Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

I am turning 42 this year, and at my last physical, my doctor brought up menopause. Excuse me? What? I guess, naively or on purpose, maybe in hopes to delay it, I figured I had more time and would go through menopause when I had grandchildren. Not true. Perimenopause or the transition to menopause usually starts at around age 45-55 and can last eight to ten years. Menopause, which is defined as having no menstrual period for 12 consecutive months, happens on average by age 51. So here I am, far from having grandchildren, thinking about menopause. And it seems like a really good time to focus on my health as preventive measures for the future.  

Perimenopause: the transition

In perimenopause, a woman starts to produce less estrogen and progesterone. It is the low and fluctuating levels of hormones (primarily estrogen) that can cause a wide range of symptoms. Some are just annoying while others can have a negative effect on a woman’s well-being and long-term health. Every woman experiences menopause differently. Some of the more common symptoms include

  • hot flashes
  • night sweats
  • mood swings
  • bloating
  • foggy brain or memory loss
  • anxiety
  • fatigue
  • weight gain
  • fat distribution changes from the hips to the abdomen
  • insomnia

Long-term health risks include

  • heart disease
  • osteoporosis

I don’t know what my experience will be, but to help me feel my best and reduce my long-term health risks over the next few years, this is my healthy eating plan.

Fill half my plate with vegetables and fruit

Vegetables and fruit are delicious, provide fibre to keep me full and may help to reduce hot flashes (although more research is needed). More importantly, eating vegetables and fruit reduces the risk of heart disease. New research suggests that a woman's risk for heart disease, thought to increase after menopause, might peak earlier, in the years just before menopause. So, making a habit of eating more veggies and fruit now is super important.

Include milk products every day

I have two servings of milk products daily (the recommendation for those who are 31-50 years old) and I will increase this to three servings a day when I turn 51 (plus supplementing with the daily recommended intake of 400 IU vitamin D). Milk products provide a package of nutrients including calcium and vitamin D to help offset bone loss which begins after age 30 and carries on during menopause. If you don’t drink milk, make sure you choose an alternative that is fortified with the same nutrients as milk.

Eat protein at every meal

As part of the natural aging process, we lose up to 8% of muscle mass each decade after age 40. Therefore, I aim to eat around 20-30 g of protein at each meal. By eating adequate protein throughout the day (rather than all at once), along with doing exercise, we will maintain the muscles we need to perform everyday tasks. Having enough protein ensures we maintain a healthy metabolic rate and helps us feel full and satisfied.

Eat less

I know my muscle mass and metabolism is decreasing which means, sadly, I will need fewer calories than when I was younger. But I won’t overly restrict my intake. Cutting out entire food groups can negatively affect health, and eating a very low-calorie diet may decrease metabolism. I have made small changes: I use smaller plates, watch my portion sizes and try to tune into my hunger and fullness cues.

Be cautious about miracle supplements and foods

I always think if a supplement or herb sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Many supplements are not well studied and may have adverse effects. Watch for slick marketing and only anecdotal evidence supporting benefits. Let your doctor, dietitian and/or health care provider know about any natural products you may include in your eating plan. Don’t be fooled into thinking one food is a miracle either; a varied diet that includes mostly whole unprocessed foods is the best bet.

Figure out what works for me

What might work for my friend, might not work for me. We are all different. For example, red wine may be a trigger food for me and increase hot flashes, but coffee may not. And maybe you find spicy foods cause you to have night sweats, but I am fine to eat them. I plan to journal and track my symptoms so I can make individualized changes and feel my best.

Stick with exercise and put a priority on strength training

What’s the best way to stick with exercise? Do what you enjoy!

Experiment with different types of aerobic and strength exercises and find what works for you. Strengthening exercises, such as yoga and weight training (using hand weights or resistance bands) are important to slow the loss of natural muscle and bone. Women often overlook the importance of these types of exercises. Recent research also suggests strength training may lower a woman’s risk for heart disease. And when combined with aerobic exercise, the benefit was even greater. I always feel better about life when I am exercising regularly, and I plan to keep it up.

Perimenopause is a time of change and a time to focus on you. Realize you may need extra support and rest. Reach out to others to talk about your experience.  

AFLCA members

Are you looking for practical nutrition tools for your clients? Log in to the AFLCA Members section of the website and order free resources today! Great options to compliment this blog include Eat Right for Your 40s and 50s. 

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Jennifer Michaelchuk, RD.

Registered Dietitian

Jennifer (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian from Edmonton. She enjoys inspiring others to achieve their healthy living goals and make healthy food choices.

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