There is no such thing as anti-aging.
I saw a quote from Jessica DeFino recently that perfectly summed up how I feel about the term “anti-aging.” She said “Anti-aging is the ultimate capitalist goal, because it can never be met, right? It’s physically impossible to anti-age. And to try to anti-age is to be a consumer for life.”
Oof. I mean, right?
There’s no holding back the tide. Aging is inevitable for those of us lucky enough to live long enough to experience it.
But just because we have to age doesn’t mean we have to accept a significant deterioration of our physical and mental health.
Women in midlife and beyond, especially women in the menopausal transition (perimenopause) and post menopausal women, face unique hormonal fluctuations and changes that create specific challenges.
Unfortunately, women in these age groups aren’t being adequately or properly educated on how to minimize these issues. Often, they’re told they just need to accept their body and the changes that come with menopause and aging.
But I’m here to share some news — there are a plethora of ways you can use training, nutrition, and lifestyle interventions to positively affect your physical and mental health during this period of your life.
In this blog post, we’ll focus on protein intake — one aspect of nutrition where a simple adjustment can have a huge impact on the severity and range of symptoms you experience.
So pull up a chair and let’s explore the importance of getting enough protein for women in midlife and menopause and how it can improve our physical and mental well-being.
Key physiological changes to consider
Estradiol – our primary form of estrogen – does a lot of things for us in our premenopausal years. It’s involved in a wide variety of different responses in our bodies — including having many key functions in muscle growth and function, brain function, bone health, and metabolic health.
Because of all it does for us, as levels of estradiol fluctuate in perimenopause and ultimately flatline after menopause, things change drastically.
First, the fluctuations of estradiol (and it’s partner hormone progesterone) in perimenopause affects our brain, mood, immune function, and blood vessel control, which is important for thermoregulation (hello hot flashes).
Then, post menopause, there is a permanent reduction of estradiol which makes it harder to build and maintain muscle mass, muscle function and strength, and bone density, which together can lead to osteoporosis and increase the risk of fractures and injuries.
Additionally, this permanent flatlining of estradiol alters your body’s glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, which can lead to an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And since more muscle mass means better glucose control, the loss of muscle mentioned above is going to increase your risk factors for metabolic issues.
How does protein consumption help with these changes?
As women move into perimenopause and through menopause, it becomes even more important than ever that we do strength training in a way that promotes muscle growth, repair, and maintenance, because muscle is an important part of healthy aging.
Adequate protein intake supports satellite cell signaling which stimulates lean muscle development and repair in the absence of normal levels of estradiol.
Eating enough protein (in combination with training your muscles appropriately) also helps minimize the decline in the functional capacity and strength of your muscles, making you less prone to falls and fractures.
But a balanced diet that includes sufficient protein also:
- increases the circulating amino acid profile to optimize muscle protein synthesis
- boosts blood vessel control which helps with regulating blood pressure and body temperature
- modulates serotonin levels for better mood control — less anxiety and depression
How much protein is enough protein for menopause?
Aim for 1.8-2.3g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, distributed throughout the day. So a 150lb female (68kg) should aim for 122-156 grams of protein per day.
Most likely, that’s WAY more than you’re currently getting. In fact, many of the women I work with come in eating around 70-90 grams per day. Not good enough.
But I get it, protein isn’t as fun or enticing as eating more carbs and fat.
I don’t recommend sitting down and pounding all of that protein in one or two massive slabs of meat either. Not only would that be awful, it’s also not as helpful as spreading your protein out throughout the day.
But the timing is important when it comes to protein. A 2013 study found that the most optimal intake for protein synthesis was 21-42 grams of complete protein every 3-6 hours. They also found that amounts as small as 10 grams of protein were not enough to stimulate protein synthesis.
So my recommendation is to aim for:
- 30-35g of protein per meal;
- 15g at each snack; and
- 35-40g of leucine-rich protein soon after exercise.
Interestingly, according to Dr. Stacy Sims, the optimal post-workout window for refueling to really optimize those muscle-building and repair benefits is about 30-45 minutes post-workout for women.
Obviously, meat, eggs, and dairy are great protein sources, but so are nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and lots of green veggies. So, with a little planning, you can fill your plate with a variety of protein sources.
What about protein powders and supplements?
While there is benefit in getting as much protein from a variety of food sources as possible, a good protein powder or supplement can be a convenient and helpful option for those of us who are on the go or are not hungry enough to keep eating in order to hit those protein targets.
For example, I’m usually not hungry at all right after my workouts and training runs, BUT I know how important getting protein in right after a workout is for muscle recovery and repair, so I go with a protein shake because it’s easy for me to drink at that time when I really don’t feel like eating.
But not all protein powders are created equal. There are two key considerations here.
First, the source of the protein matters. You want to look for one that contains leucine-rich protein, such as whey protein isolate or whey hydrolysate (versus whey protein concentrate).
For the plant-based folks, look for a combination of pea protein and rice protein. Since vegan protein powder has a lower biological value than the whey options mentioned above, you’ll need to consume more of it (38g vs. 25g per serving of whey protein isolate) in order to get the complete amino acid profile needed for optimal muscle protein synthesis.
Second, understand that nutritional supplements, like protein powders, are not regulated the same as over-the-counter medications. Supplement companies are not required to have their products undergo independent, third-party product testing, but the most trustworthy and reputable ones will opt into it and post that information on their websites and packaging. So look for that when choosing a protein powder. A great example for protein supplements is Legion — they have both whey protein powder and a plant based protein powder.
Protein is your friend
Perimenopause, the transitional phase before menopause, is characterized by fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone that affect our mood, mental health, and blood vessel control.
Then, after menopause, there’s a significant, permanent change to the levels of estradiol that brings along other changes — like a loss of muscle mass and function, a reduction in bone density, and changes to glucose metabolism and insulin resistance. All of which can significantly affect your quality of life.
Adequate protein intake, along with strength training, supports muscle growth and repair, bone health, and retention of lean body mass for an optimal body composition. The essential amino acids in the protein we consume can also help improve mood and blood vessel control, which are helpful for managing common perimenopausal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, brain fog, and hot flashes.
And it’s safe. If you have a family history of kidney issues, you should talk to your doctor before increasing your protein, but high protein diets alone have not been shown to cause kidney issues.
So get your protein and lift some heavy shit and before you know it, aging won’t scare you so much anymore.
Looking for help, support, and coaching to help you be more active and athletic in midlife and through menopause?
Join us for StrongHer in 6 — a 6-month group coaching program where we’ll take you from feeling frustrated with your aging body to feeling stronger — physically and mentally — for the years ahead of you.
Because mid-life shouldn’t be a health crisis and menopause isn’t the end of your story.
Check it out here! The next cohort starts October 2023.