A low-carb diet helps you navigate some of the negative side effects of menopause, like unwanted weight gain and mood swings. Not everyone experiences menopause the same way or is destined to have any or all of its symptoms, but it can be a tough life transition to manage.
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You may not have to drop too low in carbs to benefit. Even moderately low-carb diets have been shown to provide positive effects in women going through this change.
Menopause and Weight Gain
When a woman is of child-bearing age, her hormones tend to encourage fat to accumulate subcutaneously -- just below the skin of the hips and thighs. This ensures you have enough storage to support childbearing and breast-feeding. During menopause, the hormones that drive this lower-body fat storage decrease, and weight may begin accumulating in the middle -- often as belly fat.
Combine this hormone shift with changes in muscle mass. As women and men age, they naturally lose muscle mass -- and muscle helps you burn more calories at rest. You may also become less active as you get older, further contributing to a decrease in your metabolism and muscle mass concentration.
As estrogen levels drop during menopause, women also tend to become more resistant to the hormone insulin, which helps to process blood sugar. As estrogen diminishes, this leads to metabolic dysfunction, sometimes causing weight gain and type 2 diabetes, as shown in research published in Endocrine Review in 2013. Blood sugar swings also make you irritable, challenge your ability to concentrate and lead to tiredness and fatigue.
Low-Carb Diets and Menopausal Weight
Low-carb diets can effectively curb menopausal weight gain and reduce existing excess weight. Even modest restriction of carbohydrates can help adults stabilize blood sugar swings and lose weight, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutrition.
According to a study published in a 2010 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, post-menopausal women responded especially well to a Paleo-style diet, 30 percent of which included calories from carbohydrates. The Paleo diet, which typically excludes many high-carb foods such as legumes, dairy and grains, led to a greater loss of belly fat and overall weight when compared after two years to a low-fat diet.
A Moderate Reduction in Carbs
A menopausal woman doesn't have to dramatically reduce carbs to experience benefit. The Institute of Medicine recommends the average person consume 45 to 65 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates -- equal to 225 to 325 grams daily on a 2,000-calorie diet. A moderately low-carb diet with 100 to 150 grams of carbs per day can be effective in stabilizing blood sugar and inducing weight loss -- or preventing gain -- as suggested by the Paleo study.
Extremely low-carb diets that permit just 50 grams or fewer -- such as the 20 grams in the induction phase of Atkins -- may afford additional benefits, but aren't necessarily needed for a menopausal woman to experience positive changes in her weight and mood.
These very-low-carb diets can induce anxiety and depression, particularly in people prone to such moods. Being in menopause can already make your moods erratic due to changing hormones, so pay close attention when you reduce carbs. When eating so few, your levels of serotonin drop, possibly leading to pronounced sadness or anger.
A Low-Carb Diet for a Menopausal Woman
A low-carb diet for menopause consists primarily of moderate amounts of protein from meat, poultry and fish as well as healthy fats found in nuts, avocados, olive oil and fatty fish. The 100 to 150 grams of carbs you do eat should come from quality sources, such as whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables and dairy. You'll count net carbs -- the total carbohydrates remaining after you subtract fiber grams and sugar alcohols.
For example, your daily carbs might consist of 1/2 cup of cooked oats at breakfast, for 12 grams of carbs, and 1/2 cup of raspberries for another 3 grams. At lunch, add 1/4 cup of black beans to a salad for 7 grams of carbs, and sprinkle on 12 walnut halves for 2 grams. At dinner, include 1/2 cup of cooked brown rice with a stir-fry of steak and vegetables, for a total of about 28 grams of carbs. For snacks, enjoy a cup of plain whole-milk yogurt with 1/2 cup of sliced strawberries, for 15 grams of carbs, and an apple with 24 whole almonds for 3 grams. You could take in slightly larger servings of oats and brown rice, or an additional serving of fruit, to get closer to 150 grams of carbs per day.
A low-carb diet often doesn't provide all the calcium you need for healthy bones. During menopause, reduced estrogen levels and the natural aging process mean your bones break down more quickly than they build up. Calcium can help slow this process of breakdown, warding off osteoporosis. Ask your doctor if a calcium supplement is important for you.