Many people assume there’s a lot about menopause that you’re not in control of – A stage in life when you have to accept weight gain, falling bone density, increased cancer risk and poor sleep. Well, the good news is, through a low-carb Mediterranean-style diet, you have considerable power to influence how menopause impacts you.
1. Say goodbye to belly fat
Up until menopause, the protective effect of oestrogen means that women suffer less cardiovascular disease than men. As oestrogen levels fall, however, the impact of a Western diet can cause swift changes, with the heavy distribution of fat towards your middle. As tummy fat, or “visceral fat” builds up, the body’s ability to respond to insulin diminishes. This matters, because insulin allows sugar to enter cell walls, taking glucose safely out of the bloodstream. Without a good insulin response, blood sugar stays elevated, damaging the walls of arteries and potentially leading to a stroke or a heart attack.
By switching to a low-carb Mediterranean Style diet, you can bring your body back to health. This way of eating doesn’t involve cutting out carbs altogether, but significantly reducing highly processed carbs, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta and potato, and instead focusing on healthy fats, protein, fibre, legumes and whole grains.
This way of eating helps reduce some of the negative impacts of menopause as unprocessed complex carbs release sugar more steadily from the gut compared to processed carbohydrates. And as your blood sugar stabilises, your cells will become more responsive to insulin, which brings a double benefit: not only will you experience even fewer sugar-spikes, you will also experience a fall in sugar-cravings.
2.Protect against bone loss
With menopause also comes an increased risk of bone fracture, as a reduction in oestrogen causes loss of bone mass. For a long time, doctors have known that eating a calcium-rich diet is key to building strong and healthy bones, and so is an important protective step against bone loss from menopause onwards. But, this is no longer the full picture: to give yourself the best chance of good bone health, research shows you also need to eat a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in healthy fats and fresh vegetables and fruits.
Processed foods, such as cakes, chips and crackers, are particularly important to avoid, as they can contain high levels of omega-6 oil. A small amount of omega-6 is necessary for good health, but higher levels can tip the balance of the body towards inflammation. Which, from menopause onwards, is the last thing your body needs.
3. Reduce your risk of certain cancers
One in eight women in Australia will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, and from menopause onwards, the risk increases: more than 79 per cent of cases occur in women over the age of 50.
Many studies have shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet can significantly reduce the risk of developing cancer in general. This makes good sense, as the Mediterranean diet is high in fibre and antioxidants, which help to prevent the DNA damage that leads to the formation of cancer cells.
Researchers have also found that it may give specific protection against menopause-linked breast cancer. Between 2003 and 2009, the PREDIMED study compared the effects, on 4282 women aged between 60 and 80, of a Mediterranean-style diet rich in nuts with a similar diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil. Interestingly, while both types of Mediterranean diet cut breast cancer risk compared to a non-Mediterranean diet, the extra-virgin olive oil diet came out as significantly more effective, giving a 68 per cent reduced chance of breast cancer compared to a 41 per cent reduced chance resulting from the nut-rich diet.
4. Say hello to improved sleep
If a cure for sleep-disrupting hot flushes is ever discovered, its creator will deserve a Nobel Prize! But until it arrives, using Time-Restricted Eating (TRE) to improve the quality of sleep may help. TRE, has been shown to give a wide array of health benefits: in addition to a better quality of sleep, it’s also linked to improved mood, better digestive health, greater insulin sensitivity, and – perhaps best of all – a slowing-down of the ageing process.
This is because when you wait for 12 hours or more to eat after your last meal [for example 8pm to 8am the next day], your body runs through its daily food supplies and has to tap into stored fat to supply energy. And it is this point – the “flipping of the metabolic switch” – that triggers a set of chemical pathways promoting “repair and replace” systems across the body. Enzymes, for example, break down cholesterol; brain cells clear out toxins; your skin replaces old cells with new ones. Your DNA itself begins to self-repair. Definitely worth sleeping on.
Dr Michael Mosley is a qualified doctor, award-winning science journalist, and founder of online programme The Fast 800.