Menopause is complex and multifaceted and difficult for many women to navigate. One of the most vexing challenges facing women during or after menopause can be unwanted weight gain, particularly abdominal fat gain. Menopausal weight gain can be due to many issues, including fluctuating hormones, a downshift in metabolism, less physical activity, increased fat mass, and decreased muscle mass. No magic pill fixes everything, but the good news is many minor changes can tilt the scales in your favor. Weight gain does not have to be an acceptable given!
Maintaining a healthy muscle mass helps optimize strength and health for everyone, regardless of age or gender. In addition, higher muscle mass (relative to body size) is associated with better insulin sensitivity, which supports blood sugar and a healthy body fat level.
Muscle requires more calories than fat to maintain, so as we lose muscle, metabolism slows down. As a result, our body muscle mass decreases after age 30 (!), and we lose between 3-5% of our total muscle mass each decade. In females, this muscle loss is compounded by the loss of estrogen.
Resistance training may be the fountain of youth. Incorporating resistance or strength training is the most significant way to build and maintain muscle mass. Muscle mass can be preserved, albeit varying degrees, by including all forms of exercise (but especially resistance) in the weight management intervention. Equally, higher protein intakes can protect the loss of these body compartments, acting either separately or synergistically with exercise. Elderly individuals, in particular, may benefit most from this approach.
Let’s discuss feeding those beautiful muscles with protein. There’s some evidence that older adults are not as responsive to protein as they age, meaning they need more to function optimally than younger adults. Moreover, the need increases further if you are a menopausal woman. The decline in muscle mass and function is known as sarcopenia. Thus, getting enough protein—which can help stave off the loss of lean muscle—is crucial for older and menopausal women.
So, how much protein do I need? Adequate vs. Optimum
Your protein requirement depends on your particular age/needs/exercise/lifestyle. The RDA and other sources state that 0.8 g of protein/kg of body weight per day is adequate for all adults. But research indicates that protein requirements increase with age. For example, current studies suggest that most people over age 65 should take in about 1 g to 1.2 g of protein/kg of body weight per day to gain and maintain muscle mass and function. There are no separate recommendations for people between 50 and 65, but it stands to reason that getting enough protein would make good nutrition sense.
An easier way remember might be 1 gram per pound of body weight. If you’re carrying a lot of body fat, using either your lean mass or goal weight — instead of your total body weight — is OK, as it’s mostly your lean mass that determines the amount of protein you need.
Research suggests that eating at intervals spread out by a few hours may enhance the body’s appropriate use of protein to maintain skeletal muscle mass as best as possible. Spreading protein throughout the day may also help the body digest and utilize it better than all at once or in large doses. Over a day, that might look like 25-30 grams per meal and 12 to 15 grams per snack, for a total of 90-105 grams daily.
There is no one best diet for weight loss. A sustainable weight loss diet should put you in a calorie deficit, be nutrient-dense, and have sufficient protein, fat, and fiber for you. A higher intake of protein can be achieved when concurrently reducing energy intake. Reducing refined carbs to balance the extra calories from adding protein can help menopausal women. Protein also decreases appetite and can help with cravings. Recently, lower carb, intermittent fasting, and time-restricted eating have become popular and can be effective for some women for weight loss.
Know your baseline: Try tracking your protein with an App or the old-fashioned way with pen and paper to see how much you eat. A lot of women need to eat more protein.
Bottom line: You need a combination of strength training and high-quality protein. Eat enough protein for your needs at every meal and lift weights to help maintain muscle mass to help with menopausal weight gain.