PROTEIN, YOUR SECRET ANTI-AGING WEAPON
“How are you getting in your protein?” This question is often asked of vegan and plant-based eaters, but it is actually a good question for all perimenopausal and post-menopausal women to ask themselves. The “midlife spread” is so common in menopause and women do three main things to try and lose weight. One thing they do is get caught up in “diet culture”, trying any “trending” diet to get rid of the extra unwanted pounds.
Another thing we see in midlife is that a woman’s mind has not yet caught up with her body. Her mind says, “I will cut back on my food, lower my carbs and go extra heavy on the cardio for the next few weeks, and I will get this weight off.” The third thing we see is that she is trying to lose weight in the same manner as she did in her 20s and expecting the same results. When those strategies don’t work. Women are left feeling defeated, anxious, angry, and hopeless.
Before you throw in the towel, we need to discuss why those strategies are no longer effective in menopause and what is the best way to maintain and build muscle for a stronger, healthy body as you age.
Perimenopause is characterized by monthly fluctuations in the sex hormones. Instead of the gradual rise in estrogen and progesterone in the first two weeks of the menstrual cycle and the gradual decline in the last two weeks, women experience peaks and drops of estrogen and a slow, steady decline of progesterone as the ovaries begin to age toward the end of a woman’s fertile years.
Estrogen is not only a reproductive hormone but is a critical metabolic hormone. When there is hormone decline, there is also metabolic health decline. Women become less sensitive to insulin causing insulin resistance, inflammation, changes in the gut microbiome, loss of moisture and elasticity; this includes gums, eyes, vaginal tissue, and blood vessels.
Estrogen deficiency contributes to decreased cardiovascular health, Type II diabetes, brain fog, and bone loss. Body composition changes. Not merely aesthetics like fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin but estrogen loss is a huge threat to muscle.
Estrogen affects muscle in four ways:
- On the structure and function of muscle, tendons and ligaments.
- It stimulates the muscle stem cell for growth.
- It increases the amount of collagen in the connective tissues and reduces stiffness.
When estrogen is in decline, there is an imbalance in muscle breakdown and repair. That is a natural process to build and strengthen muscle. This will accelerate loss of muscle mass. Muscle strength and power is also affected by loss of estrogen. Glucose metabolism is focused heavily in the muscles. Muscles have specific insulin receptors on their surface so that insulin can bind to them, aiding the entry of glucose into muscle cells. When estrogen is reduced, skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity is reduced as well. When the body cannot properly use insulin we have excess visceral fat, i.e., weight gain. The loss of estrogen impairs production of energy in the mitochondria of the skeletal muscle and increases inflammation.
Sarcopenia is loss of muscle mass and starts when a woman is in her 30’s. It accelerates as a women approach menopause in their 50’s. Dynapenia refers to muscle quality. It is loss of muscle strength and power making women weaker and slower. Muscle strength declines two to five times faster than muscle mass. Increases in disability and death is more related to loss of muscle mass. (Think of how hard it was for your grandmother to get up from a chair or toilet seat, her balance is poor, and it was difficult to climb the stairs.)
It is usually at this menopause stage that a woman changes her exercise routine to endurance-based activities because she has slowed down but can exercise for longer periods of time at a slower rate. Pound for pound, muscle is different in a midlife woman compared to a woman in her 20’s or 30’s. Women generally do not realize this shift until after it has already occurred. Muscle is important for us for more reasons than loading groceries in the car or picking up children.
Muscle is responsible for how the body regulates glucose. In fact, insulin resistance presents in muscle decades before it shows up in a blood test such as blood glucose or hemoglobin A1C. When muscles become insulin resistant, so does the rest of the body.
It’s interesting to note that menopausal women make nutrition mistakes that are also detrimental to muscle. Perhaps in an effort to be “healthier” or lose weight, women switch to eating plant-based low-quality protein. They reduce the amount of calorie intake, carbohydrates, and engage in excessive fasting and choose cardio exercise to address weight gain. However, all of these choices actually have the opposite effect on their health.
To improve insulin sensitivity, build muscle, and improve muscle strength, the following suggestions are absolutely necessary. First, exchange starchy and highly processed carbohydrates for high-fiber, non-starchy vegetables, between 20-75 grams per day. Less than 20 grams if you are significantly overweight and up to 75 grams if you are exercising regularly. Reducing carbs and calories is not recommended to do daily because constant hunger will drive you to eat more at the next meal and will increase your chances of eating the type of carbs you’re trying to avoid.
Next is the discussion around the quantity, quality and distribution of protein. Not all proteins are created equal. In order to address muscle deterioration, and build muscle instead, it is important that these three are considered. The amount of protein established by the RDA (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight/) is the minimal requirement and was not set for optimal health. It also does not take into consideration the challenges of midlife women: low hormones, chronic low-grade inflammation, changes in metabolism, which require these women to eat more protein to activate muscle growth.
However, 50% of midlife women eat BELOW the RDA. In order to build muscle, the leucine threshold must be met. Leucine is an amino acid the leucine threshold is met when you consume 2.5-3.5 grams of leucine per meal will activate the trigger for muscle building. Eating between 35-45 grams of animal protein will provide the 2.5-3.5 leucine required for muscle building. High protein diets improve and preserve muscle, increase mass and strength, lowers inflammation, lowers insulin resistance, lowers bone loss, higher satiety as well as life expectancy.
Quality of protein matters. Quality is determined by its completeness or amino acid profile to trigger muscle building and preservation. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. These essential amino acids must be easily broken down and bioavailable in the body without conversion or interfere with absorption of them. These essential amino acids must signal muscle growth and preservation, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to completeness, animal protein rules as king. This may not sit well with some who are adamant about plant-based diets. However, the proof is in the science. Animal protein provides a complete amino acid profile that is superior to plant proteins. It contains leucine, glutamine, arginine and glycine to build muscle mass and strength, growth signaling and is easily digested by those with a healthy gut.
Animal protein contains the most absorbable for of iron, heme-iron, which protects against anemia. Preformed Vitamin A (retinol) is in animal protein and does not require conversion to be utilized. It is the only source of vitamins B12 and D3 which enhances the effect of leucine. Protein sources that do not contain leucine or Vitamin D3 together will not provide the trigger for muscle growth. Animal protein the most abundant source and sometimes the only source of leucine, glutamine, arginine and glycine which stimulates muscle cells to stimulate proper signaling, growth and preservation.
Plant protein on the other hand lacks key essential amino acids for triggering and building muscle, preservation and has low to no leucine for muscle building and does not contain heme-iron. Nutrients in plant protein require conversion to be digested and certain compounds like lectins, tannins and oxalates that block or bind the bioavailability of necessary vitamins and minerals. In order to meet the basic minimum thresholds of protein from plant sources, you would have to consume an excessive amount, adding calories and starchy carbohydrates to your diet
The anti-animal protein community states that elevation IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor 1) is said to promote the growth of cancer due to animal protein consumption. However, elevations in IGF-1 from animal protein are short term, not chronic. IGF-1 is one of our body’s most important anabolic hormones. Coincidentally, exercise increases IGF-1 more than animal protein and no one ever says cancer risks rise with exercise. “When IGF-1 levels are too high, some forms of cancer grow more easily (mainly prostate and breast). However, when IGF-1 levels are low, risks of cardiovascular disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and sarcopenia are all much higher. In fact, death to cancer is also much more common with low IGF-1 too, possibly due to increased risk of cachexia (muscle wasting).” Brian Rigby and Does Meat Cause Cancer? Revisiting the Meat, IGF-1, and Cancer Connection.
Does that mean that I am against eating plants. Absolutely not. Plants provide nutrients, antioxidants critical for midlife health and maintaining a healthy gut. At the same time, priority should be given to meeting your protein requirement each day while enjoying plants as your carbohydrate.
How do you figure out how much protein you need each day? If you do not exercise aim for .8 grams per pound of ideal body weight. If you exercise regularly aim for 1 gram per pound of ideal body weight to arrive at the amount of protein you need to consume per day to build and preserve muscle.
We have discussed why protein is a necessity for women in menopause, why animal protein is superior to plant protein, and the amount you need daily. The last component to building muscle is resistance training because it contributes to muscle growth. Adding animal protein to your diet provides the material you need but, muscle needs to be put under the proper stress in order to grow in size and become stronger.
Strength training requires a minimum of 2-4 days per week of lifting heavy weights in good form until the muscle is fatigued (6-8 reps). Walking is great for connecting with nature and lowering stress, but it has a neutral effect on muscle building. You cannot increase your protein intake and expect muscles to start bulging. Muscles are formed by progressive strength exercise. Get uncomfortable and be consistent. That is when you will see a change in your body. Strength training will contribute to fat loss along with a calorie deficit. Be sure to re-fuel with a protein snack to provide the tools necessary for muscle rebuilding and recovery. Women make the mistake of thinking that strength training will make them look bulky. Women, however, do not have the hormones to support getting super bulky muscles.
The changes associated with menopause can be a bit daunting. We have to let go of the mindset that this is a temporary fix and we can go back to being our “former selves”. In reality, this is the “new norm”: consuming sources of complete protein, prioritizing sleep, strength train, follow a low to moderate-carb lifestyle, be consistent and patient. Then you can step into midlife with a plan on how you will live out the rest of your life. Stay strong, ladies!
Interested in getting stronger? Checkout my OnTrack group coaching program for midlife women! Your membership includes access to a personal trainer, new monthly workouts and a high protein meal plan.