This week (13th to 19th March 2023) is Nutrition & Hydration week, so what better time to talk about Menopause and meal times!
Getting nutrition right at whatever stage of life can be a bit of a minefield. There is always some popular fad diet or new government advice and a whole heap of contradicting views on the internet, and managing your nutrition through menopause on top of everything else that's going on with your body can often feel a bit overwhelming. But get the basics right and you'll be able to better manage your symptoms and feel so much better for it. Good nutrition will support your hormonal health, energy levels and mood and not only that, but your running will very likely improve as a result.. what's not to love about that?!
An area that is crucial to focus on is your blood sugar levels, as this can have a massive impact on the severity of any menopausal symptoms you might be experiencing. But let us first understand what changes our happening in our bodies.
During menopause our oestrogen levels start to drop and when our ovaries stop producing oestrogen, the adrenal glands take over. These small glands produce a weaker form of oestrogen that helps keep us fit and well through our midlife years and beyond.
However the adrenal glands also produce our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. When we encounter a stressful situation, they are too busy doing that just that and not producing oestrogen, at a time in our life when we need it the most! The production of these stress hormones is supposed to be short lived but women very often deal with an increased amount of stress during the menopause (see picture above) which sometimes can even lead to chronic stress. Symptoms of chronic stress include fatigue, weight gain, reduced libido, low mood, dizziness, headaches, digestive problems and increased time to recover from illness or injury.. not ideal if you've picked up a running related injury and are desperate to get back to what you love doing.
Ever wondered why you can't seem to lose that unwanted weight as easily as you did in your earlier years? That's because if our adrenal glands are unable to produce oestrogen as a result of stress , its produced by fat cells instead. Your body will then start to store food as abdominal (visceral) fat, which is harder to shift as its caused by hormones and not overindulgence!
The good news, is that with smart nutrition you can reduce the levels of stress hormones in your body and support adrenal function by balancing your blood sugar levels.
If we eat a lot of sugary foods and refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, processed cereals etc) it leads to a spike in blood sugar. This triggers the release of another hormone called insulin. Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine can also trigger the release of insulin. Insulin removes sugar from the blood and sends it to the liver, but the liver can only store so much and any excess sugar will be stored as fat. The knock on effect of this is that after the insulin has done its job, your blood sugar levels drop. Annoyingly, the higher the spike in insulin, the greater the fall in blood sugar. This can lead to feeling irritable and tired as we use sugar for energy. Enter the stress hormones! Cortisol and adrenaline come in to play to rebalance things by sending a message to the liver to release sugar stores back in to the blood.
Cortisol also generates cravings for more sugar and refined carbs.. possibly a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and your body gets that quick fix that it's needing.
And so the cycle repeats, meaning your blood sugar levels will fluctuate throughout the day... and in turn your adrenal glands are continually releasing stress hormones and not oestrogen!
That's the biology lesson over! I guess you'd like to know how you can better balance your blood sugar levels?!
To do this, two key nutrients are required.
Complex (as opposed to refined) carbohydrates, which are high in fibre and release more slowly into the body AND protein, which is hard to digest, slows down the release of carbohydrate and means you can keep going for longer and help to maintain the blood sugar balance.
In short try to eat a combination of protein and complex carbohydrate with every meal/snack and avoid sugary foods and refined carbs. Easier said than done I know, but do this and you'll get far less spikes in blood sugar levels, meaning that you can produce more oestrogen instead of stress hormones and help to improve your menopause symptoms!
Don't forget too, that as runners, we need protein to aid muscle repair for the damage caused by the high impact of running.
So let's talk about how can we make our meals more menopause friendly!
Quite often we're in a hurry at breakfast time but don't worry it doesn't have to be complicated. Try swapping white bread for wholemeal and instead of smothering it in jam, spread on nut butter for some protein. Choose cereals that are low-sugar and add some seeds for that bit of protein. Eggs are great at breakfast if you have the time to cook them , again swapping white bread for wholemeal or rye for more fibre. Why not add some avocado to your eggs to get some healthy fats in your diet too, on top of seeded bread for extra protein. Just a few small changes to your already rushed meal can make all the difference.
Lunch might take a bit of extra planning, especially if you're at work and often eat on the go. Making a packed lunch will ensure you are in control of what you consume during the day rather than it being dictated by what's available at a local shop or cafe. Some good packed lunch options are tuna or egg mayo sandwich (wholemeal bread of course!) or a salad with some fish, chicken or egg. If you're at home how about making an omelette or if you're a jacket potato fan try swapping it for sweet potato instead for extra fibre.
To help maintain blood sugar levels further you'll need to include some healthy snacks as if you leave it too long between meals your blood sugar will drop and out come the stress hormones again!
Veggie sticks and hummus are a good choice or you fancy something a little sweeter, rather than raid the biscuit tin try some sliced apple with unsweetened peanut butter. Raw nuts are also a great, quick snack option.
Dinner tends to present less problems as you'll probably be at home with a bit more time on your hands, although saying that you might be at the end of a long and busy day at work and tempted to go for an easy (and often less healthy) option. A quick note to add here is that balancing your blood sugar levels in the evening can result in a better night's sleep - something that many women going through menopause are often lacking!
If you're a lover of Italian food, try swapping white pasta for wholegrain and be sure to to include a source of protein in the sauce such as chicken or prawns.
Salmon is a fabulous dinner choice, but rather than having it with white rice serve it on a bed of vegetables and perhaps some quinoa for added protein.
You may also be wondering about portion sizes at meal times. General and simple guidance for lunch and dinner is that your protein portion should be about a quarter of the meal and roughly the size of your clenched fist, a chicken breast for example. Starchy carbs, things like rice, pasta and potato, should be the same size as the protein portion and vegetables can make up the rest of the meal.
As you can see, it's easy to adapt your eating habits to ensure your meals include the complex carbohydrate and protein needed to balance your blood sugar levels and limit the amount of stress hormones released by the adrenal glands. By making small changes, you'll be allowing your body to produce more oestrogen and you'll be able to hopefully minimise your menopause symptoms.
I've only touched on a small number of food suggestions but if you're after more inspiration for meal times, I've put together a ebook full of recipe ideas for meals and snacks that are high in protein. Click the button below to buy your copy for just £4.99!