Food, Flax and Flashes…Oh My!
Let’s talk about nutrition.
Surprised? Me too! I thought I was going to be discussing fitness this month, but found I really couldn’t attack that piece without laying the food foundation first.
So here we go.
When I turned 40, I heard a terrifying sound, and the smell of burnt rubber filled the house. I thought to myself, “Yep. That’s the metabolism coming to a screeching halt.” I was not wrong. For the last few years, I had found myself developing food sensitivities to things that had never bothered me before, namely wheat and dairy. My children started asking me about my cheese baby. And I couldn’t drink red wine past 2pm, or I would be up all night, which made breakfast interesting to say the least. My weight started creeping up on the scale, and the inches were adding up around my middle.
Would you believe that a dip in estrogen was responsible for most of these ills?
Sure, we associate perimenopause with hot flashes, night sweats, forgetfulness, brain fog, depression, forgetfulness, anxiety, weight gain, mood swings, and don’t forget – forgetfulness, but have you ever stopped to think that what you eat could either help or worsen those symptoms?
When I saw the weight creep up and my clothes get tighter, I immediately logged onto an app to track my food. Aha! Accountability was going to save me. Based on my lofty goals, this app suggested that I eat no more than 1200 calories per day. I am sure you’ve seen the number – it is what is required to keep you breathing and doing minimal activity on a very sedentary day. No problem right? What does this look like? A handful of strawberries, a green salad with chicken breast and 10 cherry tomatoes, 4oz of grilled salmon, 10 pecans, 6 carrot sticks, 10 grapes, 5 broccoli florets, a cheese stick and a side dish of grim and cheerless. I could barely function, I was hangry all the time, and.. I started gaining weight. NO!
A dip in estrogen means that you are more sensitive to the fight or flight response. Fight or flight is what happens when you are being chased by a bear, driving in traffic, being yelled at by your boss, restricting your food, or exercising too much (more on that next month). As more adrenaline is released, cortisol tells the liver to release glucose to support your fight or flight (this is a VERY simplified explanation). Continuous fight or flight can result in weight gain around your middle due to the excess of glucose. Chronic stress can also have an effect on the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is responsible for memory and learning, hence, the brain fog and forgetfulness.
It did not take me long to figure out that 1200 calories was way too restrictive and that I needed to change my outlook to promote resilience, maintain my current activity level, build some muscle, AND have the energy to get through my day. After my brush with calorie-restricted zombie-ism, I wanted to move beyond just weight loss.
Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic oath) said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”. Healthy food = Healthy body and mind.
Studies suggest that as estrogen levels dip, many women develop autoimmune reactions to common food allergens: dairy, eggs, wheat, nuts, sugar, and alcohol.
Because the hot flashes and moodiness weren’t annoying enough, a menopausal Mother Nature decided to share her ills.
A food diary or an elimination diet (talk to a nutritionist about this) can be helpful in figuring out why you suddenly have the acne of a 14 year-old, or why you blasted through 7 levels on Candy Crush because you were… indisposed… in the bathroom.
So once you’ve eliminated the things that you may be sensitive to, what’s a girl to eat?
Vegetables: Learn to love them in their plainest state possible, NOT deep-fried! (Except maybe pickles, although, they can’t be considered a vegetable anymore…) These should fill 2/3 of your plate, with a special place for raw, bitter greens, which improve gut health, and provide an important source of fiber to promote bowel health and overall digestion. Veggies provide essential micro and macronutrients that are crucial to cardiovascular, neurological, and digestive health. Have you EVER seen a rabbit wear glasses? Or NOT poop, for that matter?
Fats: Fats are the essential hormonal building block. No fats + hormonal depletion. The low-fat craze of the late 80’s (remember Snackwells?) taught us that low-fat means high sugar, and this can result in diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity. Restricting fat too much can only result in poor overall health – dry skin (hello wrinkles!), constipation, increased vaginal dryness, fatigue, depression, dips in libido, and joint pain. How much fun is that? Sources of healthy fats include nuts, olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, almond butter, tahini, and salmon.
Phytoestrogens: These are plants based compounds that mimic estrogen in the body. This means less hot flashes, better sleep, better bone density. Big movers in this category include, chickpeas, lentils, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, garlic, onions, broccoli, carrots, celery, apples, mung bean and alfalfa sprouts. Sprinkle these on your all-important veggies for crunch.
Complex carbohydrates: Say it with me: These are not the devil. They are responsible for brain function, muscular strength and endurance, maintenance of blood glucose level. And let’s face it: is there anything better than oven baked sweet potato wedges dipped in a lime-tahini dressing? Fight me! With the rise in people extolling the virtues of the keto diet, carbs have gotten a bad rap, but don’t let anyone eating pork rinds by the handful tell you that a banana is evil. Choose the single ingredient kind for the best health benefits: Sweet potatoes, rice, oats, potatoes, bananas, berries.
Fiber: Necessary for bowel health, it slows the absorption of sugars and provides “bulk” to help you feel satiated. Too little slows digestion and can makes you feel sluggish and bloated. Fiber can be found in fruits and vegetables, grains, oats, rice, beans, and legumes.
Protein: protein plays a crucial role in building and maintaining muscle mass, which sneaks away insidiously after you reach the age of 40. Because of the hormonal shift, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain muscle and bone mass, and thus, retain the metabolism of your thirties. Try to ensure you include a source of protein with every meal/snack. Chicken, beef, fish, legumes, soy beans, nuts, are all good choices. Everyone’s needs vary based on activity levels, fitness goals, and overall absorption rate. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or an omnivore, you need this macronutrient! Bonus: certain veggies are also high in protein: hello brussel sprouts!
Fluid intake: stay hydrated with non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages as much as possible. Your best bet is always water and green tea for its anti-oxidant effects.
Not overwhelming at all, is it? Is your brain exploding yet?
The thing is, you are looking for sustainability here. It’s not a diet, or a lifestyle, or a fad. It is fuel that will keep your body and brain running to the best of their abilities to promote a better quality of life, while weathering the temporary hormonal storm that is happening in your body. Your choices either support you or sabotage you.
Allow me to ask you this question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time.
Start by making small changes. Start your day with a big glass of water. Add a serving of vegetables at every meal. Even breakfast; it’s called a frittata, and it’s CLASSY! Cut down on your caffeine intake (substitute your second cup of java for a green tea). Try an exotic fruit. Add chia seed to your oatmeal. Enjoy a meatless Monday. Roast a pan full of autumn vegetables and make soup. Try a buddha bowl. And for the love of Pete, move away from guilt! It is perfectly okay to indulge once in a while!
Just do me a favour and throw some flax seed on that taco though, just to be thorough.
Written by Genevieve Herzog