Are there foods that can help us avoid menopause weight gain? Absolutely. We want you to feel like your healthiest and happiest you. Read about the food and lifestyle changes that can help keep weight off during this midlife transition.
One of the things many women notice around perimenopause and menopause is weight gain, an average of about 5 pounds, and often in the form of belly fat. So if you have a little more tummy (and are not overweight), you may actually be a healthier version of yourself as those fat cells convert estrogen precursors into estrone, the primary estrogen of the menopausal years. Keep in mind, however, that excess fat (again particularly around the middle) results in inflammation, accelerates our aging and increases our risk of metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. (Women who are underweight tend to experience more severe hot flashes and lower bone density after menopause.)
Which foods should we avoid to help us find the right weight?
1. Reduce alcohol, sugar, and refined/processed carbs.
Excess weight is partly caused by excess energy (sugar), and sugar is found in alcohol, sweets, and processed carbs. During perimenopause and menopause we experience physiological changes, including a change in our metabolism. In general, when we consume simple carbohydrates (alcohol, refined carbs, and sugar), our blood sugar goes up. If we consume these foods all the time, we ask our bodies to deal with chronically high blood sugar, which results in excess sugar being stored as fat. Our bodies convert the sugar into saturated fat, which not only adds pounds, but increases our long-term risks.
2. Limit the most inflammatory foods – dairy, toxic oils, and gluten.
- The dairy we buy in grocery stores is highly processed and inflammatory. Over the years, clients have described aches and pains as being one of the hardest parts of the menopausal years. And, many have found that taking out dairy immediately reduces that pain. Eliminating dairy can actually end menstrual cramps on a dime. In most parts of the world, it is common for adults to no longer have enough of the lactase enzyme to easily break down milk sugar. For us, consuming dairy can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea, all of which represent physical stress and inflammation, which can lead to weight gain.
- Refined oils, such as refined safflower, sunflower, corn, grape seed, cottonseed, soybean, sesame, canola, and peanut, are highly processed and inflammatory. The process of refining oils involves removing the healing components such as, chlorophyll, carotene, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E, and adding heat and chemical solvents that alter the oil and introduce toxic molecules. In other words, the oils of seeds and beans are stripped of their nutrients and made tasteless, artificially shelf stable, and impossible to digest properly. Trans fats are created when vegetable oils are processed with high heat and when we cook with oils at high heat. Partially hydrogenated oils, such as margarines and shortenings, contain these trans-fats which profoundly impact our health by causing inflammation, insulin resistance, weight gain, damaging our blood vessels, raising our “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lowering our “good” cholesterol. They have also been linked to breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.
- Gluten (from wheat) is also highly inflammatory (particularly in the US) and can contribute to digestive difficulties and increase the likelihood of hot flashes and other perimenopausal symptoms. It is implicated in inflammatory digestive disease and autoimmune disease. In the US, conventional wheat is sprayed with a pesticide called glyphosate, which disrupts our gut microbiomes and can lead to weight gain. Replacing gluten with alternatives like almond or rice flour can be really easy to do.
Take a look at one of our favorite recipes. Here we use almond flour to replace wheat flour.
Recipe: Flax Cookies
1 ½ cups almond flour
½ cup freshly ground flaxseed (ideally raw, organic-keep seeds in the fridge)
½ tsp. sea salt
¼ cup coconut oil, melted
¼ cup maple syrup
⅔ cup Lily’s chocolate chips (made with stevia)
Pinch of hemp hearts
Pinch of flakey sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the first 6 ingredients, and then press them out to form a square about 8×10”, ½ inch thick. Sprinkle with hemp seeds and press them in a bit. Cut 20 squares and sprinkle with the flakey sea salt. Place on a baking sheet and cook for about 11 minutes, or until edges are just golden.
Which foods SHOULD we eat in menopause to keep weight off?
Focus on protein, healthy fats, and complex (fiber-rich) carbs.
To balance our blood sugar and keep weight off, we can lean into protein and healthy fats (such as omega-3s), and make sure all our carbohydrates are complex (full of fiber and natural color.)
Eat protein at every meal.
We recommend eating protein at every meal (wild fish, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds, bone broth, and grass-fed meat.) It is important to get adequate protein so as to continue building muscle as opposed to fat. The more muscle mass we have, the more fat we burn during exercise and movement in our daily lives. In other words, we eat protein to build muscle, and then that muscle improves our metabolism and helps us burn fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids not only boost our feeling of fullness after a meal, they are also associated with lower rates of obesity and healthier body composition (greater lean muscle percentage vs. body fat percentage.) This may in part be due to the fact that omega-3s can serve as prebiotics and increase the diversity of the healthy bacteria in our guts. Also, omega-3s from high-quality fish oil supplements have been shown to reduce inflammation and reverse atherosclerosis, clogged arteries. (Unfortunately, western diets are severely deficient in omega-3s.)
Omega-3’s are found in salmon, sardines, fish oil, eggs, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, algae, and even grass-fed meat. (While nuts and seeds and nut/seed butters include important, healthy fats, do not eat vast amounts of them, as both are very high in calories.)
Fiber regulates blood sugar.
Fiber helps us regulate our blood sugar so that we don’t store excess sugar as fat. It helps us maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. High fiber and colorful carbs include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels, carrots, sweet potatoes, asparagus, lentils, soybeans, chia seeds, flax seeds, almonds, avocados, quinoa, oatmeal, apples, and blackberries.
Include Prebiotic fiber.
Specifically, for the maintenance of a healthy weight, it is important to include what’s called prebiotic fiber in our diets. The 100 trillion friendly bacteria that live in our digestive tract help prevent weight gain. A diet rich in prebiotic fiber can dramatically improve the composition and vitality of our gut communities. Most prebiotics are a particular type of indigestible fiber, referred to as fermentable fiber. Some of the best sources are onions, garlic, seaweeds, apples, asparagus, mushrooms, jicama, oats, sweet potatoes, and honey.
Eat an intentionally anti-inflammatory diet.
The anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet has been incredibly well studied and has been shown to support weight loss (Barrea, 2021.) The diet is characterized by foods with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and includes extra-virgin olive oil, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fish. Try to increase your vegetable intake to at least 4 servings per day in order to crowd out processed foods and reduce inflammation. If you are not already doing this, this is an important change to make in midlife. Our digestion and absorption of nutrients is not as strong as before and we need to think in terms of nutrient density. How can we pack the most vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients of all kinds in the least amount of food? One of the answers is to increase our plant intake. (You can learn more about anti-inflammatory diets here.)
Try lower-calorie snacks.
At Sage+Sisters, we focus on real, whole foods that nourish us, not on calories. But in perimenopause and menopause, our bodies are less forgiving and sometimes need more of a nudge.
It can be helpful to be aware of these nutritious, lower-calorie foods when you need something to snack on.
Oats (1/2 cup = 148 calories)
Berries (1 cup = 84 calories)
Eggs (1 = 72 calories)
Popcorn (1 cup = 31 calories)
Turnip (1 cup = 37 calories)
Chia seeds (1 oz = 137 calories)
Apple Slices (1 cup = 57 calories)
Broccoli (1 cup = 31 calories)
Carrots (1 cup = 53 calories)
Cauliflower (1 cup = 25 calories)
Celery (1 cup + 18 calories)
Clementines (1 = 35 calories)
Cucumber (1/2 cup = 8 calories)
Sugar Snap Peas (1 cup = 41 calories)
Recipe: Chocolate Chia Pudding
Here is a delicious (weight-loss promoting) chia pudding recipe. It can be a breakfast or a dessert…it almost feels too good to be true! You need to plan ahead for this one….the nuts need to soak for 2+ hours and then the pudding needs to set overnight! Make it for the following day.
1/2 cup chia seeds
1 vanilla bean
1/2 cup cashews, raw soaked in fresh water for 2+ hours
1/2 cup almonds, raw soaked
4 cups water
7 medjool dates pitted
1 pinch sea salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. coconut oil
3 tsp. Vanilla extract
1/2 cup raw cacao powder
1 cup fresh berries (for serving)
Soak the nuts in 3 cups of water for 2-6 hours. Then drain & rinse. Remove the skins from about half of the almonds (they pull off easily with your fingers.) Add the nuts to a vitamix/blender.
Slice the vanilla bean down the middle, scrape seeds into a vitamix/blender, and place the remaining bean in a large bowl. Add the chia seeds to the large bowl. Set aside.
Combine ingredients in blender along with the nuts and vanilla seeds: (fresh water, dates, salt, cinnamon, oil, vanilla, and cacao). Blend until completely smooth.
Pour blended mixture into large bowl with chia seeds & vanilla bean. Let sit 10-15 minutes. Remove vanilla bean.
Refrigerate for 4-6 hours or overnight, until completely chilled.
Serve in small bowls, topped with mixed berries.
This recipe improves over the first day. Will last in the fridge 3-4 days.
What else can we do to keep the weight off?
Increase our strength/weight training.
Again, in menopause our metabolism slows down. Between the ages of 40 and 50, women can lose an average of 8 pounds of muscle. As stated above, building more muscle will increase your metabolic rate, making it easier for you to burn more calories.
Poor sleep is associated with weight gain and obesity. Insufficient sleep increases our levels of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), increasing our insulin levels and insulin resistance, and making weight gain more likely. For more information on how to sleep better, take Project Sleep or our comprehensive 12 week program.
Take steps to reduce stress.
Take steps to reduce stress as elevated cortisol disrupts the microbiome and impairs our ability to digest our food and absorb nutrients. Since cortisol elevates blood sugar, chronically high cortisol plays a role in increasing blood sugar and can lead to insulin resistance, inflammation, and weight gain. Stress is inflammatory. It has the potential to change our whole hormonal make-up, affecting the organs where hormones are made, including our thyroid, our ovaries and our adrenal glands.
Try intermittent fasting.
A recent article in the NYT claimed, “Scientists found no benefit to time-restricted eating” and specifically that it did not promote weight loss (Kolata, 2022.) The actual study in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed only patients with obesity, and showed that time-restricted eating and calorie restriction was not more effective for weight loss than simple calorie restriction (Dyeing et al., 2022). Alarmingly, the scientists were looking only at the amount of calories and not at the quality of the calories. The participants could eat anything, however processed, high-glycemic, and inflammatory.
Dozens of other studies and meta-analyses have shown that the long-term benefits of intermittent fasting include improvements in all of the following: fat mass, LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin resistance, gut health, mood and longevity. Reducing your eating window (say 9am to 6pm) lets your body have time to rest and recuperate, and allows it to focus on balancing your gut, absorbing nutrients, and putting them to good use.
Barrea, L., Pugliese, G. et al. (2021). Mediterranean diet as medical prescription in menopausal women with obesity: A practical guide for nutritionists. Food Science and Nutrition, 61 (7), 1201-1211.
Dyeing, L. (2022). Calorie restriction with or without time-restricted eating in weight loss. New England Journal of Medicine, (386), 1495-1504. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2114833