Why Is Protein So Important During Menopause?
Why Is Protein So Important During Menopause?
Written for Sage Wellbeing Co by Jenna Carroll | BHSc Naturopath and Nutritionist
It doesn’t take long to see that our culture is pretty obsessed with protein, but what role does it play in ageing and menopause, how much do we actually need during this life stage and what are the best sources?
What exactly does protein do?
Protein is an essential macronutrient, meaning that we must consume some amount of it to function properly. Proteins are created from chemical building blocks known as amino acids, which are present within every cell in your body. Protein helps repair tissue such as our hair, skin, nails, muscles and organs, and is involved in the creation of hormones, enzymes and other body chemicals. During the ageing process, protein becomes increasingly important for bolstering immunity, repairing and strengthening muscles, and keeping bones strong.
Why is protein important when we age?
As a woman ages she will naturally begin to lose muscle mass and bone density, increasing her risk of sarcopenia and osteoporosis. This is due to the natural decrease in oestrogen levels during the menopause transition. For this reason, protein is critical in the diet to combat these effects, in addition to engaging in regular physical activity.
What becomes affected by low protein intake?
As hormone levels start to decrease during menopause, and if protein intake is less than optimal, our body will find it difficult to create sex hormones that help keep us feeling balanced within ourselves. Protein is also required in the synthesis of digestive enzymes for strong digestion and heathy gut barrier integrity, which also may become compromised during menopause due to falling oestrogen levels. This can mean the break down and absorption of foods will be less than optimal, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies and symptoms such as bloating and irregular bowel movements.
Do protein requirements increase during menopause?
As we age, protein requirements increase primarily due to muscle loss. On average, a healthy adult woman over 50 requires 1-1.2 grams per kg of body weight. For example a 65 kg woman would need between 65-78 grams per day depending on activity levels. An easy way to achieve this is by including a serve of high-quality protein with each meal, rather than just once or twice per day. It has been shown to best support muscle growth and repair when eaten throughout the day frequently.
Protein is so important during menopause that even slightly upping intake on a daily basis can make a big difference to your energy levels, the way your body copes with hormones and the quality of your hair, skin and nails.
All this said, there is also such a thing as eating too much protein. As long as you are eating enough calories for your fitness level, it is hard to become protein deficient in the Western world. Excessive amounts of protein will typically be stored as fat, not muscle. So you will actually gain weight and any unused amino acids will be excreted. Other consequences of too much protein include an increased risk of cancer, especially diets high in red meat, heart disease and calcium loss. Excessive protein can also be burdensome on kidney function.
What are the best sources of protein during menopause?
During menopause it is important to consider sources of protein being predominantly plant-based. This is because there is an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, cancers and metabolic disorders due to oestrogen protective effects diminishing, and excessive animal protein has been associated with an increased risk of such disease.
If your diet typically consist of animal-derived proteins such as meat, eggs and dairy, think of these foods as garnishes rather than a main component of your meal. Consider shifting your focus towards oily fish and plant-derived sources. Plant-based protein sources not only contain high quality, low-inflammatory protein, they also are packed with nutrition such as fiber, antioxidants, phytochemical compounds, vitamins and minerals that are beneficial for ageing and menopause, and protect against cardio-metabolic syndromes and certain cancers.
Protein derived from plants may also be more effective than dairy protein when it comes to bone health in menopause. A 2017 study conducted on healthy adults found there was a 12% lower risk of hip fracture when incorporating plant protein in the diet, as opposed to an 8% reduced risk associated with dairy derived protein.
Some of the richest plant-based sources of protein include lentils, legumes, peas, tempeh, nuts, seeds, buckwheat and quinoa.
Beezhold B, Radnitz C, McGrath RE, Feldman A. (2018). Vegans report less bothersome vasomotor and physical menopausal symptoms than omnivores. PMID: 29704911.
Fung TT, Meyer HE, Willett WC, Feskanich D. (2017). Protein intake and risk of hip fractures in postmenopausal women and men age 50 and older. Osteoporos Int. PMID: 28074249
Hechtman, L. (2018). Clinical Naturopathic Medicine. Elsevier: Sydney.
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