bones, hormones, enzymes, immune health, and much, much more.
If you have any comments or need help working out your protein levels for the day, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Weight gain during the menopause transition: Evidence for a mechanism dependent on
2 Increased consumption of dairy foods and protein during diet- and exercise-induced
weight loss promotes fat mass loss and lean mass gain in overweight and obese
3 Dietary reference values for food energy and nutrients for the United Kingdom. Report
of the Panel on Dietary Reference Values of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food
4 Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a
position paper from the PROT-AGE Study