- Susan Horgan
5 nutrition myths making your perimenopause symptoms worse
And how to shift these for more energy and sparkle
Everywhere you turn these days, there’s some new diet or way of eating that is going to be THE thing that “cures” you of those nagging symptoms of perimenopause. The weight that you just can’t seem to shift, the anxiety, mood swings and incurable fatigue. And when you’re feeling at your lowest, it’s a no-brainer to give it a go. Let’s be honest, when you can’t think straight and have zero get up and go, you’ll try anything to feel a bit more normal, right?. And lots of them are rehashing some of the same advice that’s been going around since we were growing up in the 80s - low-fat, low calorie – and others opting for more recent approaches like paleo, vegan and keto. Regardless, they generally tend to end up with some level of restriction – whether it’s food groups or calories – making them hard to sustain over the long term. This not only leaves you feeling hungry or deprived, but also like you’re a failure in some way. Plus, you’re still none the wiser as to what the hell is going to help you get through perimenopause without losing your mind.
What I’ve found over the last few years working with clients is that the reality tends to be somewhere in the middle – in the grey bit.
And I get it – being in the middle isn’t sexy or on trend. I mean everyone is doing this new thing, so why shouldn’t I? And this is what can make it all feel so confusing and difficult to make sense of. How do you know what approach is the right one and how do you go about getting started?
That’s why this month, I wanted to bust a few nutrition myths that I see come up time and time again with perimenopause clients. Some of these can be deeply engrained beliefs that can be really challenging to change – ones that we grew up with for example, like eating low fat. But if you can manage to change the narrative you have around some of these things, it can be really powerful in terms of being able to eat in a way that feels relaxed, comfortable, easy and enjoyable. And not only that, but in a way that nourishes your body and your mind so that you can regain control over your perimenopause symptoms and put your new-found energy into doing the things you love.
So let’s sprinkle some reality over these nutrition myths
Myth #1: Eating less and exercising like mad is going to shift those perimenopause pounds
If losing weight was this easy, there’d be no need for personal trainers, nutritionists, weight loss clubs or the entire diet industry. While it’s true that, at its most basic, weight loss requires you to be in a calorie deficit on a consistent basis, us humans, and especially us women, are far more complex than that. Hormones, stress, thyroid function, the health of our gut and our microbiome are just some of the factors that influence our body to store fat or burn it, to make us feel hungry or satisfied, to build muscle or lose it.
It’s not uncommon for women to come to me eating 1200 calories a day, exercising hard 4, 5, 6 days a week, feeling exhausted, hungry all the time and wondering why they’re not seeing the progress they feel all that hard work deserves (and it really is hard work).
Really low calorie intake can be a huge stressor on the body – the body feels that food is scarce and switches into survival mode – triggering the body to store more fat and keep what it has in reserve for the famine it thinks is coming. Our brain hasn’t changed much since our caveman days and it still reacts to certain stimuli in the same way as it would have when we hunted for food and went through periods where food was scarce. Equally, lots of high intensity exercise can also act as a stressor and trigger some of the same reactions, especially if you’re not refuelling effectively after training to support your recovery.
Not only do these things impact your ability to lose weight, but they can also play havoc with your hormones and your thyroid function, all of which can make perimenopause symptoms worse – not where we want to be!
Plus weighing, tracking and counting every calorie you eat really sucks all the joy out of food and eating, which should be a sociable, enjoyable experience.
If that’s not the answer, what is?
When it comes to weight loss in perimenopause, for me the focus is always about 3 things:
What do you need to add more of into your meals to increase the quality of your diet. Things like protein, vegetables, healthy fats and fibre to help you feel satisfied and nourished so that you naturally reduce the amount of less nutrient dense foods you eat over the course of a day, a week or a month.
The amount and types of movement you include across the week – the aim is always to strike a balance between higher intensity options and strength and resistance training to help support building and maintaining muscle mass.
Looking after yourself. This includes everything from getting good sleep, to stress management to getting outdoors and everything in between. Your body needs to feel safe and at ease in order to be able to lose weight so don’t underestimate the impact these things can have.
Myth #2: You have to cut out carbs – they’re the devil
Here’s the thing (and why nutrition can be so annoyingly confusing at times) – there isn’t a yes or no answer when it comes to whether you should eat carbs when you’re over 40 and perimenopausal.
The fact is, there’s nothing to say that cutting them out altogether is going to help you to lose weight, prevent diabetes, increase your energy or help you sleep better.
We’re all different and what suits you might not suit your sister, neighbour or best friend. You might feel great with more carbs in your diet and someone else might feel awful.
Carbs have got a bad rap over the last number of years and have been labelled public enemy number 1, especially for women over 40. And if you’re talking highly processed or sugar laden ones, then I’m not going to argue with you. They are definitely something our hormones can do without.
But fibre-rich, complex carbohydrates (from things like whole grains, starchy veggies and pulses) come with their own set of health benefits and so deserve some consideration before you tar them with the same brush. Benefits including:
Keeping our gut microbiome healthy by providing fibre that acts as food for the beneficial strains we need thriving inside us
Supporting serotonin production which helps with our mood and sleep
Providing the raw materials to make energy so we can do all the things we enjoy doing
Supplying vitamins and minerals that fuel things like hormone production, liver detoxification, thyroid function among many others
Not to mention the fact that they’re yummy which is probably the best reason to not just eat them, but to enjoy them too.
The bottom line?
Don’t cut carbs (or other entire food groups) out because it’s a popular train of thought. Listen in to how your body feels when you eat them and base your decision on that. Choose your carbs wisely so you eat good quality, high fibre ones. Pairing them with protein and fats can help with blood sugar regulation so that you can enjoy them without the huge glucose and insulin spikes that can lead to insulin resistance.
Myth #3: Eating fat will make you fat
This was definitely a trend when I was growing up in the late 80s and 90s. I’m sure I’m not the only one that lived in a low-fat house – milk and cheese were “light”, we didn’t eat nuts, seeds or use much olive oil. And let’s be honest not many of us were reared on avocados in those days. But this mentality is something that, like many women, shaped my perception of food and my own food choices for the years and decades to come.
The fact is that fats are an essential part of our diet – they’re used to form part of every single cell in our body and almost 60% of our brains are made of fat. Essential fatty acids, like Omega 3s, can’t be made in the body and so it’s vital that we consume enough through our diet (things like oily fish, nuts, seeds). Omega 3 fats have lots of health benefits, especially for perimenopausal women, including:
Having anti-inflammatory properties
Supporting skin health (which can become dry and itchy during perimenopause).
Being beneficial for your heart – helping to reduce triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol (the beneficial kind) – reducing your risk of heart problems later in life.
Improving cognition, mood and may help to reduce your risk of dementia.
Improving joint health, reducing any perimenopausal aches and pains.
Monounsaturated fats, from things like avocado, olives and extra virgin olive oil are also great for heart health, weight management, your mood, your bones and your blood sugar regulation.
Fat fills you up – gram for gram, it provides more calories than protein or carbohydrate so you need less of it to feel satisfied after a meal. It takes longer to digest, so you feel full for longer and it helps to reduce the impact of the carbs that you eat on your blood sugar and insulin levels. Cholesterol, also a type of fat, is the building blocks for our sex hormones, cortisol and vitamin D so is a really important substance in the body.
On top of all of that, fat makes food taste good and isn’t that a huge part of the enjoyment of food? What’s not to like?
Right, so what can I do?
The trick is to make sure to focus your attention on getting enough “healthy” fats – the Omega 3 and monounsaturated ones. We tend to get more than enough saturated fats from our diet through meat, eggs and dairy without even needing to think about it. Don’t get me wrong, we need a certain amount of saturated fat too. But, like most things, it’s all about balance and the other fats need a bit of focus to ensure you’re getting enough of them.
It can be a huge mindset shift if you’ve been brought up to avoid fat – it certainly took me a while to get my head around. But I promise you, you won’t regret making the switch.
Myth #4: You won’t see improvements if you don’t change EVERYTHING, all at the same time
The “all or nothing” approach is something I see a lot. And, full disclosure, I’ve been guilty of it myself sometimes too. It’s the sense that only changing 1 small thing at a time means that you’re not really making any progress or that the end goal will take too long to achieve. It’s completely understandable too. We’re constantly being sold a quick-fix – lose a stone in 3 weeks, get a 6 pack in 12 weeks etc. The problem tends to be that to get those “instant” results, the process tends to be completely unsustainable, so as soon as you stop doing it, you end up back at square one, feeling bad about yourself and blaming yourself for being a “failure”.
Having a happy, healthy perimenopause isn’t just about the here and now. Absolutely we want (and deserve) to feel good, have plenty of energy and not have to suffer unnecessarily, but we also need to be playing the long game. Perimenopause is a transition point in a woman’s life and to come out the other side as healthy as possible, it’s important to build healthy but sustainable habits right from the start.
This life stage can already feel overwhelming, stressful and you’ll probably have a load of plates you’re trying to keep spinning. Trying to change everything about your diet, movement, stress management, sleep etc all in one go is only going to add to those feelings of stress, anxiety and not being able to cope. And will likely end in you giving up.
Make sense? Try this instead…
Every small change you make is doing you good and big changes come from the sum of all the small ones. Starting with 1 or 2 things that feel achievable, but make a big difference will build your confidence, get you feeling better physically and then you’ll feel more motivated and capable of taking on more change. This life stage is a marathon, not a sprint so take change at a pace that fits in with your lifestyle and everything else you have going on.
Myth #5: There’s a one-size-fits-all “fix” for perimenopause
It’s really common – people want to know what’s THE perimenopause diet? Or what’s THE supplement that’s going to make them feel better? Or whether they should go on HRT (which is something I can’t advise on anyway). Hopefully by this point, the answer has almost written itself – there is no one thing, no illusive silver bullet that’s going to make perimenopause all smooth sailing for everyone. All of us will go through perimenopause and menopause, but no 2 of us will have the same experience and it’s important that we try not to compare ourselves to others or be critical of our own progress.
Fair enough - but I have to start somewhere?
Of course, there are some foundational elements that are important across the board (and I focus on these core elements with all of my 1:1 clients – see the infographic below).
But the exact mix of foods, amount of movement, combination of supplements, HRT or not, stress management techniques etc that are going to work for you and your symptoms is unique to you. The only way to figure those things out is to start playing around with some of them and see what makes you feel good. You know your body and what makes you feel your best so have a little trust in yourself and do what feels right to you – forget what’s popular or on-trend. If something sounds too good to be true, it generally is!
Here's the key things to remember….
We all have stories about food and how to eat that have been engrained in us from a young age or as a result of popular trends or diet culture. It can feel daunting to step away from these beliefs that we’re comfortable with and try something different. But the reality is that, once you get to perimenopause and beyond, your body just won’t react in the same way to what you eat and how you move. So something has to change.
Switch the focus from counting calories to nourishing your body, improving the quality of what you eat and balancing high intensity exercise with strength work.
Eat the carbs if they make you feel good – choose wisely, opting for high-fibre options
Get the fat into you – Omega 3s and monounsaturated fats are your friends
Take things one step at a time so it’s never stressful – this is a marathon not a sprint
Know that there is no silver bullet that works for everyone so don’t compare yourself and your progress to others
If tackling some of these things feels overwhelming and you’re struggling to know where to start, book a free (no obligation) chat with me using the button below. We can talk through what your biggest challenge is right now and I can explain how I can help cut through the noise and get you focused on the things that are going make the biggest difference for you. You have nothing to lose and energy, confidence and feeling you again to gain.