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Perimenopause and Protein

One of the biggest things (no pun intended) that women notice when in perimenopause is the weight gain, especially around the middle. It can be a gradual gain over months or even years, or it can seem to pile on seemingly out of nowhere and it feels unexplained particularly if nothing has changed in your everyday routine with activities and food. Then one day, after you've been diagnosed as being perimenopausal, you stop and realise that when you look around at many women in their 50s and 60s, they all have a similar body shape. Some women call it "meno belly" or the "peri paunch". Others refer to it as "the thickening". I referred to it as my figure metamorphosizing into something that resembled a sausage roll. I was putting on weight on parts of my torso that I had never gained weight on before. It was really weird. I mean, we all expect to get a bit of a belly if we eat too much and don't exercise but gaining weight from just under the breasts right through to the belly! Hence my sausage roll analogy. After some furious web searching, I discovered that my peri body was doing what it was expected to, despite me not liking it.

Protein in the form of meat on a skewer with a woman in the background.

According to the medical science, women can expect to gain weight (anywhere from 2kgs to 15kgs) during perimenopause and menopause thanks mostly to the drop in oestrogen. This drop in oestrogen is also responsible for where this weight goes - the belly and mid-section. As we age our metabolism slows, and this combination at perimenopause means that gaining some unwanted weight is on the cards. But surely there is something we can do about this weight gain. Of course, we can start exercising like demons and tidying up our diets, but what you may have noticed since entering perimenopause is that your body starts to respond differently to exercise and diet. What worked in the past probably won't have the same effects anymore, and it will take longer to achieve those goals.

Okay, so enough of the bad news! What can we do to fight the "peri paunch"? According to a recent study out of the University of Sydney, perimenopausal women should increase their protein intake to not only help with controlling weight gain, but also to support healthy muscles and bones which are also at-risk during peri and menopause. The researchers suggest that increasing the proportion of protein in the diet by around 3% of daily energy intake and lowering total energy intake by 5 to 10% a day may be the key. (I have included a link below to the study).

If you want to try increasing your protein and cutting down a little on carbohydrates and fats, you will need to take some time to look at your daily nutrition macros or macronutrients. This could mean keeping a food diary or similar, which will give you an idea of what your macros are and what they will look like if applying the 3% protein increase and 5 to 10% decrease in total energy intake per day. Nutrition macros are the essential components of our diet that provide energy and play crucial roles in various bodily functions. The three main macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Understanding and managing these macros can have a significant impact on weight management.

  • Carbohydrates: Carbs are the body's primary source of energy. They can be simple (sugars) or complex (starches and fibre). When managing weight, it's important to choose complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as they provide sustained energy and are often rich in fibre, which aids in satiety.

  • Proteins: Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues, including muscles. It also contributes to feelings of fullness. Including adequate protein in your diet can help preserve muscle mass during weight loss and support overall metabolic health.

  • Fats: Fats are important for energy, absorbing certain vitamins, and maintaining healthy cell membranes. Focus on healthy fats such as those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish. Limit saturated and trans fats as they can contribute to weight gain and health issues.

Balancing these macros can aid in weight management by influencing factors such as appetite, energy expenditure, and body composition. Here's how macros relate to weight management:

  • Caloric Intake: Each macronutrient provides a certain number of calories per gram. Carbs and proteins provide about 4 calories per gram, while fats provide about 9 calories per gram. By managing your macros, you can control your overall calorie intake, which is crucial for weight loss, maintenance, or gain.

  • Satiety and Fullness: Protein and fibre-rich carbohydrates tend to be more satisfying and help control hunger. Including these in your meals can prevent overeating and promote weight loss or maintenance.

  • Metabolism: Protein has a higher thermic effect of food, meaning it requires more energy to digest and process. This can slightly increase your metabolic rate. Additionally, maintaining muscle mass through adequate protein intake can help keep your metabolism active.

  • Muscle Maintenance: When losing weight, a portion of the loss can come from muscle mass. Sufficient protein intake supports muscle preservation, which is important for overall strength and metabolic health.

  • Nutrient Distribution: Balancing your macros ensures you're getting a variety of nutrients. This is crucial for overall health and can help prevent micronutrient deficiencies that might occur during restrictive diets.

When it comes to perimenopause and weight gain, it isn't necessarily inevitable. There are actions we can take to protect our bones, muscles, and overall health and fitness. We may need to accept that our body is going through some pretty significant changes and as we age, we cannot expect our body to respond the same way it did 20 or 30 years ago. This can be challenging for some of us to accept, and that's okay. Get advice and support from a healthcare professional to ensure that any action you choose to take is going to have a positive effect on your body and mind.


University of Sydney study 'Weight gain during the menopause transition: Evidence for a mechanism dependent on protein leverage'

Australian Dietary Guidelines

Flinders University VITAL Program

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