Never before has a generation of women been so confused about what to eat!
When I take my ‘Masterclass on Menopause’ seminars I often ask those attending who is confused about food at the moment. Invariably the entire room puts up their hand. I’m not surprised. Because even with my own background working in exercise and nutrition education for years, when I hit menopause, I was confused too.
But then I began to understand that as the first generation of women to go into menopause in the context of the modern fitness and sporting industries, the dieting industry and all the exposure to advertising that we get about food, it’s little wonder that we get confused.
What I began to understand was that the messages we are hearing are not designed for our changing hormonal environment in menopause. Especially when it comes to carbohydrates. And if you haven’t made the connection between your hot flush frequency and severity and the type of carbohydrates you are eating, then please read on!
When you begin your peri-menopause transition, you are entering the next stage of your biological life and your oestrogen and progesterone production begin to decline.
This changes your entire hormonal environment because all of our hormones in the body are connected, working hard together to keep our body healthy.
Our endocrine system – the pancreas, thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands – is a complex system. These organs produce and regulate many of the hormones that help your body function day to day. These hormones all ‘talk’ to each other.
Because of this connection many of our symptoms are connected to menopause. It’s why there is a link between not sleeping, changing energy levels, our changing gut health, liver health and for many of us, our heat regulation as well.
It’s also why, when we eat certain foods that we’ve been eating for decades, these foods can cause a surge in our hot flushes. A hot flush is the body’s attempt to cool you down.
It’s trying to get rid of heat. Just like sweating in athletes or when you have a fever. When our body is hot, then we sweat more.
But as we come through menopause our sweat glands don’t function as well in a low oestrogen hormonal environment, so we need to turn down the heat in other ways too. This includes changing the type of carbohydrates you are eating.
With the heat of summer approaching down-under in Australia and New Zealand we need to keep an eye on our blood sugar regulation hormones – insulin and glucagon.
High blood sugar causes your pancreas to produce more insulin and when insulin levels are high our heat regulation is affected too.
So, if you are going into your menopause years and you are finding that your hot flushes are out of control both day and night, then you need to eat for your age and stage and keep the production of insulin low.
High insulin levels in menopause, on top of not sleeping and changing muscle density, sends your inner temperature soaring. It’s also why the MyMT programmes only focus on you in your menopause transition.
Have you noticed that your hot flushes increase with certain foods?
Making this connection is a game-changer for understanding how we can better manage our nutrition in menopause to reduce the frequency and intensity of our hot flushes.
Insulin is the hormone which helps to carry glucose to muscle cells quickly, so as to keep the muscles contracting for long periods of time.
When the muscles deplete their stores of glucose, then the liver kicks in to rectify the situation and helps to produce more glucose ready for the muscles to keep using. Glucose is moved around the body by a hormone called Insulin. It’s role is crucial to our survival, because glucose is needed by almost every cell in the body, especially our brain, liver and muscle cells.
I knew from my sports nutrition teaching that athletes need certain high glucose (sugar and starch carbohydrates) foods that cause a surge of the hormone insulin to be released from the pancreas.
So, how do foods that contain sugar and refined starch cause more hot flushes?
It was only in 2010 that researchers from Scripps Clinic* in San Diego, who were researching diabetes, found a link between high insulin levels and body temperature. The study showed that when the hormone, insulin, stays high in the blood stream, there is a direct connection with dilation of blood vessels and heat production in the brain and ‘core’ organs (these are your major organs in the trunk).
The study also found that variations in core body temperature are associated with our daily 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, the female monthly hormonal cycle, and, intriguingly, the effects of very severe calorie restriction such as all-day fasting which increases heat production in the body too. [It’s also why I teach the importance of nutrient timing to women on my programmes and overnight fasting, but not fasting during the day. This is really helpful to women on the Transform Me weight loss programme. When we fast overnight our insulin levels decrease and so too does our stress hormone called cortisol].
Understanding the powerful link between our hot flushes and our temperature regulation is what led me down the path of recommending Low Glycemic Index carbohydrates as one of the strategies I teach women on the MyMT programmes to control their hot flushes. [There are other powerful strategies to reduce hot flushes in the programme too, especially around nutrient timing and exercise timing].
Low Glycemic Index is the name given to certain carbohydrates, or energy foods that don’t spike high insulin production from the pancreas. We have Professor Jennie Brand-Miller from the University of Sydney in Australia, to thank for her incredible work on the glycemic index rating of carbohydrates.
When we eat foods that are Low GI, then we don’t release as much insulin and therefore, don’t get the high heat production either. This is why I have low GI food lists in my specially designed MyMT Eats Cookbook which women access as part of the MyMT programme. There is also an Australian website you can visit called http://www.gisymbol.com
The foods that cause the MOST insulin production and release from the pancreas are:
1. Sugars – Sucrose, Glucose & Lactose are the most common forms of sugar. Sucrose is also known as common table sugar and is made up of glucose and fructose. Lactose is the sugar found in milk and is made up of glucose and galactose. Fructose is the sugar found in fruit (and fruits are still important in our diet, but I have a list of low GI fruits that are best for us in menopause). There are many other sources of sugar too – for example, dextrin, maltose and maltodextrins! (Milo anyone?!)
If we are exercisers, then we do need some sugar in our diet as this is very quickly taken up by muscles and our brain. But not all sugars are equal. For example, dried fruit are easily digested as are apples, which are low GI fruit. Bananas are higher GI so this is a great source of starch which is broken down to glucose, and having this before or after exercise will help replace glucose into muscles. You must also remember that commercial sports drinks are just sugar in disguise, so if you are doing lots of exercise, then stick with water and some easily digested fruit to help you recover from your exercise.
2. Starches are important to understand too and these are not always equal either. Remember that there are man-made starch foods and natural starch foods. Natural starches occur in vegetables. Starches (formerly known as complex carbohydrates) occur naturally in a large range of foods including nutrient-rich foods like root vegetables, legumes, cracked wheat, brown rice, pearl barley, quinoa and oats. But starch is also found in refined products such as cornflour, white bread, many breakfast cereals, potato crisps, French fries, rice crackers/cakes, biscuits, cakes, and pastries. These are refined starches and aren’t good for our health or hot flushes, so keep these to a minimum and increase your vegetable carbs which are lower GI.
The most important starch for women is RESISTANT STARCH.
Resistant Starch is another type of dietary fibre. It’s actually a starch that ‘resists’ digestion and absorption in the small intestine and travels through the large intestine largely intact. It ends up in the small intestine where it is fermented into short chain fatty acids by good bacteria.
There is strong evidence that resistant starch is important for our health as we age, which is why we need a bit more focus on it at this stage of life along with vegetables which provide you with important fibre to help control insulin levels too.
Resistant Starch is found mostly in beans, lentils, unripe bananas as well as unprocessed cereals and wholegrains. Resistant starch is also created from cooling down cooked rice, potatoes, kumara and other root vegetables that grow under the ground.
I think the greatest realisation for me when I was trying to understand why I was having so many hot flushes, was that food type and timing matters.
Carbohydrates are really important to us in menopause because they are our source of energy.
Vegetables are the most important carbohydrates on the planet and we need them for our health during menopause and into our years beyond.
But all carbohydrates are not equal and as the first generation of women to come into menopause in the context of our changing food environment, many of us are addicted to a high sugar and processed starch diet. This needs to change when we reach menopause and it’s why I want to help you achieve this.
Our brain has powerful hormones which keep us addicted to sugars if we don’t learn strategies to turn this around. This is why I have researched the exact carbohydrates that cool you down, not heat you up! If you are already overweight or putting on belly-fat, then this higher fat level changes your insulin levels too – that’s why overweight women typically get more hot flushes.
If this is you and you are stacking on the weight, then when you are ready, come join me on my menopause weight loss specific ‘Transform Me’ programme. Otherwise, if you aren’t overweight, then join me on my Circuit Breaker programme.
[* Sanchez-Alavez et al. (2010). Insulin causes hyperthermia by direct inhibition of warm sensitive neurons. Diabetes.
Take a Master Class in Menopause
Get a free master class in Menopause from Wendy Sweet
Check out this FREE webinar with Wendy Sweet.
It’s only 25 minutes long and NO sign-up required!
You will discover why your symptoms are creating chaos with your mood, motivation, exercise tolerance, weight management and more.