Paleo and Menopause, Part 2: Avoiding Menopausal Weight Gain

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Part 1 in this series took a good hard look at the idea that menopausal weight gain is just a fact of life – it’s not! But so many women struggle with extra pounds after menopause that it’s worth taking a closer look.

All of this assumes that you’re already eating Paleo. If you’re not, that’s the first step. But here’s what you can do to tweak Paleo specifically for weight loss or maintenance after menopause:

Re-Evaluate your Carbs

Menopause is associated with (not to be confused with “causes”) a decrease in insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is your body’s ability to use carbs for fuel, instead of storing them as fat. So reduced insulin sensitivity means that you’re more likely to stash those carbs on your hips. It’s not clear whether this is caused by aging (it also happens to men as they get older) or by menopause per se or by some combination of both, but in any case, it definitely happens.

One of the easiest ways to manage decreased insulin sensitivity and avoid the weight gain that comes with it (especially unhealthy visceral fat, the fat around organs) is to re-evaluate your carb tolerance and adjust your meals accordingly.

Some women become less tolerant of carbohydrates after menopause, while others notice no change at all. There’s no reason to suddenly start a low-carb diet if you’re doing fine, but if you’re noticing telltale signs like energy highs and crashes after eating starchy food, an experiment with lowering carb intake might help.

Do Weight-Bearing Exercise

Another way to improve insulin sensitivity is to exercise. Any kind of exercise will do (In this study, even walking improved insulin sensitivity), but weight training is the best of the best, for two reason:

  • Weight training is the best thing you can do for your bones. It improves bone strength much better than calcium chews or other supplements (you can get the full story on bone strength and how to avoid osteoporosis here). Since bone loss is such a serious concern for women after menopause, this is definitely not a benefit to sneeze at.
  • Weight training helps maintain muscle mass. During and after a hard workout, your muscles gulp down carbohydrates, storing them as fuel instead of fat. This helps maintain insulin sensitivity. More muscle mass also protects against the metabolic slowdown associated with aging and improves cardiovascular health.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with cardio either, or with a combination of the two. But for the optimal benefits of exercise, you’ll want to throw at least a little strength training into the mix.

Get Enough Red Meat and Fatred meat & eggs

Saturated fat is the backbone of hormone production – this is one nutrient you don’t want to skimp on. Eat plenty of butter, coconut milk, coconut oil, palm oil, and grass-fed animal fat: it’s good for you!

As well as being an important source of saturated fat, red meat is packed with several nutrients that older adults are often lacking. This study, for example looked at anemia (more common in older people of both sexes), and found that the risk of anemia was strongly associated with inadequate dietary intake of protein, iron, B12, and folate – all nutrients present abundantly in a nice plate of chuck roast.

But doesn’t a high-fat diet cause breast cancer? Nope! Take a look at this study, which looked at nearly 50,000 postmenopausal women. Women were randomized either to a low-fat group or a control group. 8 years later, the low-fat group had just as much breast cancer as the controls. To quote the study:

Among postmenopausal women, a low-fat dietary pattern did not result in a statistically significant reduction in invasive breast cancer risk over an 8.1-year average follow-up period

When you take out confounding factors (like the people who eat a low-fat diet being richer and more likely to exercise), there’s no link between fat intake and breast cancer.

What about red meat and breast cancer? Again, there’s just no evidence for any risk. For example, this meta-analysis concluded that:

red meat and processed meat intake does not appear to be independently associated with increasing the risk of breast cancer

Full-fat animal foods are a rich source of healthy fats that your body needs for energy, hormone manufacturing, and other purposes. They won’t give you breast cancer, and in fact avoiding them may be dangerous since they’re so full of important nutrients.

What does this all have to do with weight loss? Everything! Weight loss is a symptom of health, not a cause. When are you more likely to head out to the gym: when you feel strong and energized, or when you feel weak and exhausted? When are you more likely to overeat or cave to a plate of cookies: when your body is running strong with all the nutrients it needs, or when a chronic nutrient inadequacy is keeping you hungry all the time?

The high-quality protein in fatty animal foods also helps keep your muscles going strong – remember that maintaining muscle mass is one of the quickest ways to improve insulin sensitivity and keep your metabolism up.

Eat More Vegetables

Vegetables can help address any lingering nutrient deficiencies that might be keeping your body hungry. They can also add bulk to your meals, so you feel full without eating a lot of extra calories. Even though there’s a huge hormonal component to weight loss, and even though calorie-counting generally backfires, calories still do count, and adding a big salad to your meals is a painless and tasty way to slightly decrease calories without going hungry or wasting your time tracking everything you eat.

A related strategy is to take a hard look at any sources of “empty calories” in your life: where are the calories that you don’t even enjoy eating? The ones that you wouldn’t miss, but eat anyway out of habit? Get rid of those, without even touching the food you really want, and you might find that weight loss or maintenance comes a lot easier.

Consider a Thyroid Issue

If you’re doing everything right but not seeing results, it might not actually be menopause at all. Hypothyroid problems have many symptoms that can look like menopause: stubborn weight gain, low energy, joint pain, irritability, and brain fog, to name a few. Just because something occurs at around the typical age for menopause doesn’t necessarily make it menopause-related.

This study also found that “menopause may modify the clinical expression of some thyroid diseases, particularly the autoimmune ones” – so if you had a thyroid condition that was under control pre-menopause, it may be worth revisiting to make sure everything is still going as planned.

What About the Other Symptoms?

A slightly increased risk of metabolic syndrome or weight gain sometime in the future is all very well, but what about the hot flashes that are keeping you up at night right now? Or the brain fog? Or the whole laundry list of other symptoms that aren’t as medically serious but might even be more significant for your quality of life?

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that diet has much to do with any of these woes – and there certainly haven’t been any studies comparing Paleo to any other diet. One piece of evidence that might reassure you is the fact that hunter-gatherer women typically do have much less severe symptoms of menopause, suggesting that the combination of a good diet and regular physical activity might just do the trick.

A special note about soy here: Japanese women have much lower rates of symptoms like hot flashes, and some researchers chalk this one up to their higher consumption of soy. Soy contains phytoestrogens (artificial estrogens that can bind to human estrogen receptors), providing a plausible link between soy consumption and a less painful set of symptoms. But an actual randomized, double-blind clinical study (which removes confounding factors like all the other differences between Japan and the United States) found no benefit for menopausal women from supplementing with soy isoflavones.

Summing it Up

There is no one diet that can completely prevent the changes of menopause – which is, after all, a perfectly normal part of aging and nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing “wrong” with menopause; it’s not a disease, and there’s no reason why it should have to take over your life.

On the other hand, just like any other major life change, menopause does present a few special challenges – like lower insulin sensitivity, a greater tendency to gain weight, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, if you tweak Paleo a little, it’s an ideal eating plan for getting all the crucial nutrients that postmenopausal women need for good bone and cardiovascular health, while controlling weight gain and avoiding metabolic damage.

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