Protein and Menopause - Are You Getting Enough?

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A healthy diet is an essential part of every life stage, but what exactly does that mean in terms of specific nutrients like protein? Our culture is pretty obsessed with protein, but what role does it play in menopause and aging, and what are the best sources? This article answers these questions and more.  

What does protein do?

Protein is an essential macronutrient, meaning that you have to eat a minimum amount of it to function properly. Often called a building block, protein is a part of every cell in your body. It repairs tissues and makes hormones, enzymes, and other body chemicals. 

As you age and go through menopause, protein becomes even more important in the diet for boosting your immune system, repairing and strengthening muscles, and keeping your bones strong and healthy.

How does protein impact aging?

A woman naturally begins to lose muscle mass (increased risk for sarcopenia) and bone strength (increased risk for osteoporosis) as she ages, mainly as a result of decreasing estrogen levels, especially during the menopause transition.

This is one reason that protein is a critical part of the diet, to combat these effects - in addition to engaging in regular physical activity.  

How does protein affect the timing of menopause?

Some studies indicate that higher protein intake may delay the onset of menopause, which can reduce cancer risk as you age. In the study, women who ate oily fish and fresh legumes had a later onset of natural menopause, while women who consumed more refined pasta and rice had an earlier onset of natural menopause. It’s advantageous to reach menopause at a later age because you have the protective benefits of estrogen for a longer period of time. For younger pre-menopausal women, it’s important to eat adequate protein daily, but more importantly, the right kind of protein.

 
Lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein. They are versatile and work as a main dish or side, in soups, and sprinkled on salads.

Lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein. They are versatile and work as a main dish or side, in soups, and sprinkled on salads.

 

Do women need more protein during menopause?

Protein needs tend to increase with age, primarily due to muscle loss. The average healthy adult woman over 50 requires 1-1.2 grams per kg (or 0.45–0.55 grams per pound) of body weight per day. For instance, a 145 pound, 55-year-old woman with a light to moderate activity level would need around 72 grams of protein per day.

An excellent place to start is to incorporate protein sources into your diet in a more balanced way throughout the day, starting with breakfast. Many of us often load up with protein in the morning, but not again until dinner time.

Making high-quality protein a part of every meal, rather than just once or twice a day, has been shown to promote muscle repair and growth. It’s especially important to not skimp on protein after a workout when it can contribute to building muscle mass. You don’t need to fear looking like a bodybuilder merely from working out and eating protein. An average day’s protein consumption might include 5 or 6 ounces, or around 20-25 grams, of high-quality protein spaced evenly throughout meals and snacks.

That being said, there is such a thing as eating too much protein. As long as you’re eating enough calories for your fitness level, it’s incredibly hard to become protein deficient, even during menopause. Excessive amounts of protein will typically be stored as fat (not muscle), so you’ll actually gain weight, and any unused amino acids will just be excreted. Other effects of too much protein include increased cancer risk, especially diets that are high in red meat, heart disease, and calcium loss. If you have any kidney impairment, it’s especially important to monitor your protein intake as too much protein can be burdensome in this scenario.

 
Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are good for more than hummus dip. They are delicious in salads, side dishes, and soups.

Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are good for more than hummus dip. They are delicious in salads, side dishes, and soups.

 

What are the best protein sources for menopause?

If your diet usually includes animal-derived proteins like meat, eggs, and dairy, think of these foods as garnishes rather than the main part of your meal. Instead, consider switching your focus to oily fish and plant-derived protein sources. Why plants? Along with the protein, plant foods are packed with nutrition, like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that are beneficial for aging and menopause, without the cholesterol and saturated fat in animal products.

Plant protein may even be more beneficial when it comes to bone health during menopause. A 2017 study of healthy adults found that an eight percent lower risk of hip fracture was linked to eating dairy protein, while a twelve percent lower risk was linked to eating plant protein.

Some of the richest plant-based protein sources include lentils, beans, peas, tofu, edamame, nuts, seeds, and quinoa.

 
Quinoa is a versatile and portable grain. It holds up well for packed lunches and picnics. Make a batch and enjoy it throughout the week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Quinoa is a versatile and portable grain. It holds up well for packed lunches and picnics. Make a batch and enjoy it throughout the week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

 

For more information about nutrition and tips for living your best through midlife and menopause, sign up to become a part of the Lisa Health community.

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and speaker who helps families transition to plant-based lifestyles. She can be found at laurenpanoff.com or on Instagram @chronicplanet.

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